JACKSON What exactly was Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith looking for when he subpoenaed a circuit-court judge in January?
Christopher Butler's criminal cases might have been "the hub of the wheel" of a series of subpoenas the district attorney issued for two assistant attorney generals, Hinds Circuit Judge Jeff Weill, and even two employees from the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
"It's like the hub of a wheel, and there are a lot of things that mostly which I'm not aware of, but I'm aware of some of the things that were not disclosed about that case," Special Assistant Attorney General Edwin Snyder said during the Jan. 25 hearing as captured in a recently unsealed transcript.
"But we believe that the purpose of Mr. Smith subpoenaing these witnesses is that it relates to the Butler case."
Butler faces ongoing charges for possession of marijuana greater than an ounce from 2011, as well as allegations of wire fraud and embezzlement from a newer set of charges the attorney general's office filed earlier this year.
Smith issued subpoenas in early January 2016 for assistant attorney generals Patrick Beasley and Shaun Yurtkuran, as well as the one for Weill. Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Tomie Green moved those subpoenas into a separate case file, 16-0026, which Special Master Amy Whitten considered during a hearing in late January, the unsealed documents show.
All About Butler?
Snyder, in the transcript of the Jan. 25 hearing, outlined how in 2015 Smith fought on two fronts regarding Butler's 2011 drug charges: Smith's denied attempts to dismiss Butler's charges and the DVRs from the surveillance system during the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics raids of his then-girlfriend's home that resulted in his drug charges.
Smith had attempted a year earlier, in January 2015, to petition Weill's court for a "nols pros," a legal term describing the prosecuting party's request to drop all charges, for the drug offenses that Butler faced in 2015. Smith argued that Butler should go free in light of testimony and evidence from a DVR MBN had seized.
Weill, despite his initial approval, eventually denied Smith's request to drop the charges and attempted to move Butler's cases to the attorney general's office.
Snyder specifically references a forfeiture hearing for the property MBN seized, during which Smith fought for a copy of the tape.
"And during that hearing was when Mr. Smith was trying to get control of a DVR that showed what was going on in the Butler house for at least a 30-day period, and the FBI has gotten a copy of that DVR, and of course the Bureau of Narcotics have a copy," Snyder said.
"But the defense attorney was only provided with the period of time from the beginning of the search of the house to the conclusion of the search."
The transcripts show that Smith, in chambers, said he was attempting to get the tape before it disappeared. He compared the MBN's transfer of the tape to the FBI to what he said the state auditor's office attempted "on the coast," referring to that office's investigation into the Department of Marine Resources in 2015.
The state auditor's office moved documents to the federal court in Jackson after a Harrison County Chancery Court judge ordered the documents released to the Sun Herald newspaper. The state auditor's office argued that the documents were still exempt from disclosure because they were part of an ongoing investigation.
"This is the exact same pattern that I am proving and will prove happened in this particular case," Smith told Whitten, referring to the DVR tapes.
"But again, this is not the only case that we are inquiring about. I believe that the attorney general's office, although they may seem to be speculating about what all is going on, I believe they know exactly what's going on, but they're trying to get as much out of me as possible so that they can know how to proceed on their side."
In September 2015, FBI Special Agent Robert Culpepper wrote a letter to the attorney general's office, outlining several conflicts of interest Smith might have in prosecuting certain cases due to longstanding relationships since his work as a defense attorney before becoming district attorney. As a result, Judge Weill attempted to reassign the cases to the attorney general's office.
Snyder, during the January hearing in front of Whitten, addressed how the judge's subpoena might prevent him from participating in those 30 cases, pointing out that it was irregular to subpoena a judge.
"And as I pointed out, it's extremely irregular that a circuit judge, a sitting circuit judge, would be subpoenaed to a grand jury to provide evidence in the case," Snyder said, when discussing reasons why a judge might be called to testify. Smith's strategy, he later suggested, might be that after the judge testified, Weill might be forced to recuse himself from any related cases, including Butler's.
"But one has to wonder whether or not all the actions of the district attorney are to exclude Judge Weill from handling the two Christopher Butler cases," Snyder said. "He's tried to use a subpoena as a device to get the judge to recuse himself."
Weill did turn down all Smith's attempts to dismiss the case against Butler months before, something that Snyder recognizes.
"Now it may very well be that Judge Weill has a higher standard for granting nolle pros than some may, but nevertheless, Judge Weill has shown that he's not going to take supposition and guesses in order to grant the district attorney's motion to enter nolle pros in the Butler cases."
Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at [email protected]. Read more about the indictments of the district attorney at jfp.ms/DAFiles.