In a key test of state ethics rules for prosecutors, the Louisiana Supreme Court has cleared a Vernon Parish assistant district attorney of misconduct over a decision to withhold allegedly exculpatory evidence in a murder case.
In ruling in favor of Assistant District Attorney Ronald Seastrunk, the court found that the state's legal ethics rules don't set a higher bar for prosecutors than the U.S. Constitution does when it comes to withholding evidence.
That means prosecutors in Louisiana likely won't face discipline — censure, suspension or disbarment — if they're caught failing to turn over evidence unless a court finds a "reasonable probability" that the evidence would have tipped the verdict.
That's the same standard the U.S. Supreme Court set for violations of Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 ruling that requires disclosure of all evidence favorable to a defendant.
Charles Plattsmier, the top enforcer for the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which pushed for Seastrunk's suspension, said Wednesday's decision could affect numerous pending complaints against prosecutors.
"There are several cases in our inventory that we have paused further efforts on, pending a decision by the court" in the Seastrunk case, he said. "Now that we have the decision, we certainly will accept it, honor it and obey it. We're going to look at all of those cases and see if we can go forward."
The state's highest court hadn't previously addressed head-on whether a prosecutor can be punished and perhaps lose his or her law license for withholding evidence that might not cause a conviction to be overturned.
The answer came nearly six years after Justin Sizemore first stood trial over the June 14, 2010, murder of Christopher Hoffpauir, whose body was found in a roadside ditch.
Hoffpauir's wife, Kristyn, had carried on a relationship with Sizemore, and she eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter, conspiracy to commit manslaughter and obstruction of justice. But her conflicting accounts of where Sizemore hid before the killing were never revealed to his defense team until during his first trial, which ended in a deadlocked jury.
Later, a detective interviewed a former brother-in-law who said that, three years before the murder, Kristyn Hoffpauir's mother had mentioned that she had found a .22-caliber revolver in her daughter's closet. That seemed to contradict Kristyn Hoffpauir's testimony that she had no experience with firearms and had never owned or fired a gun.
But Asa Skinner, district attorney for the 30th Judicial District, told the detective to leave the story about the gun out of his report. Skinner then told prosecutor Scott Westerchil, who tried the case with Seastrunk, not to turn over the report to Sizemore's attorney.
Westerchil also faced an ethics complaint, which was aborted when he was elected a judge in 2015 and Plattsmier's office lost jurisdiction.
The police report on the interview with the brother-in-law was revealed during Sizemore's second trial. Judge James R. Mitchell first denied a defense motion for a mistrial. But the judge and prosecutors soon agreed on a mistrial after the statement about the gun being found in Kristyn Hoffpauir's room was revealed, along with a claim that she had once threatened to kill her mother.
All of that evidence was included in a new police report that prosecutors turned over to the defense before Sizemore's third trial in 2012, which ended with a jury convicting him of murder.
In Wednesday's ruling, the Supreme Court found no clear violation by Seastrunk of the Brady standard, and therefore no ethical violation.
Justice Scott Crichton, who wrote the court's 19-page opinion, reasoned that holding prosecutors to a higher ethical standard than the Brady rule would create confusion by imposing "inconsistent disclosure obligations upon prosecutors." It also could be used as "a tactical weapon in criminal litigation," he wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice John Weimer reasoned that the jury at Sizemore's third trial heard the story about the gun yet still convicted Sizemore, "underscoring that the narrative was not exculpatory."
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor who argued the case for Seastrunk, called it "a pretty important decision for prosecutors in the state."
"As a practical matter, I don't think the (Office of Disciplinary Counsel) is going to seek discipline against a prosecutor unless there's been a judicial finding there's been a Brady violation," Ciolino said.
The decision also means that a former Orleans Parish prosecutor, Roger Jordan, remains the only Louisiana prosecutor ever to be sanctioned by the state Supreme Court for failing to turn over evidence.