Corpus Christi, Nueces County has a problem with their District Attorney’s Office.
Over the last couple years the Texas State Bar has sent an unmistakable message to state prosecutors that the days of getting a free ethical pass on their misconduct are over—that the integrity of the justice system is more important than preserving the “good old boy” network.
Some prosecutors either didn’t get the message or chose to ignore it. We don’t know which category Corpus Christi prosecutors fall into. What we do know is that last month State District Court Judge Nanette Hasette found that prosecutor Jennifer Paige Honey Dorsey, “Jenny,” and others, “intentionally withheld evidence from the defense” in the murder case against Courtney Hayden.
Convicted of Murder Sentenced to 40 Years
Hayden was convicted last November just before Thanksgiving of the shotgun slaying of Anthony Macias. Hayden’s attorney John Gilmore presented a self-defense case to the jury—a defense the jury chose to reject when it found Hayden guilty of murder and sentenced her to 40 years in prison.
A February 1, 2016 online report in the Caller Times described the withheld evidence as a medical examiner’s report that would have impeached the trial testimony of Dr. Adel Shaker. At trial, the doctor told the jury that Macias had been shot from three feet way. Two weeks after the jury rendered its guilty verdict, Dorsey “faxed a letter to the defense telling them the medical’s initial opinion of the fatal gunshot wound was different from his trial testimony,” reported the Caller Times.
Dr. Shaker’s initial report said the gunshot muzzle was pressed against Macias’ chest. Defense attorney Gilmore said this fact supported the defense team’s self-defense theory. During the hearing on the Defense’s motion for new trial evidence was presented that suggested District Attorney Skurka instructed Dorsey to not disclose the evidence. It was also revealed that before testifying, Dr. Shaker sent a text message to Dorsey that said the victim “could live with three feet,” apparently indicating he could stick to the story.
Judge Says Conduct was Intentional
In a seven-page order granting the defense’s request for a new trial, Judge Hasette said:
“The Court concludes that the intentional suppression of evidence and lack of timely disclosure of exculpatory, mitigating and impeachment of evidence described herein constitutes misconduct and undermines the confidence of the public in the judicial system, and the outcome of this trial specifically.”
Gilmore responded to the ruling by saying he has not decided whether to file an ethics complaint with the State Bar. That is certainly an option for him and the trial judge as well.
Nueces County District Attorney’s Office Plagued with Misconduct
Corpus Christi District Attorney Mark Skurka certainly will not exercise this option. He said that while he supports Judge Hasette’s new trial order, he disagrees with her characterization of prosecutorial misconduct in the Hayden case.
“Our office holds itself to a standard that exceeds that required by law, and for that reason I agreed that she should receive a new trial,” Skurka said in response to the judge’s ruling. “As District Attorney, I have always strived to do justice and comply with all applicable law … And I have endeavored to instill that same sense of justice and duty in my prosecutors.”
But as we recently reported, the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office under Skurka has been plagued with charges of prosecutorial misconduct. In addition, nearly a dozen prosecutors have left his office over the past couple of years for other job positions offering higher salaries and better working conditions.
Other Cases of Misconduct
In 2014, 105th District Judge Angelica Hernandez said prosecutors acted in “bad faith” by concealing evidence in a child neglect case; and in 2015, 148th District Judge Guy Williams ruled that prosecutors had delayed in disclosing evidence of jail phone calls to defense attorneys in a capital case.
In the wake of those rulings, Skurka also denied any allegation that his office operates unethically.
“I think everyone [in my office] I expect them to be ethical,” the district attorney told local media.
State Bar Should Initiate Investigation Into DA’s Office
These denials notwithstanding, we would encourage the interested parties in the Hayden case to file an ethics complaint with the State Bar. Three rulings of prosecutorial misconduct during a consecutive three-year period cannot be chalked off a prosecutorial inexperience. It is a definite pattern of misconduct. Judge Hasette got it right when she said the withholding of evidence in the Hayden case amounted to “misconduct”—not mistake.
Mark Skurka’s office apparently cannot distinguish between the two.