Monday, August 29, 2016
JACKSON Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith is hanging his defense to state charges and a bar complaint around what he alleges is a set-up of Christopher Butler, the man at the center of five of the six counts that could get the DA booted from office. Until last week, though, that evidence had been more of a rumor, but his attorney, James Waide III, released at least parts of it attached to his Aug. 15 response to an earlier Mississippi Bar complaint against Smith—which he emailed to the Jackson Free Press last week.
At the center of Smith's evidence is Josh Ledford, a white Pearl resident who had visited Butler's home, with his toddler daughter, on the same day that the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics raided it: April 19, 2011.
"They were questioning me about do I know who Mr. Butler is, or do I know the name of the individual that lives at the house," Ledford said in an interview transcript attached to the bar response that Waide said his office transcribed from an earlier interview. He said Smith provided him the recording.
Ledford's statements are in the first documents released to the public that detail the evidence that Smith, the county's top prosecutor, promises can prove that MBN set up Butler in drug busts in 2011. The charges have languished against the now-39-year-old Butler for years as he has been out of jail on bond and continuing his life, even as Smith has tried to get the charges dropped against him.
Butler is now at the center of public-but-shadowy and rather confusing court battles between Smith and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood that escalated after Hood's office re-arrested Butler in January for the white-collar crime of wire fraud and embezzlement from his place of employment, Mega Mattress in west Jackson..
Smith tried to stop that trial from happening in county court, appearing unexpectedly before Hinds County Circuit Judge Melvin Priester Sr. during a hearing to argue both that Hood doesn't have the authority to try the new case in county court without Smith's permission and that Butler is innocent anyway of the previous drug crimes due to the framing of MBN, referring to video footage that he believes will exonerate Butler of the drug crimes. Smith's behavior in Priester's courtroom led to a bar complaint by the judge against the DA.
This was after Hood's office had Smith arrested in June for interfering with the prosecution of Butler, as well as his long-time associate Darnell Turner, in a misdemeanor charge that would force the DA from office if he is found guilty. Many of the documents in the tangle of cases have been sealed for a reason that no one involved seems to know, or at least will reveal.
It is not certain if Ledford's interview implying that MBN officers may have framed Butler and mistreated him and his daughter was part of that sealed evidence, but Smith's attorney, James Waide III of Tupelo, attached the exhibits to his response to the Mississippi Bar's complaint against Smith for his behavior toward Priester and Senior Judge Tomie Green.
"Smith did not 'disrupt a tribunal' or commit any other act of professional misconduct," Waide wrote to the Bar, adding that Smith had "properly brought" evidence "that drugs had been planted on Butler" to Judge Priester's attention.
MBN: Evidence Not 'Credible'
Ledford said in the transcript that he had visited Butler's house that morning to pick up a birthday present, including a drum kit. His wife and Butler's girlfriend, Kwanza Hilliard, both gave birth in the same hospital and had become friends during their time together, he said. The agents detained him, searching his person and running his identification, he claims, as his daughter cried in the backseat of the truck.
Eventually, the agent led the father and daughter into the house where, Ledford said, the officers began to harass him, asking him to tell them everything he knew about Butler. He said they berated him, asking about any secret compartments in the house. During the questioning Ledford said he could see police "scurrying" about the house. He said that while he was there during the search, he never saw any marijuana or drugs.
What the 10 MBN agents didn't know, Ledford said, is that Butler and Hilliard had 15 cameras installed in the house. Those 105 hours of videotapes, Smith maintains, prove that Butler was set up. The summary of the tape Waide attached to the Bar response states that the forced entry of the house took place at 12:32. Shortly thereafter, at 12:41, "an officer goes straight to the (ottoman) in the foyer, lifts the cover and finds the marijuana." The officers then remove the marijuana, and throughout this time Ledford and his daughter remain in the kitchen, where he is questioned for the next 30 minutes, or so he told the unnamed interviewer.
When asked which part of the tape holds the evidence of Butler's set-up during a phone interview on Aug. 26, Waide said Smith only told him that the tape contained the evidence, not a particular span of time.
MBN spokeswoman Delores Lewis told the Jackson Free Press that, at the moment, the Hinds County District Attorney's office has the recordings.
"The allegations made by Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith regarding wrongdoing on the part of MBN agents are blatantly and patently false," MBN said in a written statement to the Jackson Free Press about the allegations. "Mr. Smith began making these allegations as early as January of 2015. Yet, strangely enough, he has continued to allow cases to be presented and indicted in his judicial district by the same agents that he accuses of criminal acts."
"The District Attorney has never produced the video that would support his allegations, not even after being ordered to do so by a judge in May of 2015," the statement continues.
"MBN agents are professionals, highly trained in acquiring search warrants that lead to seizures of illegal narcotics and narcotics paraphernalia. Because the agency has not received any credible evidence of wrongdoing on the part of its agents, the MBN stands by them. And we are confident that the investigation of the charges against Robert Shuler Smith will absolve them of any wrongdoing."
'You Can Be Disbarred'
The Hinds prosecutor has gone to great lengths to help Butler defend the drug charges MBN brought against him, which included another arrest on April 3, 2012, for having pot in the back of his truck, and to stop the attorney general from trying him this year for financial fraud. The AG's office contends that the elected prosecutor is acting outside legal channels and appropriate channels to help an accused defendant.
Starting in January of this year Smith has been in contact with Butler's family, even though Butler continuously states in letters from jail that he did not have a relationship with Smith, other than seeing him in a courtroom. Hinds County jail logs show that DA visited Butler in jail, and the AG charges that Smith offered assistance to Butler's attorney. The DA attempted to subpoena attorneys with the AG's office to testify in front of a grand jury, and even went so far as to accuse a judge of keeping the information from to the press, all in the name of Butler's innocence.
An archive of reporting on controversies surrounding Hinds County district attorneys, present and past.
Butler sticks up for Smith in separate letters he wrote while incarcerated that Waide attached to the Bar response.
"Robert Smith step up and did the right thing in my case after his own investigation and now I'm being punished over it," he wrote to WLBT.
In another letter with an unclear recipient, he states: "I don't know, but it was a pure set up. Robert Smith, Hinds County DA found evidence of this after his own investigation and decided to file a motion to dismiss. I've never met him in my life, only know how for appearing in the courtroom. So all this speculation about Robert and I having a relationship is pure crazy."
During a preliminary hearing in March for the wire-fraud charges leveled against Butler, Smith brought up the surveillance tape from the 2011 raid to presiding Judge Melvin Priester Sr. The judge told him that he had watched all of the tapes and had not seen anything to persuade him that the police had planted evidence or set Butler up.
"Mr. Smith," Priester said, "if you have a beef with the Attorney General's office, you deal with the Attorney General's office."
The AG alleges, though, that Smith has followed his own course, conferring directly with the defendant and his family and attorney in an effort to clear his name. The question is, what should the DA have done if he suspected an improper arrest? And can he pursue justice outside the established legal channels?
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. said that whether Smith will be vindicated for how he chose to pursue justice, if it turned out that Butler was set up, is not a thoroughly examined question.
"There's not a lot of tests of that," Diaz said. "Most people don't even walk up to that line. There's not a whole lot of authority saying you can and can't do these specific things because most people don't try to do any of it. So it is a very rare and unusual that this allegation is even being made."
So, then, as far as the Bar's formal complaint goes, Smith could still face consequences, and lose his position, even if his evidence is confirmed to be true.
"You can be disbarred. It can go from nothing happening and dismissing the complaint, and in between you have the private reprimand, the public reprimand or a suspension, which wouldn't be disbarment, but you wouldn't be able to practice for a certain period of time," Diaz said.
Adam Kilgore, the general counsel for the Mississippi Bar Association who wrote the July 26, 2016, formal complaint against Smith, said in an interview that the Bar complaint and subsequent response would eventually be put before two lawyers and a judge, called a tribunal, to decide Smith's fate as an attorney. He did not say when that process would begin.