In re Seastrunk

Decision Date18 October 2017
Docket NumberNo. 2017–B–0178,2017–B–0178
Citation236 So.3d 509
Parties IN RE: Ronald SEASTRUNK
CourtLouisiana Supreme Court

OFFICE OF DISCIPLINARY COUNSEL, Charles Bennett Plattsmier ; Robert Samuel Kennedy, Jr. ; For Applicant;

Dane S. Ciolino ; Ronald Kenneth Seastrunk ; Paul Ellis Adams, Jr. ; For Respondent.

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...

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  • Grievance Comm. for the Tenth Judicial Dist. v. Kurtzrock (In re Kurtzrock)
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court — Appellate Division
    • December 30, 2020
    ... ... In re Attorney C, 47 P.3d 1167, 1171 [Colo. 2002] ; In re Ronald Seastrunk, 236 So.3d 509, 510 [La. 2017] ; Disciplinary Counsel v. KelloggMartin, 124 Ohio St 3d 415, 419, 923 N.E.2d 125, 130 [Ohio 2010] ; State ex rel. Oklahoma Bar Assn v. Ward, 353 P.3d 509, 521 [Okla. 2015] ; In re Petition to Stay the Effectiveness of Formal Ethics Opinion 2017F163, 582 S.W.3d ... ...
  • In re Petition to Stay the Effectiveness of Formal Ethics Op. 2017-F-163
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • August 23, 2019
    ... ... The Louisiana Supreme Court determined in In re Seastrunk , 236 So. 3d 509, 518-19 (La. 2017), that the duties in its ethical rule, akin to our Rule 3.8(d), 4 and 582 S.W.3d 209 the duties in Brady are coextensive. Noting several other jurisdictions coming to the same conclusion, the court stated, As these other courts have found, under conflicting ... ...
  • In re Hudson, Supreme Court Case No. 64S00-1705-DI-325
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court
    • August 29, 2018
    ... ... Accord Matter of Smith , 60 N.E.3d 1034, 1036 (Ind. 2016). We note that in applying similar versions of Rule 3.8(d), some jurisdictions have treated the duties imposed by the rule coextensively with the duties imposed under Brady ... See, e.g., In re Seastrunk , 236 So.3d 509, 518-19 (La. 2017). Other jurisdictions have held that a prosecutor's ethical obligations under the rule are broader than those imposed by Brady ... See, e.g., In re Disciplinary Action Against Feland , 820 N.W.2d 672, 678 (N.D. 2012). We need not choose today between these two ... ...
  • In re Bokenfohr
    • United States
    • Louisiana Supreme Court
    • September 21, 2018
    ... ... I find this approach substantially similar to ODC's recent position in In re: Seastrunk , 17-0178 (La. 10/18/17), 236 So.3d 509. Specifically, Seastrunk presented the question of whether 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, ... ...
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1 books & journal articles
  • Digital ecosystem of accountability
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review No. 59-2, April 2022
    • April 1, 2022
    ...200, 202 (Tenn. 2019) (def‌ining the prosecution’s ethical responsibility as coextensive with Brady and its progeny); In re Seastrunk, 236 So.3d 509, 518–19 (La. 2017) (reading the state’s rule 3.8 as coextensive with Brady ); Disciplinary Counsel v. Kellogg-Martin, 923 N.E.2d 125, 130 (Ohi......

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