While the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office prepared for its third trial against Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, the state inexplicably moved an inmate and key witness in a previous case against Smith to a high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania.

The inmate’s lawyer said he suspects officials moved his client because “the state is somewhat angry, disgruntled that he did not provide testimony that they wanted against Robert Smith.”

The Mississippi Department of Corrections said the move was for “institutional security,” but would not elaborate what security risk the inmate, Christopher Butler, posed.

Butler’s relocation raises new speculation about what the next move might be from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who is expected to run for governor in 2019, and for two years pursued charges against a top prosecutor with both a poor conviction record and a history of allegedly erratic behavior.

Butler began serving a 30-year sentence, which he received in 2017, at Mississippi State Prison at Parchman for possession of marijuana, charges that Smith has attempted for years to prove were bogus.

Though Butler has not been convicted of federal charges, Mississippi Department of Corrections requested that the Federal Bureau of Prisons house Butler. Officials moved him from Mississippi State Prison in Parchman to United States Penitentiary in Allenwood, Penn., in July.

“To add insult to injury, the state for no reason has chosen to transfer him from Mississippi, where he has family, where he was convicted, to literally the other side of country, at taxpayers’ expense,” Butler’s attorney, Damon Stevenson, said.

A case against Butler was the focus of charges brought against Smith in 2016 for conspiracy to hinder the prosecution of a criminal defendant. The state attorney general’s office tried unsuccessfully during two trials to show that Smith assisted Butler to get his charges dropped.

A parallel FBI investigation, which has yet to bear fruit, also centered on Smith’s handling of cases and allegations that the office took bribes in exchange for lowered bonds or dropped charges.

Smith’s former Assistant District Attorney Ivon Johnson pleaded guilty to the scheme and testified at length against Smith.

Johnson secretly recorded conversations with Smith for the FBI and the attorney general used the tapes in the first unsuccessful trial against Smith. Those recordings, played in court, did not contain concrete evidence of Smith’s involvement in a bribery scheme.

Though the attorney general did not present evidence of a bribe in Butler’s case, Johnson’s testimony provided a cloud of suspicion.

In that trial, FBI agent Robert Culpepper testified that their investigation into Smith’s office was ongoing. FBI spokesperson Brett Carr could not comment on the status of that investigation.

After the jury found Smith not guilty in July of 2017, a judge sentenced Johnson to five years probation — less than the five years in prison he could have faced — because he cooperated in the case against Smith.

MDOC spokesperson Grace Fisher did not respond to calls about Butler’s transfer but sent an email saying he was transferred for “institutional safety.” She would not elaborate. The bureau of prisons said in a statement the federal agency agreed to the state’s request to take Butler under their intergovernmental agreement to mutually house inmates, but did not provide a reason.

A state inmate might be transferred to a federal prison out-of-state for their own safety, to break up suspected criminal activity inside a prison or because the inmate is providing information to federal agents.

“(The transfer) does raise concerns that (Butler’s) legitimate needs as an inmate — being close to his family — seem to be missing from the equation,” said Matt Steffey, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law and constitutional law expert.

Stevenson said he reached out to MDOC and has not been given what he calls a “legitimate reason” for why his client was moved.

Stevenson also said in his years as an attorney, he’s never heard of the state transferring an inmate to a federal prison without federal charges. “No other attorney I’ve spoken with has seen that happen,” he said.

Smith’s attorney, Michael Sterling, said jurisdictions can use their intergovernmental agreements to move inmates around for little reason at all.

Butler’s mother, Evia Butler, said she didn’t know her son had been transferred until the Pennsylvania prison allowed him a phone call, and she hasn’t been able to get information from Mississippi officials since. On his phone call, Butler said prison officials told him he would be in Allenwood for one year and would not tell him why he was moved, Evia Butler said.

This isn’t the first time the state has concealed information about Butler.

Prior to Smith’s first trial in December of 2016 — before Butler was convicted — Butler was held and secretly moved between several jails in central Mississippi. This was after Butler had written letters to politicians and reporters, alleging the attorney general’s office had intimidated him in order to obtain information about Smith.

“It took a while for people to see what I was talking about — how people were using their position and abusing their power, soliciting false testimony from people, soliciting whatever theory they could come up with to make me look like something other than the Hinds County District Attorney that the people elected,” Smith told Mississippi Today Monday. “I’ve had to spend a significant amount of time to show how the system operates and how politics plays a role, unfortunately, in compromising public safety.”

Smith continued serving as district attorney throughout his legal battles and he faces reelection in 2019. Smith said he isn’t focused on the election, but “just getting back to the ordinary course of business,” after two years of working on his own defense.

The assistant attorney general who argued the most recent case against Smith, Stanley Alexander, was Smith’s opponent in the heated 2015 district attorney election.

“It’s just something  I’ve always maintained for a long time that people were plotting and planning behind my back to try to take me out of office in retaliation to the fact that I won overwhelmingly,” Smith said Monday.

After twice failing to get a conviction against Smith in Hinds County related to the handling of Butler’s case, Hood pursued felony charges stemming from a domestic incident in Rankin County two years earlier.

Smith’s ex-girlfriend Christie Edwards originally went to the FBI with allegations Smith shoved her and threatened her with a gun at his mobile home in Pearl in August of 2015.

In a twist, Smith’s defense team uncovered messages sent one month before the incident in which Edwards describes having a conversation with Alexander, while he would have been in the midst of a campaign against Smith. Sterling said the messages indicated Edwards’ intention to “turn the tables against (Smith).”

The defense attempted to use the texts to question the credibility of Edwards’ story.

The attorney general’s office, which did not prosecute the case until two years later, after its failed first trial against Smith, said it did not learn about Edwards’ allegations until its original case against Smith became public.

Michael Guest, district attorney for Rankin and Madison counties, had declined to take the domestic case, citing a lack of evidence to warrant felony charges.

Observers speculated whether Hood would have greater success trying Smith with an all-white jury in Rankin versus Hinds, where his family is well-known and revered.

Attorney General Jim Hood Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, AP

When the attorney general’s office attempted to entice Smith with a plea deal that involved him stepping down from office, Sterling said, prosecutors bragged there was “no way” Smith would be acquitted in Rankin County.

“I call it a modern day Emmett Till to try to use the citizens here, which they didn’t do. They tried to use the citizens of Rankin County to do their dirty work and they didn’t do it. So I applaud them,” Smith said Wednesday after the jury found him not guilty of robbery charges.

The jury could not agree whether Smith was guilty of the aggravated stalking charge. The attorney general’s office has not said whether it will pursue that charge or other misdemeanor charges of domestic violence related to the same incident but included in a separate indictment against Smith.

The office said it would “talk with the victim and decide at a later date” and otherwise declined to comment on the case.

From all appearances, Sterling said, the case against Smith in Rankin County seemed like the attorney general’s best shot at a conviction, but he wouldn’t speculate on the likeliness of a new trial.

The first trial in Hinds County ended in a mistrial after the judge discovered one juror was a police department employee and had attempted to influence the other jurors. A second Hinds County jury acquitted Smith on the conspiracy charges last summer.

“Whatever you think about Robert Smith, it took tremendous courage to contest these charges instead of taking the plea bargain they kept offering — which was that he plead to a misdemeanor and resign from office — because he could have gone to the pen for a long time,” said Jim Waide, an attorney who represented Smith in his first trial.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.

Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.