Wichita Falls District Judge Bob Brotherton recently acquitted Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins of contempt charges in one of the highest profile cases in North Texas history. News media ranging from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Wichita Falls Times Record News to WFAA TV News and the major networks covered this dramatic trial.
Usually cases involving dead bodies or violence grab the headlines and most of the coverage in the world of today’s media. But a contempt case? What was so special about this contempt case which elevated it above all the others in the eyes of the world’s news media? Even the Australians devoted attention to this case.
One of the key issues was the privilege of a district attorney’s office to its own work product prior to trial and whether or not that privilege could be waived or given up. To see why this became such a critical issue one has to delve into the history of the case.
Dallas Judge Lena Lovario was presiding over a hearing checking into whether or not Dallas DA Watkins had acted improperly in prosecuting oil millionaire Al Hill III at the time the contempt allegedly occurred. The hearing was held in March of 2013.
Hill III alleged Watkins was guilty of prosecutorial misconduct in prosecuting him for mortgage fraud. The oil heir claimed Watkins had his office prosecute him as a favor to Lisa Blue, who was a supporter of Watkins during the DA election in Dallas. Blue and Hill were fighting over the proper amount of attorney’s fees that were owed the attorney for a case in which Blue represented Hill.
When Watkins was called to the witness stand in the March hearing he refused to answer questions regarding a conversation he had with Lisa Blue. His refusal to answer the questions was based on prosecutorial privilege. Several other members of his office, however, did present evidence at the hearing which raised the issue as to whether the District Attorney’s Office had given up its privilege.
Chad Baruch, attorney from Rowlett, Texas, argued on behalf of Watkins that Hill’s attorneys had to present evidence of misconduct prior to even having the right to request an evidentiary hearing on the matter under a U.S. Supreme Court case. Baruch told Judge Brotherton during the hearing that no evidence had been presented by Hill’s legal team to show there was evidence of any misconduct by Watkins before the hearing. He further argued that since the hearing was improper, any questions asked during the hearing would be improper, according to the court transcript prepared by Court Reporter Leslie-Ryan Hash.
Further following that logic Baruch said it is not contempt of court to refuse to answer an improper question. Therefore his client was not guilty of contempt of court.
As an example of Hill’s attorneys failing to have evidence prior to the evidentiary hearing, Baruch said to Brotherton, “The trial court asked Mr. Hill’s attorneys, “What evidence do you have? What are you going to show to prove equal protection violations?”
Hill’s attorneys replied, “We’re going to need the hearings to get it. It will come out in our examination of Watkins and Blue.”
Baruch further summed up his argument, saying that we know there was no evidence before Watkins invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege to not answer the questions asked of him. Since there was no evidence, there could not be an evidentiary hearing and the refusal to answer the question was not contempt of Judge Lena Levario’s court.
Baruch also said that ordering the DA to disclose his case before trial before a judge is a violation of separation of powers as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution since the DA is part of the executive branch and judges are part of the judicial branch.
Watkins’ attorney also said every defendant across the State of Texas would be lining up to request evidentiary hearings alleging prosecutorial misconduct in their cases prior to trial if Watkins was held in contempt of court in this case.
Judge Brotherton ruled with Baruch’s arguments and denied the motion to hold the DA in contempt of court in a case which has huge implications throughout the world of criminal justice.
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