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In re Seastrunk

Supreme Court of Louisiana

October 18, 2017

IN RE: RONALD SEASTRUNK

         ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING

          CRICHTON, J.

         This 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.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         These 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.

          On 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.

         On June 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.

         Sizemore 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 against Sizemore.

         District 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 responsibility.

         Despite 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 be exculpatory.

         The First Trial: Failure to Disclose Kristyn's Conflicting Statement

         At 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.

         The Second Trial: Failure to Disclose Statements Concerning Kristyn's Possession of a Gun

         Sizemore's 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 more closely.

         A few 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.

         At the 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.

         Later 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.[1] Mr. Westerchil agreed to a mistrial, and Judge Mitchell thereafter declared a mistrial.

         The Third Trial

         Before 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.

         Both 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 report.

         DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS

         In 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 Skinner.

         Prior 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), [2] and the formal charges against him were dismissed without prejudice.

         Formal Hearing

         The 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.

         Hearing Committee Report

         In 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.

         The 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.

         Based 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.

          The 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 ...


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