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Analysis: Secrecy plagues court cases involving Hinds DA

JEFF AMY

JEFF AMY

The American justice system requires trials to be open to the public. But, so far, secrecy shrouds the legal maneuvering that could lead to a criminal trial where the defendant is the top prosecutor in Mississippi’s largest county.

Citizens can’t understand the full story of the problems because at least five cases regarding Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith are under seal.

Here’s what is known:. At some point early this year, judges began to make efforts to ban Smith from presenting certain cases to grand juries. At least one of those cases appears to involve Smith’s claim that a man named Christopher Butler was framed by Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agents. Smith told County Court Judge Melvin Priester Sr. in March that he could prove video evidence in the case had been tampered with.

Smith also contested the authority of Attorney General Jim Hood to prosecute certain cases in Hinds County and at some point began moving toward indicting at least two assistant attorneys general who used to work for his office.

Assistant District Attorney Jamie McBride swore in a statement filed by Smith lawyer Jim Waide that shortly after meeting with Smith and then-assistant DA Ivon Johnson to discuss the Butler case, he began to get nervous phone calls from Patrick Beasley and Shawn Yurtkuran.

That’s when Hood charged Smith with six misdemeanor counts of illegally advising people accused of crimes.

“The Mississippi Attorney General arrested Smith and seeks to indict Smith not because of any good-faith belief Smith has committed any crime, but because two assistant attorneys general feared that they were about to be indicted,” Waide wrote Aug. 19.

Those charges were dropped last week, to be followed the next day by a felony indictment charging Smith and McBride with hindering prosecution. Waide said Thursday that he believed McBride had been indicted as retaliation for agreeing to swear out the statement.

Even McBride’s indictment was handled curiously. Hood’s office sent out a press release Wednesday announcing Smith’s indictment, but omitting mention of McBride. Then his office sent The Associated Press a copy of the indictment with McBride’s name blacked out, even though his name was present in online court records. After not responding to questions Wednesday about McBride, Hood’s office announced his indictment Thursday.

That’s just one example of the secrecy enfolding the cases. The Clarion-Ledger has sued to have the cases opened, saying those who closed the files didn’t give notice, hold a public hearing, explain why the filed were closed, or consider alternatives. All those are required under past Supreme Court decisions.

“The proceedings applied to seal this court file were and are arbitrary and capricious and not conducted in accordance with existing law,” wrote Clarion-Ledger attorney Dennis Horn.

Waide has also filed motions to open parts of cases, saying Smith believes the files and transcripts have evidence that would exonerate him.

Some of the questions have already gone to the state Supreme Court, and others could eventually. The high court is supposed to regulate lower courts in Mississippi, but Chief Justice William Waller Jr. declines comment because he could be asked to rule.

“It’s just like any other matter before the court,” Waller said Thursday through spokeswoman Beverly Kraft. “I can’t talk about it.”

And neither can hardly anyone else, apparently.

» Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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