Former DA says there’s no conflict of interest in representing people his office once prosecuted

Robert Shuler Smith’s successor files motion to have him disqualified from criminal case
Updated: Sep. 17, 2020 at 11:07 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Court documents show former Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith represents at least two people he once prosecuted, a move he calls in line with his duty to the Constitution and not a conflict of interest.

In one of those cases, Smith represents Prince Johnson, the same man Smith’s office prosecuted for nearly three years.

In 2017, a Hinds County grand jury indicted Johnson on eight counts of prescription fraud, and court documents allege he’s the ringleader of the operation.

Smith’s successor, Jody Owens, filed a motion two weeks ago to get Smith disqualified from the case, saying state law and Mississippi Ethics Commission opinions show Smith should not be representing people he once tried.

“I had no knowledge or have no knowledge of these cases, and I think obviously the assistant district attorneys know that most of the cases are handled in court by them," Smith said.

Smith cites a Mississippi Supreme Court case that mimics his -- Galloway vs. State -- where a former assistant district attorney from Pascagoula later defended that same person she prosecuted.

The high court ruled in a majority decision that because that prosecutor didn’t remember prosecuting that case, it wasn’t a conflict.

Smith said he even contacted the Mississippi Bar Association to ask if he could represent people he had once built cases against.

“If anybody had an objection, they could raise it and we could discuss their position, but I never heard anything. No objections have been raised,” Smith said.

3 On Your Side reached out to MBA for a response to Smith’s claim.

“I am not at liberty to discuss ethics questions that attorneys contact the bar with," said Adam Kilgore, general counsel for the organization. "The bar, specifically the Office of General Counsel, is prohibited from giving stamps of approval or disapproval as to a proposed course of action.”

3 On Your Side found another case listing Smith as a defense attorney: one involving Ryan Davis, who’s accused of shooting several people at a 2016 block party during Jackson State’s homecoming weekend celebrations.

Smith denies any involvement in that case, despite a docket report from the Hinds County Circuit Court showing him listed as a member of the defense team with several others.

“I don’t represent this person. I don’t really know why they have my name on this one," Smith said.

He did, however, admit to representing others that his office has prosecuted.

”There’s actually a few, but we’ve been working those out. Things have been fine. It’s just this particular case and because of what I filed. That’s the only reason why we’re fighting about this issue," Smith said.

One day before Owens filed a motion to disqualify him as counsel, Smith filed a motion to dismiss the case entirely, alleging a violation of Johnson’s Fifth Amendment right to due process and prosecutorial misconduct, claiming Johnson was selectively targeted by law enforcement.

Smith compared it to very different treatment given to former Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics Director John Dowdy’s son, who was arrested last year.

“Upon information and belief, John Dowdy, Jr. has not been indicted nor prosecuted for the same offence (sic),” Smith wrote in the motion.

Owens, responding to the motion, claims Smith cannot allege due process violations or prosecutorial misconduct without including himself in that as well, since Smith’s office prosecuted Johnson for nearly three years.

Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd has not yet ruled on either motion. 3 On Your Side found Smith’s actions may violate at least two rules of professional conduct that governs attorneys in Mississippi.

For the Mississippi Bar Association to investigate that, someone would have to file a complaint. Kilgore could not confirm whether any investigations into Smith were underway.

“Rule 15 of the Rules of Discipline for the Mississippi State Bar, the procedural rules for the attorney discipline process, prohibits me from being able to state whether there are any informal (Bar) complaints pending unless public discipline is imposed or a matter turns into a Formal Complaint, making it public record,” Kilgore said. “As a result, I am unable to tell you whether there are any other pending matters against the attorney you have inquired about.”

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