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Texas District Attorney and Prosecutor Accused, Cleared of Misconduct

In June 2015, the State Bar of Texas initiated disciplinary actions against Fort Bend County District Attorney John Francis Healey, Jr. and Assistant District Attorney Mark Harold Hanna. The disciplinary petitions filed by the State Bar Commission for Lawyer Discipline alleged Healey had delayed notifying Jacob Estrada, a state prisoner who had pleaded guilty to possession of PCP in a “drug free zone,” that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) had concluded the forensic scientist who analyzed the drugs in Estrada’s case was unreliable.

In 2007, Estrada was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. On October 11, 2011, the trial court granted the prosecution’s routine motion to have the evidence in the case destroyed. However, it was not immediately destroyed.

On April 26, 2012, the DPS Crime Lab emailed Healey and Hanna, informing them that the DPS had “discovered errors with the analysis of drug evidence conducted by one forensic scientist in our Houston Regional Laboratory.” That analyst was Jonathan Salvador, and the DPS was investigating all the cases handled by Salvador since he began analyzing evidence at the lab in 2006. The email included a list of those cases, and Estrada’s was among them.

The next day, Hanna emailed other Fort Bend County prosecutors, telling them not to plea bargain any cases in which Salvador had been involved. He then emailed the DPS Crime Lab, including a spreadsheet with all of the Fort Bend County cases that Salvador had worked on, requesting that the evidence in those cases be retested.

On July 3, 2012, the evidence in the Estrada case was destroyed pursuant to the October 11, 2011 order. However, it was nine months later – and a year after they were first notified about Salvador – before Fort Bend prosecutors finally informed Estrada of the developments regarding the potentially tainted evidence in his case.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a report in April 2013 that concluded Salvador had committed systematic errors which affected about one-third of the 4,944 criminal cases he had been involved in while employed by the DPS. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.1; March 2015, p.56].

On October 7, 2013, Estrada filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging Salvador’s involvement in his case had denied him due process. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted relief in July 2014.

Estrada subsequently filed a complaint with the State Bar of Texas, alleging the delay in informing him about the investigation into Salvador caused him to remain in prison much longer than he should have. The State Bar agreed, and in June 2015 filed a disciplinary petition alleging that Healey and Hanna’s “acts and omissions” constituted professional misconduct, and that they should be disciplined by “reprimand, suspension or disbarment.”

The State Bar dropped an initial claim of obstruction of justice against the two prosecutors in September 2015, but refiled an amended version of the original complaint that reasserted allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

In October 2015, Texas district court judge Jonathan Bailey dismissed the State Bar complaints against Healey and Hanna. As stated by Judge Bailey, Texas rules of professional conduct for attorneys require no duty on the part of prosecutors to those they have prosecuted once a conviction is obtained. That decision was affirmed by the Texas Court of Appeals on November 29, 2016, though the appellate court cautioned its ruling “should not be misinterpreted as a conclusion that prosecutors owe no duty to disclose exculpatory information post-conviction; rather, our holding is limited to a determination that Rule 3.09(d) did not impose such a duty under the specific facts and circumstances of this case and, therefore, cannot be the basis for the Commission’s disciplinary actions against Healey and Hanna.” See: Comm’n for Lawyer Discipline v. Hanna, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 12590 (Tex. App. Houston 14th Dist. 2016).

Estrada also filed a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Hanna and Healey. His complaint was dismissed in July 2015 on grounds of qualified immunity or absolute prosecutorial immunity and failure to state a claim. Estrada appealed, and on April 27, 2016 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. While the appellate court wrote “the facts alleged in the amended complaint are troubling,” it found that Healey and Hanna were entitled to qualified immunity because Estrada failed to show they had “violated a ‘clearly established’ right.” See: Estrada v. Healey, 647 Fed.Appx. 335 (5th Cir. 2016).

Healy remains the District Attorney for Fort Bend County, Texas. 

Sources: www.myfoxhouston.com, www.law360.com

 

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Comm’n for Lawyer Discipline v. Hanna

Estrada v. Healey


 

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