In last-minute filing, Mass. Street triple murder defendant wants DA disqualified from upcoming trial

photo by: Ashley Hocking

The three men charged in an October 2017 triple homicide on Massachusetts Street — from left, Anthony L. Roberts Jr., Ahmad M. Rayton and Dominique J. McMillon — listen to testimony Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, during the second day of a preliminary hearing. Seated between Roberts and Rayton is Roberts' attorney, Jennifer Chaffee.

With the triple murder trial against him scheduled to start in a matter of days, defendant Anthony L. Roberts Jr. is making some last-minute requests.

One of those is for the presiding judge to kick Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson off the case, along with Chief Assistant District Attorney David Melton.

Roberts’ attorney, Jennifer Chaffee, filed a motion this week accusing the DAs of “prosecutorial misconduct” for raising questions about her in court that led to a private conference with the judge and then a hallway confrontation earlier this month.

The DAs, in their written response, said there’s no reason to disqualify them and that those courtroom questions were spurred by “a serious ethical concern” about Chaffee’s connection with a potential witness.

Judge Sally Pokorny is scheduled to decide the matter, among other pretrial issues, Thursday afternoon.

The trial for 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 broke out followed by close to 20 gunshots at 11th and Massachusetts streets at bar-closing time. Roberts’ co-defendants are charged with lesser crimes in connection with the incident, in which five people were shot in all.

Here’s what led to Chaffee’s complaint:

Lawrence police continue to investigate the case, and on the eve of an Oct. 19 hearing Detective M.T. Brown interviewed a “prospective witness,” Melton said at that hearing, which the Journal-World attended.

The detective told prosecutors that the woman being interviewed halted their conversation, told him she needed to consult “her attorney,” made a phone call, then told him her attorney advised her not to talk to police, Melton said. That attorney, Melton said, was Chaffee.

A defendant’s attorney giving “legal advice” to a potential witness in a murder case would be an ethical concern, Melton said.

Asked by the judge, Chaffee said she did know the woman — who was also in the courtroom, seated with supporters of the defendants. However, Chaffee said she was not the woman’s attorney and did not tell her not to talk to police.

Chaffee then complained that the discussion “was starting to feel like some sort of disciplinary hearing” and asked for it to be moved behind closed doors. It was, and there was no further discussion in the courtroom.

After leaving the judge’s office, Chaffee confronted Branson in the hall, told him he should withdraw from the case, then left the building.

Chaffee later wrote that the prosecutors should be disqualified because they have a personal interest impairing their ability to act impartially. She said they made an “improper attack” on her character, after mentioning the issue to her privately shortly beforehand but failing to provide her with the recording of the interview.

“The State then went back to the hearing and on the record in open court, with media and a large audience, claimed they had reason to be concerned that defense counsel was violating the rules of ethics against conflicts,” Chaffee wrote. “This is a serious accusation … the State was just attempting to cause prejudice.”

In his written response, Branson said the recording wasn’t available then because the interview had just happened. He said the recording — which police have since provided — backed up the state’s questions.

“The fact that the witness repeatedly references defense counsel as ‘my attorney’ and refuses to provide certain information without her advice and consultation certainly raises questions about the nature of the relationship,” Branson wrote. “…there is no reason to believe that the prosecutors in this case abdicated their responsibilities to be evenhanded and objective.”

Those slain in the shootings 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.

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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