HANNIBAL, Mo. — Marion County judge Holly Conger-Koenig ruled Monday afternoon that Luke Bryant, prosecuting attorney for Marion County, must be recused and Alex Ellison, prosecuting attorney in Pike County (Mo.), has been appointed as special prosecuting attorney in the case against Hannibal attorney Tyler White.
Conger-Koenig listened to testimony provided Friday afternoon in Marion County Circuit Court and took the weekend to review caselaw provided by Bryant and Mark Williams, White’s attorney, before issuing her decision. The ruling also recuses Garreth Cooksey, assistant prosecuting attorney for Marion County.
Ellison had been added to the case by Bryant as co-counsel before Friday’s hearing. Bryant said he will appeal the decision to the Eastern District Appellate Court.
White, 31, was charged in June by Bryant with attempting to tamper with a victim in a felony prosecution, a Class D felony, after allegedly offering a victim $4,000 not to testify against one of his clients in connection with an April 10 incident.
White also is running against John Jackson in the Republican primary on Tuesday, Aug. 2. The 10th Judicial Circuit covers Marion, Ralls and Monroe counties.
In the motion filed July 25 to recuse Bryant and Cooksey from the case, Williams referred to letters sent to White — none were signed, and none had a return address — in May 2019 telling him to “get a different job and to get out of town” and that he was “f***ed.” Williams said White received another unsigned letter in July 2019 referring to a photo on Instagram involving a case that White was defending.
Williams noted Bryant has filed three complaints with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel against White. One was filed June 10 alleging White violated election laws in his campaign.
“It is clear that (Bryant) has a personal interest in the outcome of the upcoming primary that will decide who is the next associate circuit judge,” Williams wrote. “Should (White) prevail, (Bryant) will have to work closely with (White). … It would be disingenuous for (Bryant) to say he could work closely with a judge for whom he has filed not less than three ethical complaints.”
During Friday’s hearing, Bryant took the witness stand and answered questions from Williams about his professional relationship with White, when he learned Jackson was going to run for re-election as a judge and if he knew filing charges against White would have an impact on his position as a candidate for judge in the eyes of the public.
“This is not the first time you’ve filed a complaint against the defendant with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel … is that correct?” Williams asked.
When Ellison objected, Williams said, “This goes to some of the things that (White is) going against and whether or not this defendant is going to receive a fair shake in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.”
Bryant said he has filed complaints and reports on White with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in June. He also said he hasn’t failed any reports or complaints against other attorneys.
Williams later asked Bryant, “If you feel that you have no personal interest in this matter and can fairly prosecute Mr. White, why do you have co-counsel here today?”
“To object to your questions,” Bryant replied.
“But you just presented to the court prior to this hearing that (Ellison is going to) be co-counsel for the entirety of this case. Why?” Williams said.
“Because I did my research on you, and we’ve heard you like to flood prosecutors with
various motions,” Bryant said. “I figured it’d be easier to have co-counsel help me through that.”
White later took the stand, telling Williams no other attorney except Bryant has filed a complaint about him to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
Williams asked White, “Do you feel that you will get a fair trial on this matter from the Marion County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office based on all the facts?”
White replied, “Absolutely not.”
While Williams alleged Bryant filed his charges to sway the Aug. 2 election, Conger-Koenig wrote in her opinion no such evidence was presented.
“The issue to this court is the complaints to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel,” she wrote.
Conger-Koenig wrote Bryant may not have a personal bias against White, “but to a reasonable person, the procedure would appear to be unfair because of Mr. Bryant’s commitments to his (law) license and elected position.”
“The judicial system is to be transparent to ensure the public has trust within the system,” the judge wrote. “In the same token, a prosecuting attorney must appear to be unbiased to a reasonable person so as to not jeopardize society’s confidence within our judicial system.”
She made a reference to 2015 ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court in State v. Lemasters: “This court must pursue fairness both in the law’s substance and in its appearance.”
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