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GA Supreme Court Reverses Molestation Case Due to D.A. Conflict

August 4, 2014

In McLaughlin v. Payne, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the grant of a writ of habeas corpus, holding that where the elected District Attorney was disqualified from prosecuting a case due to a conflict of interest, all of his assistant district attorneys were disqualified as well.

In 2006, Payne was convicted in Douglas County Superior Court on two counts of aggravated child molestation, three counts of child molestation, and one count of cruelty to children. At trial, the Douglas County District Attorney appeared as a witness for the State. He identified himself as the district attorney and the prosecuting attorney as his assistant. He testified that his daughter was a classmate of the alleged victim, and that his daughter had told him what she heard about the alleged crimes. The D.A. participated in an interview with Payne during the first few days of the investigation. He then removed himself from the investigation after realizing that he would likely be a witness at trial.

Prior to trial, Payne’s defense attorney moved to disqualify the entire Douglas County District Attorney’s Office from acting in the case on the grounds that the D.A. was serving as a witness against Payne at trial. The motion cited Rule 3.7(a) of the State Bar of Georgia’s Rules of Professional Conduct which states that “[a] lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness except where: (1) the testimony relates to an uncontested issue; (2) the testimony relates to the nature and value of legal services rendered in the case; or (3) disqualification of the lawyer would work substantial hardship on the client.”

The trial court denied the motion and, following an unsuccessful appeal, Payne filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The habeas court granted the petition and held that the entire District Attorney’s office should have been disqualified from prosecuting the case.

The Georgia Supreme Court has previously stated that “a Georgia district attorney is of counsel in all criminal cases or matters pending in his circuit. This includes the investigatory stages of matters preparatory to the seeking of an indictment as well as the pendency of the case.” If a prosecutor has a conflict in a case, the conflict can be grounds for a new trial.

The Court held that the habeas court’s finding that the D.A. had a personal interest in the case was supported by the record. The D.A. testified that he was very close to his daughter, that his conversation with her regarding the alleged crimes was “very troubling” and that his daughter’s concern caused him to pay particular attention to the situation.

The Court held that “when the district attorney is wholly disqualified from a case, the assistant district attorneys – whose only power to prosecute a case is derived from the constitutional authority of the district attorney who appointed them – have no authority to proceed.” The Court cited O.C.G.A. § 15-18-5(a), which states that when a district attorney is disqualified because of an interest or relationship, he shall notify the Attorney General, who will appoint another district attorney, solicitor-general, or other competent attorney to serve as prosecutor for that particular case. The Court held that the assistant D.A. who prosecuted the case acted under the authority of the elected D.A., and that the D.A.’s conflict of interest in the case removed that authority.

As a result, the habeas court reversed Payne’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

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