attorney disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed
by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ("ODC")
against respondent, Ronald Seastrunk, an assistant district
attorney in Vernon Parish. Specifically, ODC alleges
respondent violated Rule 3.8(d) of the Louisiana Rules of
Professional Conduct in failing to disclose exculpatory
evidence. As a result, this Court must now determine an issue
of first impression with ramifications beyond this
respondent: whether the ethical duty outlined in Rule 3.8(d)
is broader than the similar duty outlined by the United
States Supreme Court's landmark case of Brady v.
Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215
(1963). For the reasons that follow, we find the duties set
forth above are coextensive. As a result, we find ODC failed
to meet its burden of proof in this case and dismiss all
charges against respondent.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
allegations against respondent arise out of the prosecution
of Justin Sizemore ("Sizemore") for the homicide of
Christopher Hoffpauir. In this case, the discipline-related
issues, namely, whether the alleged withheld evidence was
material and exculpatory, are fact and case specific.
Therefore, it is necessary to understand the procedural
background of the underlying criminal prosecution.
June 14, 2010, Christopher Hoffpauir's body was
discovered in a roadside ditch in Vernon Parish.
Christopher's estranged wife, Kristyn Hoffpauir, gave
conflicting recorded statements to detectives of the Vernon
Parish Sheriff's Office. In the first statement, on June
15, 2010, Kristyn denied any involvement in her husband's
murder. In the second statement, on June 16, 2010, Kristyn
reported that, on the day of the murder, she picked up
Sizemore and then called Christopher, asking him to assist
her in a roadside emergency. According to Kristyn, she and
Sizemore wanted to lure Christopher to their location,
because Sizemore wanted to talk to Christopher about his
relationship with Kristyn. Kristyn stated that Sizemore got
into the trunk of the car because she did not want
Christopher to see her with another man. When Christopher
arrived, Sizemore exited the trunk through the passenger
compartment, got out of the car, and shot and killed
Christopher. Sizemore picked up the spent shell casings, and
he and Kristyn left the scene. Sizemore stopped the car on a
bridge near Lecompte, Louisiana, and threw the gun and spent
casings off the bridge. Kristyn denied knowing that Sizemore
was going to kill Christopher.
17, 2010, Kristyn participated in a video reenactment of the
murder at the crime scene. During the reenactment, Kristyn
again related that Sizemore was hiding in the trunk, got out,
and shot Christopher.
and Kristyn were subsequently indicted for Christopher's
homicide. In advance of trial, Kristyn accepted a plea
agreement, wherein she pleaded guilty to manslaughter,
conspiracy to commit manslaughter, and obstruction of
justice. Sentencing was deferred pending her testimony
Attorney Asa Skinner assigned respondent, along with
Assistant District Attorney Scott Westerchil, to prosecute
the case. District Attorney Skinner, respondent, and Mr.
Westerchil agreed that there was no prosecutor who was
"first chair, " or primarily responsible, for the
case. Respondent and Mr. Westerchil simply agreed upon a
division of labor between them, particularly with regard to
the testimony of the witnesses for which each would take
Kristyn's plea agreement, the prosecutors remained
skeptical about her version of the events, specifically
regarding Sizemore's location before the shooting. The
vehicle driven to the scene was a Mitsubishi Eclipse
convertible. The vehicle had scant room in the trunk to begin
with, and a metal bulkhead separated the passenger
compartment from the trunk. Mr. Westerchil, who was
responsible for Kristyn's testimony, advised Kristyn that
he did not believe her statements about Sizemore hiding in
the trunk. During the first meeting, for which District
Attorney Skinner and respondent were present, Kristyn
maintained this version of the events. During a subsequent
meeting with only Mr. Westerchil, Kristyn admitted that
Sizemore had hidden in brush along the side of the road, from
which he ambushed Christopher. Mr. Westerchil memorialized
this meeting in handwritten notes, but he did not disclose
this meeting to the defense, as he did not consider them to
First Trial: Failure to Disclose Kristyn's Conflicting
Sizemore's first trial in November 2011, Mr. Westerchil
advised the jury in his opening statement that Kristyn would
testify that Sizemore lay in wait along the side of the road
for her and Christopher to return to the scene.
Sizemore's attorney, Tony Tillman, did not know until
then that Kristyn's testimony would differ from her
initial statements to the police. On the second day of trial,
Mr. Tillman objected, noting that Kristyn gave
"substantially conflicting statements." Judge James
R. Mitchell, who presided over Sizemore's first trial,
ordered Mr. Westerchil to give Mr. Tillman a copy of the
notes he had taken during his interviews with Kristyn, which
Mr. Westerchil did. After reviewing the notes, Mr. Tillman
conferred with Sizemore, who opted to proceed. The jury was
ultimately unable to reach a verdict, and Judge Mitchell
declared a mistrial.
Second Trial: Failure to Disclose Statements Concerning
Kristyn's Possession of a Gun
second trial revealed an additional piece of evidence that
respondent allegedly failed to disclose. As background, Jody
Thibeaux ("Thibeaux") had been called as a defense
witness in the first trial. Thibeaux, who was previously
married to Kristyn's sister, Misty, testified Kristyn
told him that she was the beneficiary of Christopher's
$400, 000 life insurance policy and that she had killed
Christopher. After the first trial, District Attorney Skinner
asked Detective Ray Ortiz of the Vernon Parish Sheriff's
Office to interview Thibeaux. Thibeaux further reported that
Misty's mother told Misty that, approximately three years
earlier, she had found a .22 caliber revolver in
Kristyn's closet. Thibeaux also indicated that, during
this same time period, Kristyn had threatened to kill her
mother. After the interview, Detective Ortiz told respondent
what Thibeaux said about the revolver and asked respondent if
that would be considered hearsay. Respondent told Detective
Ortiz it probably was but that he would have to look at it
days later, Mr. Westerchil, respondent, and District Attorney
Skinner met to discuss trial strategy. Detective Ortiz
presented his written report of Thibeaux's statement,
telling the prosecutors he had omitted information regarding
the revolver from his report. District Attorney Skinner
advised that it was not necessary to put the information
about the revolver in the report because owning or possessing
a gun is not a crime, the event occurred more than three
years before the murder and was too remote in time to be
relevant, and, critically, Thibeaux was a defense witness.
Detective Ortiz did not advise the prosecutors at all about
Kristyn's threat to kill her mother, because he intended
to follow up with Kristyn's sister and mother. Mr.
Westerchil, who was responsible for cross-examining Thibeaux,
intended to supplement the State's discovery responses to
disclose Detective Ortiz's report, but District Attorney
Skinner instructed him not to do so.
second trial, on direct examination, Kristyn testified that
she had no experience with firearms, she did not hunt, she
did not own a weapon, and she had never shot a gun. During
Mr. Westerchil's cross-examination of Thibeaux, Mr.
Tillman learned of his interview by Detective Ortiz and
immediately objected to any testimony regarding the
undisclosed interview. Judge Mitchell excused the jury and
entertained arguments regarding the objection of defense
counsel, during which Mr. Westerchil, joined by respondent
and District Attorney Skinner, argued that the State was not
required to disclose the report of Thibeaux's interview
because it contained no exculpatory material. Though Judge
Mitchell reviewed the report and found in it an example of
exculpatory material, Judge Mitchell nevertheless overruled
Mr. Tillman's objection, finding the information
contained in the report had already been testified to and
provided to Mr. Tillman.
that day, Mr. Tillman learned of the information about a gun
being found in Kristyn's room and of Thibeaux's
statement about Kristyn threatening to kill her mother. Mr.
Tillman moved for a mistrial based upon the State's
failure to disclose the information Detective Ortiz learned
from his interview. Mr. Westerchil agreed to a mistrial, and
Judge Mitchell thereafter declared a mistrial.
the third trial, Detective Ortiz prepared a supplemental
report that included the information about the revolver and
Kristyn's threat to kill her mother. That third trial,
which was held in May 2012, resulted in Sizemore's
conviction of Christopher's murder, and he was sentenced
to life in prison. The conviction was affirmed on appeal.
State v. Sizemore, 13-529, 13-530 (La.App. 3d Cir.
12/18/13), 129 So.3d 860, writ denied, 14-0167 (La.
8/25/14), 147 So.3d 699.
Judge Mitchell and Mr. Tillman filed disciplinary complaints
against Mr. Westerchil, District Attorney Skinner, and
respondent, arising from their failure to disclose the
information that was omitted from Detective Ortiz's
September 2014, the ODC filed formal charges against Mr.
Westerchil, who, through counsel, answered the formal charges
and denied any misconduct. In December 2014, the ODC filed
similar formal charges against respondent, Ronald Seastrunk,
alleging he violated Rule 3.8(d) (the prosecutor in a
criminal case shall make timely disclosure to the defense of
all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that the
prosecutor knows, or reasonably should know, either tends to
negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense) of
the Rules of Professional Conduct. Respondent, through
counsel, answered the formal charges, denying any misconduct.
No formal charges were filed against District Attorney
to a formal hearing on the merits, Mr. Westerchil's
matter and respondent's matter were consolidated by order
of the hearing committee chair. Following the hearing but
prior to the committee issuing its report, Mr. Westerchil was
elected as a judge in the 30th JDC. Accordingly,
the ODC ceased to have jurisdiction over Mr. Westerchil's
conduct, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule XIX, § 6(C),
the formal charges against him were dismissed without
hearing committee conducted the formal hearing on June 3-4,
2015. ODC introduced documentary evidence and called several
witnesses to testify, including defense counsel Tony Tillman,
Judge James Mitchell, Detective Ray Ortiz, District Attorney
Asa Skinner, Lisa Nelson (Kristyn's appointed public
defender), and Scott Westerchil. Respondent testified on his
own behalf, and called one witness to testify.
concluding that respondent committed a violation of Rule
3.8(d), the committee specifically found that the information
related by Detective Ortiz (concerning Kristyn's alleged
gun and threat to kill her mother) represents a
"troublesome issue." Mr. Westerchil questioned
Kristyn at each trial about her familiarity with guns. At the
first two trials, he did not ask her if she ever possessed a
firearm, but at the third trial, he effectively disarmed Mr.
Tillman by asking her about the gun found in her room. The
hearing committee concluded that this information was
pertinent because Sizemore's version of events placed him
stranded along the side of the road while Kristyn committed
the murder. In other words, Sizemore maintained he hit an ice
chest while driving and pulled over to check the car. After
he exited the car, Kristyn then jumped into the driver's
seat and drove off without him to murder her husband.
Detective Ortiz's information would tend to support
Sizemore's version of events by demonstrating that
Kristyn was more familiar with guns than she admitted in the
first two trials. Because Kristyn denied any familiarity with
guns during the first two trials, the committee determined
that Detective Ortiz's information not only would have
been useful for impeaching her testimony, but it might have
also tended to negate Sizemore's guilt by demonstrating
that Kristyn could possibly have been the shooter.
committee noted that District Attorney Skinner ordered Mr.
Westerchil not to disclose the information from Detective
Ortiz to the defense. Respondent argued that he should be
shielded from discipline by virtue of Rule 5.2(b) of the
Rules of Professional Conduct, which provides that "[a]
subordinate lawyer does not violate the Rules of Professional
Conduct if that lawyer acts in accordance with a supervisory
lawyer's reasonable resolution of an arguable question of
professional duty." The committee disagreed, determining
that District Attorney Skinner's resolution was neither
reasonable nor arguable. According to the committee, District
Attorney Skinner's decision that such information should
not be given to the defense did not logically follow from the
premise that the information was hearsay because, if the
defense had known about the information, it could have called
as witnesses the people identified by Thibeaux as possessing
firsthand knowledge of the events in question.
on the above findings, the committee determined respondent
violated Rule 3.8(d) by failing to disclose to the defense
the information procured by Detective Ortiz, noting that
respondent had substantial experience as a prosecutor and
that neither he nor Mr. Westerchil was principally
responsible for the case. However, because principal
responsibility of matters relating to Kristyn and Thibeaux
fell upon Mr. Westerchil, the committee determined that, at
most, respondent was negligent in his failure to disclose
Detective Ortiz's information.
committee also determined that respondent's conduct
caused potential injury to the defense. After considering the
ABA's Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions,
the committee ...