Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith repeatedly refers to the Harvey Williams v. State of Mississippi (2014) case as he battles Attorney General Jim Hood. Mr. Smith claims the case prevents the Attorney General from prosecuting a case in Hinds County without the consent of the District Attorney and waves it as a flaming sword whenever the subject of Christopher Butler arises. However, what exactly is the holding of Williams? JJ decided to present the case and let the good readers decide for themselves.
The Attorney General investigated and prosecuted Butler for consumer fraud. It is alleged that Butler defrauded a finance company while working at a furniture store in West Jackson by creating bogus transactions. The finance company allegedly financed furniture sales but the furniture was never actually purchased by the customer. Butler was arrested and a preliminary held on March 3. However, the District Attorney barged into the hearing and told County Court Judge Melvin Priester, Sr. that the A.G. had no legal authority to prosecute the case without Smith's consent. The D.A. said
BY MR. SMITH: Well, first all, I do agree with counsel. The AG's Office is well aware of Harvey Williams v. State. That was a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court that clarified existing law that says they cannot prosecute cases in Hinds County at their discretion. I was actually one of the respondents in that matter.
Harvey Williams was indicted for the shooting death of a man outside of a Jackson nightclub in 2003. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2007. However, Williams won a reversal of his conviction on appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Court remanded the case back to the trial court for a new hearing in 2010.
The District Attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case in 2011. Special Circuit Judge Breland Hilburn accepted the dismissal but reversed himself two days later and attempted to reinstate the indictment. Judge Hilburn recused the District Attorney from prosecuting the case in 2012 and reassigned it to the original prosecutors who now worked for the Attorney General. Williams filed a motion to dismiss. The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Jeff Weill. Judge Weill held a hearing in October 2012. Special Assistant Attorney General Marvin Sanders* prosecuted the case.
Judge Weill said the case was over when the D.A. dropped the case but the A.G. should be appointed to prosecute the case since the D.A. "did not intend to prosecute Williams." Williams appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court stopped all proceedings and delved into the case.
Nutshell version: The case was dismissed by the D.A. but the judge wants to re-fire the prosecution. The key issue is whether the court has the authority to remove a prosecutor and replace him with one from another agency.
The court said there was no law that authorized a judge to take a case away from a District Attorney and give it to the Attorney General for prosecution. There was no constitutional provision or case law that gave cover to what Judge Weill tried to do. The opinion, and this is probably where Mr. Smith hangs his hat, states
But neither Mississippi’s Constitution—silent with regard to the powers or duties of the attorney general—nor the common law authorizes the attorney general to usurp or encroach upon the constitutional or the statutory power of the local district attorney in a criminal case where the attorney general’s assistance is not requested by the district attorney, and is in fact opposed by the district attorney...
This Court has clarified: “A district attorney has no authority to represent the state in litigation outside counties of their district, or to represent the state in litigation in their district where the subject matter is of statewide interest, as distinguished from local interest.” Id. (citations omitted). We find no reason, or evidence in the record, why Williams’s murder prosecution could be considered by the attorney general to be any more a matter of statewide interest, as distinguished from local interest, than any other murder case....< Intervention of the attorney general into the independent discretion of a local district attorney regarding whether or not to prosecute a criminal case constitutes an impermissible diminution of the statutory power of the district attorney See Miss. Code Ann.§ 25-31-11(1) (Rev. 2010) (“It shall be the duty of the district attorney to represent the state in all matters coming before the grand juries of the counties within his district and to appear in the circuit courts and prosecute for the state in his district all criminal prosecutions and all civil cases in which the state or any county within his district may be interested . . . .”))
The Court made clear what it thought of Judge Weill's actions as it wrapped up the holding:
Neither Mississippi’s Constitution nor its common law permits the involuntarily disqualification of a duly elected district attorney from the lawful performance of his duty and the substitution of the attorney general in the district attorney’s place and stead in a case in which no legal grounds for the district attorney’s disqualification exists...
However, the Mississippi Code empowers the Attorney General to investigate and prosecute fraud and white collar crime. Section 75-5-59 states:
§ 7-5-59 - Investigation of official corruption, other white collar crimes, and computer crimesThe statute also gives the Attorney General subpoena power and the ability to call a grand jury to indict in white collar crime prosecutions. The Attorney General investigated and initiated the prosecution of Christopher Butler for fraud and various white collar crimes. The District Attorney initiated the prosecution in Williams.
(1) The following terms shall have the meanings ascribed to them herein unless the context requires otherwise:
(b) "White-collar crime and official corruption" includes crimes chargeable under the following provisions of law:
(iii) Section 97-19-73, which relates to fraud by mail, wire, radio or television....
(c) "White-collar crime investigations" means an investigation into any illegal act or acts defined as white-collar crime...
(2) The Attorney General is hereby authorized to conduct official corruption investigations and such other white-collar crime investigations and computer crime investigations that are of statewide interest or which are in the protection of public rights....
It remains to be seen which side's interpretation prevails in court. The D.A. argues the Attorney General can not prosecute any case in Hinds County (save public corruption) while the Attorney General claims the Mississippi Code gives him the authority to prosecute fraud cases in any county. This particular legal issue will undoubtedly arise again in the war between the Attorney General and the Hinds County District Attorney.
*Yes, he is one of the attorneys prosecuting Robert Shuler Smith.