The Indiana Supreme Court suspended a former Porter County deputy prosecutor from the practice of law for 18 months for withholding from the defense evidence that an alleged victim said he had been coached to lie and had recanted allegations of child molestation.
Trista Hudson was fired in May 2017 by Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel for failing to reveal that one of two victims fabricated at least part of the accusations against Eric Knowles. Knowles was charged in 2013 with five counts of child molestation, and Hudson prosecuted a Class A felony count against him in 2016 in which the Disciplinary Commission charges “there was no credible evidence.”
Knowles was acquitted after being held without bail for three years. After learning of Hudson’s alleged failure to disclose the false testimony to the defense, then-Porter Superior Judge William Alexa said he would refer the matter to the Disciplinary Commission.
The commission charged Hudson with violating Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 3.8(a), 3.8(d), and 8.4(d) when she put an alleged victim on the stand to testify after the child recanted the accusation against Knowles, his stepfather.
Hudson was also accused of making false statements in reply to the Commission’s investigation, violating Rules 8.1(a) and 8.4(c). The commission found that a colleague in the Porter County prosecutor’s office agreed with Hudson’s strategy for dealing with the witness’s recantation and allegations of coaching “is knowingly false.” The hearing officer concluded that the commission had not met its burden of proving the charges by clear and convincing evidence.
Hudson sought the high court’s review of the hearing officer’s conclusions that she violated Rules 3.8(d) and 8.4(d).
In the count involving Rule 3.8(a), Hudson conceded that she violated the rule, but attempted to cast her violation as a “formal” one, in that one the child molesting count was technically was left “in the case” as Knowles’ trial commenced but otherwise was abandoned by the prosecution.
“The hearing officer did not agree with this reductive view, nor do we,” the high court wrote in the Wednesday per curium order. “Respondent gave no indication that Count II was being abandoned when the court reviewed with counsel the proposed preliminary instructions (which included an instruction on the Count II charge), nor did she do so when those instructions were given to the jury orally and in writing.”
The high court noted that immediately after the preliminary instructions were given to the jury, Hudson told the jury in her opening statement that “[a]t the end of the evidence . . . I will ask you to find this Defendant guilty in what he is charged with, the four counts of child molesting.”
Next, Hudson admitted she failed to disclose E.C.’s recantation to the defense, but she argued that Rule 3.8(d) did not require her to do so. She contended that E.C.’s recantation was merely impeachment evidence, which Rule 3.8(d) does not encompass.
The high court disagreed, noting that Rule 3.8(d) requires timely disclosure of “all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused” and that under the circumstances, the recantation was not impeachment evidence.
“…in a case in which all remaining counts likewise were founded entirely upon reports made by Defendant’s two stepchildren, we find it very difficult to characterize direct evidence that the stepchildren’s father successfully coached at least one of them to lie about what Defendant had done as mere impeachment,” the high court wrote.
Finally, Hudson argued her conduct was not “prejudicial to the administration of justice” within the meaning of Rule 8.4(d), but the high court disagreed. Hudson contended Knowles was never actually at risk of conviction of Count II, notwithstanding its inclusion in the trial, because Respondent elicited no evidence to support that count. She also argued the trial court “overreacted” in entering judgment of acquittal on all four counts and instead should have taken less drastic remedial action.
“Even assuming that the trial court had other options within its discretion to exercise, we are not inclined to shift culpability for the prejudicial effects of an attorney’s misconduct onto the court forced to take remedial action to address that misconduct,” the high court concluded.
The justices ultimately found that Hudson violated Rules 3.8(a), 3.8(d), and 8.4(d) in In the Matter of Trista A. Hudson, 64S00-1705-DI-325. Thus, the justices imposed an 18-month suspension without automatic reinstatement, effective October 10.
At the end of the 18-month period, Hudson can petition for reinstatement if she pays the costs of the proceeding, fulfills the duties of a suspended attorney and satisfies the requirements for reinstatement under Indiana Admission and Discipline Rule 23(18).