Saturday, January 24, 2015

Is reticence of Nueces prosecutors to disclose evidence an institutional failure?

Grits had missed a story from earlier this month about the Nueces County DA allegedly withholding evidence in criminal cases. Reported the Corpus Christi Caller Times (Jan. 7):
The Nueces County District Attorney’s Office has shown a pattern of turning over evidence at the last minute and sometimes withholding it all together, defense attorneys testified Wednesday.

Attorneys for Trinity Ringelstein, who is serving a life sentence, argued prosecutors waited until the week before his capital murder trial to give them tapes containing more than 72 hours of phone conversations he had while in the Nueces County Jail.

Ringelstein was first arrested in 2012 on suspicion of fatally shooting Micah Seth Horn, 23, near a park in the 1000 block of Harbor Lights Drive. After a three-week trial, Ringelstein was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year.

The law requires prosecutors to hand over evidence in a timely manner.

During the daylong hearing his attorneys sought to prove prosecutors have delayed turning over key evidence in several other felony cases.

District Attorney Mark Skurka, who did not attend the hearing, disputed the claims in a statement to the Caller-Times.

“The District Attorney’s Office provides evidence to the defense as required by law. We strongly deny these allegations,” Skurka said.
In addition to that case, "In June, then 105th District Judge Angelica Hernandez found prosecutors withheld evidence and acted in bad faith in a child endangerment case," the paper reported.

The story also pointed to whistleblower litigation by "Eric Hillman, a former Nueces County prosecutor [who is] suing the county for wrongful termination. Hillman claims his bosses instructed him not to tell the defense team he found a witness who would help a man he was prosecuting." In addition, "three other defense attorneys sat in the courtroom gallery and were ready to testify Wednesday but weren’t called to the stand for time reasons."

It's hard to understand - aside from their general lameness and historical unwillingness to discipline prosecutors - how Mr. Hillman's allegations, or Judge Hernandez's ruling, in particular, wouldn't trigger a disciplinary review by the state bar against prosecutors in the office.

Defense lawyers lost the motion at the trial court level but simply exposing such stories to disinfecting sunlight has a salutary effect.

MORE: See additional background on the Hillman case.


Anonymous said...

The dumbass didn't know what he said in his own jail telephone conversations? Can you say "frivolous?"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"frivolous" ... perhaps not so much, though, the ex-ADA who said he was ordered by higher-ups to conceal a witness, or the case where a district judge "found prosecutors withheld evidence and acted in bad faith."

To me, this is an example of systemic issues not being raised by the defense bar until a capital case is in play, choosing not to rock the boat until the stakes are so high that people start actually caring about CDL IAC. Maybe this guy's claim is frivolous - an appellate court (the 13th) will surely review it - but from a public-policy perspective, that's a separate issue from whether the other examples entered into the record demonstrate systemic, management-enabled misconduct. For good or ill, this is how such issues get credibly raised, documented and vetted in our society. And the patterns alleged at the hearing likely wouldn't/couldn't have come out any other way.

Emily Justice said...

Will Grits cover the megachurch crime scandal questions in Plano TX? Dallas and Plano DA "institutional failure" appears to be the explanation for no prosecutions under the 1971 law requiring child abuse to be reported. See for the cover-up links.

sunray's wench said...

Surely if a defence council is presented with material that will take at least a week to review, the day before the trial, it is their responsibility to petition the judge and ask for an adjournment?

Anonymous said...

Emily, most investigations of child abuse are aimed at the Title IV funding incentive provided by the Federal Govt.;in the church scandal, my guess is some member there pulled a few political strings so the attention might die down. In this case in Nueces County, at least they were only withholding the evidence rather than "fabricating" as I have seen happen many times in Northern Texas. A good attorney can squash this if caught in time and does their homework diligently.

Our judicial system represents only one side of these problems, those with some money and the rest are left in custody while attorneys hone their trial skills on the indigent for a couple of bucks to keep the shingle lights turned on.

Sunrays wench is correct, however, how would she feel if some pirate attorney took the money for said adjournment, then dumped the evidence back into the lap of court appointed counsel to save him from a State Bar complaint and calling it an "exceptional" agreement, when nothing discussed prior to that "alleged agreement" was ever court ordered and the opposite of the agreement was ordered?

Are there ANY attorneys in the State of Texas with any INTEGRITY anymore?
I haven't found one yet!

rodsmith said...

i'm with sunny here. If I had a case going and the DA handed me information that would take more time then the time left before the trial i'd just inform the Judge that thanks to the criminal stupidity of the DA i'll be back when I have finished going over the shit the DA gave me. At that point we can continue.

Anonymous said...

They just want another notch in there belt of convictions, dont care how they get it!

Anonymous said...

F.R. Files and Bret Harrison is not good Att's.

Anonymous said...

Skurka is an untrustworthy, John Bradley clone.

There are plenty of trustworthy criminal defense attorneys in Texas. Just because you had a bad experience with one doesn't mean that ALL the rest don't care.