JACKSON – Documents associated with Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith’s arrest Wednesday show a behind-the-scenes dispute with the Attorney General’s office, which initiated Smith’s arrest.
Smith was accused by affidavit on six counts of illegally advising criminal defendants, a violation of Mississippi Statute 97-11-3. He has yet to respond publicly to the charges.
The affidavit signed by Hinds County Judge Melvin Priester comes from the Attorney General’s criminal investigator, Leland McDivitt, who cited the cases of two criminal defendants – Darnell Turner and Christopher Butler – and Smith’s actions in those cases as warranting his arrest.
The affidavit references several documents associated with the underlying criminal cases. In the case involving Turner, documents show his attorney raised questions about the propriety of conversations between the Attorney General’s office and Circuit Judge Jeff Weill. The documents also show that Smith protested over plans to allow the Attorney General’s office present information to a Hinds County grand jury.
The documents show that on June 10, Turner’s attorney, Dennis Sweet III, asked Weill’s court to unseal a file in Turner’s case and any communications between the Attorney General’s office, Weill and Weill’s office that Sweet should have been informed about.
In making the request, Sweet states his belief that the Attorney General’s office is investigating Hinds County criminal cases “alleging that persons are not being properly indicted.” Sweet also claims that because Smith once represented Turner, when Smith was in private practice, that his client has been targeted in the investigation.
“It appears that the court got involved” with Turner’s prosecution “by demanding that a grand jury be held for the Attorney General to present matters relating to him,” states Sweet’s motion to unseal documents. Sweet objects that he and Turner were not allowed access to emails about Turner between the court, the circuit clerk, and the offices of the district attorney and the Attorney General.
An email chain referenced in Sweet’s motion starts at 10:24 a.m. April 5, 2016, from Stan Alexander in the Attorney General’s office to Weill’s law clerk, Kate Steiner, with a copy to Smith: “If possible please let the (grand jury) know that they will be needed on Thursday morning. I don’t know if they will be finished with their other cases before Thursday and I wouldn’t want them to be prematurely dismissed. Thank you.” Attached to that email is a sealed order signed by Weill.
The documents show that for two days, Smith argues in emails that the court “CANNOT” tell his office to convene a special grand jury for the Attorney General’s office.
Weill’s sealed order pertains to “sealed cause number 251-16-120,” which shows up in the court docket as misdemeanor aggravated assault and traffic violation charges against Landon James Veal, 32, of 4110 W. Capital St., Jackson. Veal remains in the Hinds County Jail.
In asking that Turner’s case be dismissed, attorney Sweet writes, “It is clear that neither this court nor the Attorney General’s office have the authority to initiate or intervene in local criminal action which involves the authority of the District Attorney.”
He cites the Mississippi Supreme Court decision Williams v. State of Mississippi, in which the court said neither the state’s constitution nor its common law permits “involuntary disqualification” of a district attorney and “substitution” of the attorney general in his place when no legal grounds exist for that action.
Sweet, who does not say how he got the emails, states that so-called “ex parte” communication between the Attorney General’s office and the court, without defense counsel present, violates Turner’s constitutional rights.
“It is clear there was some form of communication between the Court and the Attorney General’s Office,” states his motion asking the court to dismiss Turner’s April 7, 2014, indictment.
The second case cited in accusations against Smith deal with Christopher Butler, whom Smith also defended as a private attorney.
The court docket is brief relating to Butler’s case, but it shows that Priester on March 15 decided to delay whether he would dismiss charges and free Butler.
Interestingly, the order’s second paragraph states: “Because of the raucous and unprofessional behavior of Mr. Smith, District Attorney, this matter was continued” and was reset for March 17.
The documents show that on March 21 Smith sends a letter to Butler’s attorney, Sanford Knott, saying he plans to file a contempt of court motion against two assistant attorneys general. He insists the Attorney General’s office failed to present evidence at Butler’s preliminary hearing and “influenced his bond to be set at a highly unreasonable amount.”
In the letter, Smith tells Knott that he believes Butler’s constitutional rights were violated “in numerous ways” by the Attorney General’s office and his continued confinement “also violates his civil rights.”
In another set of documents, the Attorney General’s office provides copies of Hinds County Jail visitation reports, showing Smith’s visits with Butler on May 9 and May 26 “outside the presence of Butler’s attorney.”
If convicted of the charges, Smith can be removed from office, prohibited from seeking office again and fined.