Last week a hearing convened in the matter of the disciplinary complaint filed against former Howard County Prosecutor James Fleming. Even though a final ruling has yet to be made, the hearing officer presiding over the case closed the hearing by casting doubt on the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission’s case.
The hearing stemmed from a disciplinary complaint filed by the state commissioner in October last year that centered on payments made by Kokomo Police Department officers and Fleming, who was the prosecutor at the time, to Launden Luckett, the star witness of the Abby Rethlake murder trials of 2010.
Those payments, made to Luckett in prison after the trials, as well as the prosecutor’s role in relocating Luckett’s girlfriend prior to the trials, never were disclosed to the defense counsels or juries. The state argued Luckett had been promised the payments and his girlfriend’s relocation in exchange for his testimony well before appearing before a jury.
During last week’s hearing, Fleming’s defense focused on the fact that no payments were made to Luckett prior to his trial testimonies. Funds paid to Luckett originated from a $10,000 reward fund established after the murder in the hopes of coaxing out information that could procure arrests for the crime. The defense also argued Luckett wasn’t aware the prosecutor’s office relocated his girlfriend, Cecily Dickey, prior to the trials, and as such, the matter couldn’t be an inducement for testimony.
Multiple witnesses called during the hearing, including Fleming and KPD Detective Michael Banush, testified that the funding paid to Luckett was not promised prior to the 2010 trials. Fleming’s defense attorney, James Bell, claimed this notion was backed by bank records indicating Luckett never received payment prior to testimony.
Instead of being an inducement, as the state claimed, the decision was made to pay Luckett after he helped Fleming secure guilty convictions against Jessie Harris Jr. and Michael Yates, said Fleming. The only plea deal he received, claimed Fleming, was a more lenient sentence, downgraded from attempted murder to aggravated battery in relation to his actions as a second shooter in the 2010 murder.
That left a deposition of Luckett, performed by the state, as the sole evidence that he was promised payment from the reward fund prior to the 2010 trials of Harris and Yates. Luckett claimed this in a deposition conducted as part of the commission’s investigation.
The defense spent time detailing their relationship with Luckett and said they came to believe the shooter-turned-snitch intended to turn his life around after his reduced sentence to prison was completed. They hoped the money would help “the gangster” turn his life around to focus on his artistic abilities.
A shooter in the murder, although not the one responsible for firing the fatal shot in the gang-related shooting, Luckett became Fleming’s star witness in the trials. Being present for the shooting, testified Fleming and Banush, Luckett knew precisely how the murder occurred, allowing for successful prosecution. As such, he had earned the reward money for helping officers solve the murder, which went unresolved for some time.
With only Luckett’s word to prove he had received a deal prior to testimony, Fleming’s defense spent time during the hearing stacking the convicted felon’s word against that of Fleming and Banush’s.
At the conclusion of last week’s hearing, the Indiana Supreme Court’s appointed hearing officer said the state hadn’t presented much of a case.
“I don’t think you’ve made a case,” said Robert Reiling Jr., the hearing officer. “Your case is relying on a convicted felon. It just doesn’t carry much weight.”
What’s left to consider, said Reiling, was the matter of Dickey’s relocation, which also was paid for out of the Rethlake reward fund and occurred prior to the trial. That move, said the defense, was to ensure Dickey’s safety during the trials, but the state argued her move constituted an inducement.
Fleming claimed during last week’s hearing that Dickey had received threats because of Luckett’s decision to testify and that she was subsequently moved with funds gathered through three checks cut from the reward fund.
“I didn’t want them to intimidate Luckett and give him cold feet,” said Fleming.
However, the defense claimed Dickey’s relocation couldn’t serve as an inducement since Fleming ensured Luckett wasn’t aware of his girlfriend’s move.
While the hearing officer expressed misgivings about the state’s case, the matter wasn’t formally resolved yet.
The state’s attorney, Julie Bennett, requested to submit a written closing argument for the case. She also requested a transcript prior to preparing her closing.
As such, the transcript first must be typed out, and then once it’s delivered, Bennett will have 30 days to complete her closing. Once that is submitted to Reiling, both parties will prepare a written findings of fact and conclusions of law, along with supporting memorandums of law. Reiling will submit his findings to the state Supreme Court, which will make a final ruling on the alleged violations of Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct. Those include four relating to Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4 (b), which states a lawyer shall not “falsify evidence, counsel, or assist a witness to testify falsely, or offer an inducement to a witness that is prohibited by law.”
Two other violations relate to Indiana Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 (d). That rule states it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”