VOL. 132 | NO. 46 | Monday, March 6, 2017
State Panel Says No Censure of Prosecutor in Noura Jackson Case
By Bill Dries
A panel of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility says a Shelby County assistant district attorney did not intentionally hide evidence that might have helped the defense in the 2009 murder trial of Noura Jackson.
The three attorneys concluded in a Thursday, March 2, order that no censure of assistant DA Stephen P. Jones is warranted.
“The quintessential goal must be that the criminal trial process has such integrity that citizens have faith in it,” reads the panel’s order, written by Leland McNabb, a former assistant district attorney. “It is difficult to grasp how a public censure, under these circumstances, reaches toward that goal.”
Jackson was charged and convicted of the June 2005 murder of her mother, Jennifer Jackson. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial based in part on a handwritten note the defense didn’t get from prosecutors.
Jackson agreed to an Alford plea before a new trial got underway. The plea was not an admission of guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution probably could have proven its case at a second trial.
Jones went before the board based on a complaint to the Tennessee Supreme Court that followed.
The evidence is a handwritten statement given voluntarily by Andrew Hammack, who was dating Noura Jackson at the time of the murder.
Hammack put Noura Jackson in the house where her mother was stabbed to death at the time of the murder through a series of telephone calls and texts, including from a landline in the Jackson home.
But in the handwritten note, Hammack wrote that he was “rolling on ecstasy” during that crucial time period.
Hammack testified that he was under the influence of drugs as he and Noura Jackson communicated with each other and that she wanted him to come to the house. Hammack testified he never went to the home that night and never saw Noura Jackson in person that night.
Jones and Weirich augmented Hammack’s testimony with telephone records.
The professional responsibility panel’s 22-page decision said the rule requiring prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence applies when the evidence or information is “known by the prosecutor.”
“If a prosecutor fails to make this disclosure due to pure inadvertence, there would seem to be little value in using the attorney discipline process as a means of redress,” the order reads. “Such discipline would not impact the case in which the failure to disclose occurred and would seem to have no deterring effect (again, assuming that the failure to disclosure was truly inadvertent).”
The panel said there are consequences for inadvertent mistakes, notably a reversal of the conviction, which was the result in the Jackson case.
The panel described the failure to disclose as an “isolated, inadvertent violation.” The group of attorneys also noted that Jones reported himself for the omission.
A panel of the same board is scheduled to hear a similar complaint against Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich later this month. She was an assistant district attorney at the time, trying the case with Jones.
After the order was published Thursday, Weirich said in a written statement that she was grateful for the hard work and “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” by the panel.
“I am so happy for Steve and his family and for this affirmation of his integrity and professionalism,” she added.
The judgment in the Jones complaint can be appealed within two months.
Midway through Jackson’s trial, Jones noticed in an inventory list of case records that there was a reference to a handwritten note by Hammack from June 2005. The note wasn’t in the file and Jones asked an investigator in the prosecutor’s office to find it. Jones got the note, reviewed it and put it in a pocket of the folder without telling Weirich.
The note itself didn’t come up during Hammack’s testimony. But the panel said the trial record shows “even without mention of ecstasy, that Hammack was impaired in his ability to form and recall memories of events.”
That and Hammack’s vague answers about a critical time period on the witness stand led the panel to conclude the note didn’t “negate guilt or mitigate the offense” in and of itself, which is the trigger for requiring disclosure.
Jones said he forgot the note until after the trial when he was putting the file in order. Five days after the end of the trial, Jones filed a “notice of admitted Jencks statement in relation to testimony of Andrew Hammack.”
He attached the handwritten note and sent copies of his filing to defense attorneys at the same time.
“It would be illogical if we were to discourage bringing errors to the attention of the courts, and experience shows a sanction might cause the profession more loss than gain by perversely encouraging future concealment of error,” the order reads. “The proposed sanction is public censure. … The sanction of public censure, at this point, could fairly be considered redundant because wide public attention has long been focused on a self-admitted error. “Redundant public censure threatens to move the process of professional discipline to the realm of ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’”