Can I Get a Witness?

The District Attorney's Office gets the right guy for the wrong reason.

With Brewer, the police had their eyewitness--or so they thought. Still, they were going to need more. Soon, detectives would have some circumstantial evidence to bolster their case. Schawana Johnson, who would later marry the gunman, gave a statement to a Dallas detective two days after Red's murder. It was pretty damning. She echoed Brewer's story recalling that her boyfriend wanted to "beat Red up" because he made off with his crack. She told the detective how they fled after the killing, with a sobbing Freeman admitting "shooting at Red."

Finally, yet another witness told police that Freeman incriminated himself in the shooting. She said that Freeman called her at 3:30 in the morning and asked her "what the word was." She told him that she heard he killed Red. He replied, "It wasn't supposed to go down like that." Then he started to cry.

A 1998 graduate of Texas Tech University School of Law, Shelley Hallman has a reputation for being a tenacious, hard-working prosecutor; her competitive style, however, has antagonized some of her courtroom adversaries. Since she first began prosecuting drunk-driving cases seven years ago following a short stint at a commercial litigation firm, Hallman has steadily ascended the ranks at the District Attorney's Office. She has prosecuted various felony child abuse cases along with aggravated sexual assaults and homicides. Affable, even to her detractors, the young brunette married felony trial bureau chief Toby Shook not long after he won the Republican nomination for district attorney last March.
Professor Bennett L. Gershman says the more he thinks about Corey Freeman's case, the madder he gets.
Professor Bennett L. Gershman says the more he thinks about Corey Freeman's case, the madder he gets.
Toby Shook rallies supporters as he wins the Republican nomination for Dallas County district attorney.
Toby Shook rallies supporters as he wins the Republican nomination for Dallas County district attorney.

Although her supervisors have given her laudatory performance evaluations year after year, Hallman became the talk of the courthouse not long ago when she wound up testifying in her own trial. In 2004, Hallman won the conviction of a man named Christopher Davis on a vehicular manslaughter charge. During sentencing, the defense attorney had the defendant's brother James Carter testify that Davis would be a good candidate for probation. In cross-examination, Hallman asked Carter if he knew that his brother had been charged with aggravated sexual assault in assisting others in a rape, a pointed but fair question designed to weaken the brother's credibility. In fact, the rape case was dismissed, but Hallman explained the reason in a follow-up question to Carter.

"And did you know that the [accuser] did not go forth with these charges because she was so scared?"

The defense attorney's objection to the question was sustained. Then the jury was excused, and defense attorney Robert Burns complained about the question, saying that it was very prejudicial. "There's certainly a skunk in the jury box," he argued.

Hallman's question had the effect of depicting the defendant as having intimidated the woman he was accused of helping rape. So what if the charge was dismissed? Christopher Davis and his friends scared her into dropping the case, Hallman said in essence.

District Judge Mary Miller asked Hallman if it was her understanding that the case was dismissed because the victim was scared.

"Yes, judge, that's my understanding is that the victim did not want to go forward and prosecute because she was afraid."

Then Hallman reviewed the file, which noted that the victim, after having no-showed a couple of times in scheduled meetings with the District Attorney's Office, decided that she did not want to testify. There was no mention of the victim being afraid.

The next day, in an unusual move, the judge allowed Burns to question Hallman on the stand. There, she admitted that nowhere in the file does it say the victim "did not want to testify because she was scared." In fact, there was nothing in the file explaining why the victim was unwilling to testify, prompting the defense counsel to remark to Hallman that when she asked the pointed question of his witness, "you were essentially making that up."

Hallman could not give any specific reasons why she thought the victim was afraid to testify. "That was my good faith basis, not based on facts, but based on my good faith belief...based on my experience in handling other aggravated sexual assault cases and victims, adults and children, that when a case is dismissed, when they don't want to testify, it's because they are scared," she said in an obvious generalization.

The defense counsel later argued to the judge that Hallman's questions poisoned the jury.

"I think my client has been severely damaged in front of this jury by the blatantly incorrect insinuations made by the prosecutor, you know, obviously to prejudice a jury against my client, to make the jury think my client is a rapist, and it's false, and those insinuations are highly prejudicial."

Later, Miller said that she never would have allowed those questions to be asked in the first place had she had the full information at the time. Saying that the court "can't unring a bell," she granted a mistrial. Prosecutors later offered the defendant a plea of 10 years' probation.

Two law professors who have reviewed transcripts of this case were troubled by Hallman's examination of the witness. Jancy Hoeffel, a former public defender and associate professor of criminal law at Tulane Law School, says that Hallman's most egregious error was not in failing to study the file on the rape charge. That happens, she says. But Hoeffel says the prosecutor had no reason to ask the question about the supposed victim being afraid to testify. "You can't guess. If all they have on the first page is that she dropped the charges, it's an unfair question to ask, 'Well, didn't they drop the charges because they were scared?'" she says.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help