San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 24th, 2009
Shipman controversy based on ‘groundless accusations’

GUEST COMMENTARY by MARK D. KIMBALL

On Aug. 14, Shawn Nathan Shipman entered pleas of guilty to two cases of Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity and one case of Possession with Intent to Deliver a Dangerous Drug, all state jail felonies. Mr. Shipman received 498 days confinement in a state jail facility as punishment, with credit for time served. The defendant waived appeal, and acknowledged that his convictions (the punishments for which will run concurrently) were not subject to any collateral attack in any court. Quite simply, the matter has been put to rest. This plea ends what has been, in my opinion, a needlessly controversial subject matter of much debate among the citizens of Hays County and has extended across much of the State of Texas.

Mr. Shipman’s guilt during this controversy was never in question. The investigation conducted by the Hays County Narcotics Task Force was thorough and professional, and established clear and serious violations of the law. Mr. Shipman had, in fact, already pled guilty before seeking a new trial, and was given the sentence agreed to both then and now.

The controversy was based in what I believe to be groundless accusations of prosecutorial misconduct against Chris Johnson of the Hays County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, and groundless accusations against Investigator Laray Taylor of the Narcotics Task Force. These accusations arose, initially, from what appears to have been a faulty and incomplete factual and legal analysis by former Assistant District Attorney Lynn Peach.

I am an attorney with well over 22 years of prosecution experience. I was appointed by the court to represent the State of Texas. I did not work for District Attorney Sherri Tibbe and had never met her or any of her staff before accepting the assignment. I had no ties with any Hays County law enforcement agencies, and did not know any of the officers involved. I had complete authority to dispose of the cases before me in any manner I saw fit. During the pendency of the disposition of these cases, no one made any attempt to influence my independent role in this prosecution.

In my independent professional opinion, there was absolutely no misconduct on the part of either Mr. Johnson or Investigator Taylor, or on the part of any member of their respective organizations. Had I found even the hint of misconduct, I would not have hesitated to dismiss the cases against Mr. Shipman, and to refer the matter to appropriate agencies to further investigate the persons suspected of any misconduct. It is my fervent belief that any defendant is entitled to due process by honest officials before being denied their liberty. Such is the case here. Mr. Shipman was treated more than fairly, with the strictest adherence to professional standards.

The court, in ruling on the writ of habeas corpus alleging misconduct, found against Mr. Shipman on all material issues, and denied any relief. Though it had been represented in court by Chevo Pastrano that the defense would brief salient issues in support of its position, no brief was ever submitted. Further, though it was represented that the denial of the writ would be appealed, no appeal was ever filed. I find such a lack of response on the part of the defense to be quite telling.

Some have questioned the motivation of Ms. Peach and/or Mr. Pastrano behind the actions they took, but I refuse to speculate on such motivation, and render no opinion here. No matter what motivation — political, personal, legal or otherwise — one may have in the course of representing a client, whether the defendant or the state, such motives neither enhance nor diminish the quality and merit of legal and factual analysis. Simply put, one may do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason. Hopefully, a lawyer will do the right thing for the right reason. In Mr. Shipman’s case, no matter what the motive — good or bad — things could have gone very badly for the defendant, had he gone to trial. Mr. Shipman was, in fact, facing two to twenty years in the penitentiary on one case, because of his prior criminal record.

Fortunately, David Watts, Mr. Shipman’s primary counsel, and I were able to resolve these cases amicably and fairly. I deeply appreciate Mr. Watts’s restraint from adding to the “battle of the press.” I hope those who wonder about the silence of the prosecution understand that any member of the prosecution is strictly prohibited from discussing the facts of a case in the press while litigation is pending. Mr. Watts represented his client zealously within the bounds of the law, as is required. He and I may have differing opinions on some of the issues involved in the case. Lawyers often differ and may argue their respective positions vigorously, but such argument need be neither personal nor acrimonious. Fortunately, because cooler heads prevailed, Mr. Shipman did not suffer because of the controversy.

Ms. Tibbe and her staff have proven to me that they are consummate professionals, motivated only to “do justice”. Ms. Tibbe bent over backward to ensure that Mr. Shipman received every possible benefit of the doubt, by recusing her office from the case. The actions of Investigator Taylor and his team were, likewise, thoroughly professional. I was struck by the depth of the investigation, how every lead was followed, and how every bit of information received was thoroughly corroborated before Mr. Shipman’s arrest.

Public officials receive varying levels of public scrutiny regarding their conduct, and this is perfectly acceptable. Public officials should be held accountable for every decision made in the public interest.

An informed citizenry watching over the actions of public servants is essential to the proper administration of criminal justice. Public criticism, however, should be avoided without a thorough knowledge of the facts, as well as the law involved. To attack the credibility and reputation of a public servant without such information, or because of faulty information, is grossly unfair. I encourage the good people of Hays County to go to court — it’s always open to the public — to watch their public officials at work. I am sure all who do so will find the justice system quite different from Hollywood, and will come to appreciate more the hard work and dedication that goes into an often thankless job.

MARK D KIMBALL is a former Bell County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Shipman after Hay County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe recused her office from the case.

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One thought on “Shipman controversy based on ‘groundless accusations’

  1. Thank you Mr. Kimble for cleaning up our local mess. It is ashame someone from 100 miles away has to come in and prove what most of us knew all along….nothing illegal was done. Period. As I have said all along, this was nothing but a political attack on DA Tibbe from the start. The directors of this slanderous attack tried to take down two dedicated public servants by misleading, misrepresenting and outright lying in an attempt to make the DA’s office look bad. Peach was nothing but a pawn who was not smart or quick enough to see what was happening.

    I seem to remember Peach being very vocal in the local media about the prosecutorial and police misconduct when this started….ie…”holy smokes…he must be lying.” I also seem to remember Jim Green and other local Republican leaders in the courtroom when Watts and Peach put on their first show. Although Green later said he was there because he was “interested” in the justice system and the other was there because he is a lawyer, I will bet neither was there when Shipman plead guilty again on Aug. 14. Any takers?

    In all seriousness, it is a shame our community had to go through this for all the wrong reasons. I am reassured that justice and the truth prevailed in the end. I am also glad Shipman did not suffer a much longer prison sentence just because of the games his attorneys played. They literally gambled with a mans life, liberty and freedom and that is a shame.

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