Louisiana Prosecutor Beats Ethics Case Over Withheld Evidence

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By Jordan S. Rubin

Louisiana’s attorney discipline board failed to meet its burden of proof in an ethics case against a state prosecutor who failed to disclose evidence in a murder case, the state Supreme Court said ( In re Seastrunk , 2017 BL 374915, La., No. 2017-B-0178, 10/18/17 ).

Deciding a question of first impression, the state high court said Louisiana’s ethics rule on disclosing evidence is no broader than the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, which, along with United States v. Bagley, requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory material evidence. Because there was no Brady violation here, that means there was no ethics violation either, the court said in an Oct. 18 opinion by Justice Scott J. Crichton.

Evidence is material “only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1985 in Bagley.

Ronald Seastrunk was part of a team of prosecutors that, in the course of a murder prosecution that resulted in a conviction, didn’t disclose evidence related to a government witness, including the witness’s inconsistent statements.

But the evidence needn’t have been disclosed under Brady and Bagley, so Seastrunk can’t face ethical discipline for not disclosing it, the court said. It dismissed all ethics charges, rejecting the reasoning of the state disciplinary authority that would’ve imposed a higher bar through its ethics rule than that set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson concurred in the result. Justices John L. Weimer and Jefferson D. Hughes III also concurred, writing separately.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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