The sexual assault trial of former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman, set to begin Monday, was postponed after the judge in the case recused himself in the face of complaints by the defense, allowing a new judge to take his place.
Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court removed himself from the case after Oakman’s attorneys filed a recusal motion Monday, alleging that Strother met improperly last week with prosecutors and unsealed records without consulting the defense. Strother had met with defense attorneys in August and agreed to seal the records in question, which include medical information from Baylor Scott & White Medical Center.
“These improper actions have operated to deny the defendant’s rights to due process and due course of law, his right to counsel, his right to effective assistance of counsel, his right to present a defense and his right of confrontation,” states the motion from defense attorneys Alan Bennett and Jessi Freud. Oakman’s attorneys also filed a motion Monday to disqualify the prosecutors in the case, Robert Moody and Gabe Price, who met with Strother on Feb. 20.
Strother’s recusal came just before jury selection was to begin in the trial at 10:30 a.m. Monday. Jurors were told late Monday morning to report back at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in hopes that the trial can proceed.
Strother sent notification of his recusal to Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, presiding judge of the Third Administrative Judicial Region, who late Monday appointed Retired State District Judge Mike Snipes of Dallas to preside over the case. Snipes is scheduled to hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to consider the motion to disqualify the prosecutors.
If Snipes denies the motion, jury selection in Oakman’s case likely will begin later in the day, court officials said.
Strother, who declined comment on his recusal, was subpoenaed by the defense to testify at Tuesday morning’s hearing. Two of Strother’s staff members were subpoenaed by the state.
Oakman’s attorneys on Monday also filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Oakman, who is accused of sexually assaulting a Baylor student at his apartment in April 2016, after his record-setting football career at Baylor was over. He has said he and the woman previously dated and that they had a consensual sexual encounter.
The motion to dismiss alleges that the defense’s right to prepare for trial without state intrusion and the attorney-work product doctrine have been violated.
Later Monday, prosecutors filed an answer to the defense motion to disqualify Moody and Price, along with prosecutor Hilary LaBorde, who was not in the alleged ex parte meeting with Strother.
Price alleges in the motion that he and Moody never spoke to the judge about the facts of the case, only that they brought what they perceived to be “an irregularity” to the judge’s attention for his review. They said the decision to unseal the records “was made solely by the judge.”
The state’s answer said that on Feb. 20, defense attorneys filed several subpoena requests for custodians of records seeking their testimony in court.
“Those subpoenas did not correspond with any subpoenas duces tecum (document-based subpoenas) that were in the clerk’s records and therefore they were unusual,” Price wrote in the answer. “The state contacted subpoenaed custodians and inquired why they were subpoenaed witnesses in the case. The custodians of record informed the state that they were served with sealed subpoenas duces tecum from the defense for medical records and psychological records of the victim in the case.”
Prosecutors noticed a number of other sealed motions in the file and told Strother, the answer says. Strother looked at the file and determined that “all of the sealed orders were done in error, as he did not think a subpoena should be sealed,” the answer states, adding that prosecutors never requested the judge to unseal the documents.
The next day, prosecutors subpoenaed the same records requested by the defense subpoenas.
“Additionally, the records that have been received by the state have no relevant information to the case,” prosecutors wrote in the state’s answer.
About 140 prospective jurors in the case filled out questionnaires to assist in jury selection on Feb. 15. Since then, the defense and state have agreed to release about 45 potential jurors, leaving about 95 who showed up Monday morning for what they thought would be the start of the trial. By the time the panel returns Tuesday morning, the county will have spent almost $9,400 on jury pay alone for the Oakman case.
Any jurors or alternates chosen will be paid $40 a day, and the trial is expected to last at least five days.