Murder defendant’s attorney, DAs clash in ‘cringeworthy’ final hearing before Mass. Street trial
photo by: Ashley Hocking
Tensions flared and accusations flew in the final pretrial hearing scheduled before the Massachusetts Street triple murder trial.
The murder defendant’s lawyer claimed that Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson and his office were “bullying” her, committing prosecutorial misconduct, withholding evidence, misleading the public and intentionally trying to prejudice her client.
“I am just disgusted by the bullying tactics used by the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office,” Topeka-based defense attorney Jennifer Chaffee said. “The state has lost all sight of justice.”
Chaffee even accused the judge of bias at one point, later adding, “It seems like the state just kind of runs the courtroom here.”
Chaffee hurled accusations at the DA throughout the hearing, in connection with nearly every matter that came up. Prosecutors refuted all of them, saying Chaffee was the one misrepresenting information to the court and unnecessarily taking things personally.
Judge Sally Pokorny settled a number of pretrial housekeeping issues at Thursday’s hearing. However, before ruling on the most contentious issue — Chaffee’s motion to disqualify Branson and Chief Assistant District Attorney David Melton from the trial — Pokorny said she needed to listen to a recording of the police interview at the root of Chaffee’s complaint.
The trial for Anthony L. Roberts, 21, and co-defendants Ahmad M. Rayton, 23, and Dominique J. McMillon, 20, all of Topeka, is scheduled to begin Monday and last two weeks.
Roberts is charged with three counts of murder from Oct. 1, 2017, when a fistfight, followed by close to 20 gunshots, broke out at 11th and Massachusetts streets at bar-closing time. Rayton and McMillon are charged with lesser crimes in connection with the incident, in which five people were shot in all.
Those who died were 22-year-old Leah Brown, of Shawnee; 20-year-old Colwin Lynn Henderson, of Topeka; and 24-year-old Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, of Topeka. The two men who were shot but survived also were from Topeka.
Earlier this week, Chaffee filed a motion to disqualify the prosecutors. She said they showed prejudice and acted improperly at the last motions hearing when they brought up an ethical question about her in open court.
On the eve of the Oct. 19 hearing, a Lawrence police detective was interviewing a potential witness in the case, a woman who knows Roberts. At one point, the woman said she needed to talk to “her attorney,” made a phone call, then said her attorney advised her not to talk to police.
Based on the woman’s comments, including referencing “Anthony’s attorney,” prosecutors questioned whether the woman called Chaffee and received legal advice.
Chaffee said at Thursday’s hearing that she was not the attorney the woman called. Chaffee said prosecutors asked her about the matter privately but were wrong to bring it up in front of the public and the press.
“The state had no good-faith basis to make these statements,” Chaffee said. “They are making misrepresentations to the court, they are making misrepresentations to the community. This is clear evidence of prosecutorial bias.”
Branson emphasized that upon Chaffee’s request, the open-court conversation was moved to the judge’s office and handled there.
“There was some confusion about whether or not Ms. Chaffee represented this person,” Branson said. “Frankly the state thought it was just a matter to be clarified.”
Branson said the state has a duty to ensure there’s no conflict of interest. He said a defendant’s attorney representing a witness could lead to a conviction being reversed.
“She has taken this as a personal matter and not a legal matter before the court,” Branson said of Chaffee’s attacks. He later elaborated, “I have become concerned, in Ms. Chaffee’s zeal, that she has presented plainly either a misunderstanding to the court or a misstatement.”
Pokorny said she would decide the motion to disqualify the prosecutors later, after listening to the detective’s recording of his conversation with the potential witness.
Friction between Chaffee and prosecutors was enough that another defense attorney used it as the basis for one final request to sever the trial instead of trying all three defendants jointly.
Calling Thursday’s courtroom interactions “cringeworthy at times,” Rayton’s appointed attorney Michael Clarke said he feared jurors would view the three clients and lawyers as a “defense team” instead of considering them — and their courtroom styles — separately.
J.C. Gilroy, appointed to represent McMillon, seconded Clarke’s arguments.
“Our concern is that the trial will proceed somewhat like the hearing did today,” Clarke said. “Obviously, things have become very contentious between Mr. Roberts’ counsel and the state. Quite frankly, I’m just concerned that that will continue.”
Clarke’s request failed.
Pokorny said she already seriously considered the severance issue before ruling on it the first time, months ago. She said she was confident local jurors would take instructions seriously, including considering each defendant separately.
Also on Thursday, the judge:
• Agreed to give Roberts a chance — during the trial but outside the presence of the jury — to show evidence that he acted in self-defense and as such should be immune from being prosecuted for the killings.
The Journal-World previously reported that Chaffee plans to argue self-defense. However, in another last-minute filing, she asked for a separate immunity hearing before the trial. Pokorny said it’s too late for that.
The judge reminded that she has the power to order the case dismissed at any time, if evidence shows Roberts should be immune from prosecution under Kansas law because he acted in self-defense.
• Allowed Roberts’ mother, who could be summoned to the stand, to be in the courtroom throughout the trial. Other witnesses are being sequestered.
• Allowed McMillon to be referred to by his street name, “Demon,” if necessary for witnesses who know him by that name to identify him.
• Announced beefed up measures for security and order in the court for the coming trial — which, based on previous hearings, is likely to be emotional and draw a large crowd.
No children under 10 are to be allowed in the courtroom. No cell phones or electronic devices are to be allowed except for trial attorneys and media with specific permission. Also prohibited are head-shaking and eye-rolling in response to testimony, “negative interaction” between spectators and greetings to defendants in court.