On Her Case

She stood by the bailiff, arms folded, nostrils in full flair, obviously incensed that she essentially had been arrested and forced to appear in court. But her detention last Friday was not for complicity in the murder that put her husband behind bars for life. It was not for her alleged role as the masked blond accomplice who, according to prosecutors, angrily demanded that her husband again shoot her former employee Marisa Hierro as she lay maimed by a shotgun blast.

Notorious Dallas attorney Catherine Shelton, who denies any part in the attack that left Hierro wounded and her husband dead, was detained because she failed to answer a subpoena that requested she bring the contents of a former client's file to court. To encourage Shelton's attendance, criminal defense attorney Brook Busbee, who now represents Shelton's client, convinced Judge Harold Entz to issue a "writ of attachment" directing law enforcement officers to hold Shelton as a material witness.

Law enforcement seemed only too happy to oblige.

Security guards at Frank Crowley courthouse were on a Shelton alert, radioing each other throughout the morning to make certain the attorney would not escape their attention.

She was finally detained April 6 outside a sixth-floor courtroom and was later ordered to return for a 1:30 p.m. hearing. Attending the afternoon proceeding were a dozen onlookers, whom Shelton began to quiz.

"Are you a witness against me? Are you a witness?" But her examination ceased as visiting Judge Thomas Thorpe entered the courtroom. His job would be to ferret out whether Shelton had been guilty of any unseemly conduct toward her former client Nathaniel Reeves, who was charged with indecency with a child.

Busbee claims that Shelton is vindictively withholding evidence of Reeves' innocence because he filed a grievance against her for inadequately representing him. Shelton has in her files one or more letters or diary entries from the alleged victim that reveal that the victim trumped up the charges against him, Busbee contends. The victim's mother (Reeves' former girlfriend) allegedly gave Shelton these documents to assist Reeves in his defense. Understandably, Busbee now wants Shelton to produce them. "After my client filed the grievance, she [Shelton] confronted him in the courthouse and told him he would never get his evidence," Busbee says.

During last Friday's hearing, however, Shelton told Judge Thorpe, "I do not have anything that she [Busbee] is asking for...All I have is the confidential grievance files." Thorpe continued the hearing until April 11, at which time Judge Entz was scheduled to hear testimony. Shelton did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Although the State Bar of Texas determined that Reeves' original grievance was unfounded, Shelton's problems with the Bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline neither began nor ended with him. The Bar suspended Shelton's law license from 1983-1988 after she received a probated sentence for shooting a former boyfriend ("One Crazy Lawyer," January 13, 2000).

In 1998, Shelton again encountered disciplinary problems after three clients complained she had done little to represent them--other than charging $10,000 in legal fees. Shelton and the commission reached an agreement in these cases: Her license was suspended for six months. But if a Dallas court finds merit in the commission's latest disciplinary petition, the state Bar will be hard-pressed to be so lenient again.

The disciplinary commission accuses Shelton of 19 counts of misconduct toward her clients, who each paid Shelton "unconscionable" fees to represent them on "immigration matters" despite Shelton not being "competent to handle such cases." For one of these clients Shelton performed "no meaningful legal services," claims the commission; for the other 18, she performed "no legal services" at all. The petition further alleges that Shelton permitted "non-lawyer assistants" to handle these cases without supervision.

What the petition does not allege is the bizarre relationship between Shelton and one of her non-lawyer assistants, Marisa Hierro, who ran Shelton's immigration practice out of Shelton's law office. Hierro's decision to leave Shelton and begin her own "immigration consulting business" provided Dallas prosecutors with the motive they needed to convict Shelton's husband, Clint, of shooting Hierro and murdering her husband ("Catch Me If You Can," November 30). According to the prosecution's theory of the case, the Sheltons decided to kill Marisa because she had taken away much of Catherine's profitable immigration business, which gave false hope at high prices to desperate undocumented immigrants. Prosecutors, however, have never been able to muster enough evidence even to indict Shelton.

That Shelton lays blame for her disciplinary troubles on Hierro is clear from the July 1999 letter Shelton's attorney Steven Lee wrote to the state Bar, denying Shelton had any "substantive, firsthand knowledge" of the misdeeds that were occurring in her office. Lee paints Hierro as a rogue employee who stole files and clients from Shelton and then had the chutzpah to charge these same clients $75 to process grievance claims against her former boss.

Hierro could not be reached for a response.

"The question for a judge or jury," Lee now says, "is really going to be what responsibility a lawyer has for misconduct that occurs in her office."

But even if Shelton did not participate in that misconduct, she was still obliged to supervise her staff and make reasonable efforts to ensure they weren't incompetent. "This is one of the few rules where lawyers can be deemed unethical based on negligence," says Professor Fred Moss, who teaches legal ethics at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law. "They can't turn a blind eye or engage in willful ignorance."

Even Shelton acknowledged she was derelict in the way she managed Hierro--or didn't. "I am guilty of negligence," she told the Dallas Observer ("Reasonable Doubt?" March 30, 2000). "But a really good lawyer, a sharp lawyer would have known. I bankrolled her. I fed the bad dog. That's how bad I was...I got her up and running. I gave her status."

Shelton certainly participated in at least one aspect of her immigration practice: fee collection. The Observer has in its possession a copy of a letter signed by Shelton that demands payment of an overdue legal bill from an immigration client.

But Lee maintains that the Bar should not sanction Shelton because she did not order, encourage or permit the wrongful acts of the non-lawyers working under her. The commission, however, believes that Shelton was at a minimum reckless in her oversight.

To prosecute what may become a contentious, high-profile case, the state Bar has retained Dallas attorney Chris Weil, who one local lawyer calls "the most intimidating, calculating lawyer at the courthouse."

"We are still in the preliminary stages," Weil says. "But every indication is that if the underlying complaints are demonstrated as true, Ms. Shelton should not be allowed to continue the practice of law."

Busbee couldn't agree more, and she will attempt to prove to Judge Entz that Shelton has either destroyed or is withholding evidence that might exonerate Reeves.

"Let's assume the letters exist and Shelton says she lost them--that may be incompetence," Professor Moss says. "If it is proven that she destroyed them, that might be a gross ethical violation since lawyers must never do anything to harm even a former client's case."

Perhaps that's why the Bar has expressed some interest in the proceedings, phoning Judge Entz's clerk to inquire about it. Of course, for Reeves, it may be too little too late.

"Ironically, this man caused all his problems by turning to the state Bar for help," Busbee says. "It's nightmarish that someone licensed to practice law would behave this way."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald