DA’s office accused of misconduct

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Circuit Judge Mike Taylor dropped a bombshell on the DistrictAttorney’s office Monday afternoon after hearing arguments for anew trial for accused murderer Michael Leggett, slamming them withcharges of prosecutorial misconduct and saying they misled thecourt and the jury in Leggett’s trial.

Leggett was charged with murder along with Mark Culbertson inthe death of Jewel Dewayne Douglas. After Leggett’s conviction,prosecutors made a motion to amend Culbertson’s indictment tomanslaughter, saying they did not have sufficient evidence toconvict him of murder.

The move led the court to question how long prosecutors knewthey were not going to charge Culbertson with murder, since largeportions of Leggett’s trial were based on the fact that both menwere charged in the same crime.

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“I’ve said before and still maintain despite the amendment tothe indictment that there was no deal,” Assistant District AttorneyDiane Jones said in court Monday.

Defense Attorney Joe Fernald said he didn’t see how letting theLeggett jury know that Culbertson would be charged withmanslaughter would have gotten in the way of a conviction. Jonessaid the prosecution decided on the manslaughter charge afterhearing both the testimony of Culbertson and Leggett, as Leggettrefused to discuss the case with the prosecution before thecase.

Culbertson testified against Leggett, telling the jury that hewas doing it because it was “the right thing to do.”

His actions led the defense to speculate as to why he wouldpotentially incriminate himself with his testimony before his owntrial if he were afraid he would face a trial. Fernald also saidthe defense deserved to know if there was a deal in the works.

“The jury made their final decisions based on Culbertson’stestimony, and his indictment should have been amended earlierbecause then we’d be in a position to know what we were dealingwith,” Fernald said.

Fernald also argued that Culbertson’s portrayal as someone whojust wanted to make things right, without a deal and regardless ofthe cost, put him in a more favorable light with the jury andinfluenced their decision on Leggett’s verdict.

“The fact that he won’t be given consideration makes him looklike the most honest man on earth and truly repentant for what he’sdone,” Fernald said.

District Attorney Dee Bates said Culbertson had been willing tocooperate all along, and that he had volunteered to testify withoutany discussion of lightening his sentence.

“Why was he so willing to do that, just to set the recordstraight?” Bates said. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s somethingattorneys can’t understand.”

Members of the DA’s office and Culbertson’s counsel David Linzeyall stated that the plan to amend Culbertson’s charge tomanslaughter wasn’t reached until the Sunday after Leggett’sconviction.

Bates said he and Jones had met with Douglas’ family on Sundayafternoon at 2 p.m. After that meeting and a subsequent discussionamong prosecutors, Bates said they called to inform Linzey of theirdecision.

However, Taylor based his order on the premise that Leggett wasnot given a fair trial because in his opinion, the jury was misled,the opposing council was not given all the information they neededand numerous other charges that amounted to miscarriage ofjustice.

“Constitutions, rules of professional conduct, uniform rules ofcircuit and county court practice, oaths, and even the most basicrules of decency and fair play were trampled by the state,” thejudge wrote. “This ruling sets forth the court’s finding that theOffice of the District Attorney committed prosecutorial misconductin the prosecuting of these cases.”

Taylor said a copy of his ruling will be sent to the MississippiBar Association Complaint Counsel with complete transcripts andnames of other people who might have information on the cases.

Bates said he disagrees with the ruling.

“We don’t agree, but that’s the ruling,” he said. “We never madea deal. Culbertson said there was no deal, his attorney said therewas no deal, both Brendon Adams and Diane Jones said there was nodeal, and I said there was no deal.”

Bates said the decision to amend Culbertson’s indictment wasbased on talks with the Leggett jury members, Douglas’ family andCulbertson’s testimony on the record.

“If you take everything he said as true, he’s guilty ofmanslaughter, not murder,” he said. “If I had a crystal ball andcould see everything that really happened, we wouldn’t needinvestigators.”

Bates said the Bar Association will send investigators toresearch and review the case to determine if there was anywrongdoing on the part of his office. He said he is currentlychecking into what possible recourse there is for the DA’s officeto appeal the ruling or take other action.

But most importantly, Bates said, his office is focused onLeggett’s next trial, as they have a duty to the state ofMississippi and the family of the victim. Leggett’s new trial isscheduled for Sept. 2.

“We represent the state and the Douglases,” he said. “The familyis getting lost in all this, and that’s what disturbs me.”