Judge: Release of documents in Jackson Co. cases

Evidence may discredit detectives as witnesses

By April M. Havens
The Mississippi Press

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) — A Jackson County judge has ordered District Attorney Tony Lawrence’s office to hand over evidence that could discredit several Jackson County Sheriff’s Department detectives as witnesses in criminal cases.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Krebs ordered this past week that defense attorneys should generally be allowed to view evidence regarding the character and conduct of detectives Linda Jones and Hope Thornton.

The order is part of the ongoing fallout from the case that crumbled against former Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan.

“Based upon information provided by the district attorney’s office, evidence exists, not connected to this particular case, that may have an impact on the credibility of Jones as a witness,” Krebs wrote in the July 11 order involving the state’s case against Lee Vernon Agee.

Agee is a 37-year-old Gautier man who is accused of an April 2010 sexual battery.

Jones, who is still employed by the department but now as a school resource officer, investigated the Agee case, the order said.

“Besides the information relevant to Jones, the court was also provided with information relating to Detective Hope Thornton,” the judge said. “None of this evidence provided is exculpatory for this defendant; however, there is evidence that could impact the credibility of certain witnesses in the trials of cases where these Detectives were involved in the investigation.”

Krebs said he is not ruling on the admissibility of the evidence, only whether or not the defense was entitled to view it.”

The information stems from Hagan’s case, Krebs said.

Hagan was arrested in 2011 on charges of improper touching of a child for lustful purposes, possession of child pornography and embezzlement.

A grand jury declined to indict Hagan on the improper touching and embezzlement charges, and prosecutors later dropped the child porn charge for lack of evidence. An order of expungement was signed on Hagan’s behalf on Jan. 13.

Thornton, who is still a detective for the department, was the lead investigator in the Hagan case.

In June, Hagan filed a lawsuit seeking $30 million in punitive and compensatory damages against the sheriff, several employees including Jones and Thornton, the county and its insurance carrier.

The suit, filed by defense attorney Adam Miller, alleges the sheriff and his department engaged in improper search and seizure, witness tampering, perjury, false arrest, malicious persecution, abuse of process, defamation, gross negligence and providing false information in sworn arrest affidavits and search warrants, among other allegations.

When other defense attorneys learned of Hagan’s case, they began requesting information from the district attorney on the character and conduct of the lead investigators. That’s when Lawrence and his office began filing motions to ask what — if any — information had to be turned over.

Rather than have a hearing on each case, Krebs issued a general order that is meant to address those cases and any similar case that crops up in the future.

Besides the Agee case, the Hagan case has sparked a domino effect of sorts that has reached at least three other cases investigated by Thornton and/or Jones.

One is against Scott Andrew Johnson, charged in 2010 on sexual battery of a child, and another is against Richard Dean Thompson, who was indicted in 2012 on six counts of exploitation of a child.

A third is against Wayne Arlen Goff, who was arrested in 2011 on two counts of enticement of a child.

After the Hagan case, the district attorney’s office conducted an investigation into wrongdoing by sheriff’s department, and the district attorney’s file on that investigation includes interviews with Thornton, Jones and other witnesses, expunged records and other records.

That file has the potential to affect the credibility of certain witnesses, according to court records.

The district attorney’s office has further noted that it has received additional allegations by defense attorneys, and it has at least one other transcript involving an unrelated case that includes allegations that sheriff’s department made misrepresentations.

“The United States Supreme Court has ruled that this type of information has to be brought to the court’s attention for judicial determination,” Lawrence said Monday. “The circuit court ruled that the information has to be provided to defense attorneys.”

Generally speaking, the judge said, the bulk of evidence provided by the district attorney’s office should be provided to defense attorneys in cases where either Jones or Thornton was involved.

“The court notes that portions of the information may be of a sensitive nature and is mindful that confidentiality may be an issue,” the judge said.

Confidentiality orders should be used with the release of any of the information, Krebs said and he directed the parties to prepare a confidentiality order for review and entry by the court.
“A similar order should be utilized in each case where this evidence should be turned over to defense counsel,” Krebs said in the order.

Last week, Sheriff Mike Byrd released a statement saying he takes “strong issue with the implication that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department has failed to perform its role as a law enforcement agency.”

He said he would never “allow those dedicated law enforcement officers who work with me and under me and who place their life on the line daily to be deterred in their efforts to investigate possible criminal activity because of threats of civil or criminal litigation.”