The trial of former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman got off to a rocky start, with the recusal of the judge Monday and the specter of prosecutorial misconduct hanging over the case before a jury was selected Tuesday afternoon.
Retired State District Judge Michael Snipes, of Dallas, denied defense motions Tuesday morning to dismiss the sexual assault charge against the 26-year-old and to disqualify prosecutors Robert Moody, Hilary LaBorde and Gabe Price from participating in Oakman’s trial.
Snipes denied the motions after a two-hour hearing in which 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, Moody and Price testified about a Feb. 20 meeting the three had — without the knowledge of defense attorneys Alan Bennett and Jessi Freud — to talk about 11 envelopes in Oakman’s file that Strother had sealed, including defense subpoena applications.
After the hearing, Snipes presided over a four-hour jury selection process and set testimony to start at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Oakman, 26, is accused of sexually assaulting a Baylor student at his off-campus duplex in April 2016, after his football career at Baylor was over. He has said he and the woman had a previous relationship and that the sexual encounter in question was consensual.
Snipes was appointed to take over the case after Strother voluntarily removed himself Monday in the wake of the defense motions filed by Bennett and Freud, including one to recuse the judge. Jury selection had been set to start Monday morning, but the defense motions postponed matters while the regional administrative judge searched for another judge to hear the case.
The defense attorneys alleged in motions that Moody’s and Price’s meeting with Strother without notifying the defense violated ethical standards and Oakman’s right to a fair trial and adequate defense.
Price and Moody testified Tuesday that they met with the judge because they noticed a number of sealed documents in Oakman’s file, including subpoena applications, which are required to remain open and cannot be sealed. Strother said if he sealed the subpoenas, it was done in error. So he ordered the district clerk’s office to unseal them, allowing Moody to receive copies, including medical records from Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, that previously were sealed.
The law allows defense attorneys to meet privately with a judge and ask for documents to be sealed, such as confidential medical records, information from defense expert witnesses and other investigative materials. Bennett argued that by unsealing the records without notifying the defense, Strother allowed the state access to defense trial strategies, expert analysis and theories that procedure allows to remain sealed and confidential to ensure a defendant’s right to fair trial.
First Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes argued that the sole item gleaned from the sealed documents that the state was not already aware of pertained to an unrelated hospital trip by the alleged victim in Oakman’s case. Barnes said Moody and Price merely met with the judge to ask if the subpoenas were sealed because it was “irregular” and there is no authority to seal them.
Strother testified that he was in the middle of a trial when the prosecutors hurriedly came in during a break. They did not discuss the case, and he only ordered the files unsealed as a matter of law, the judge said.
Bennett, however, argued that Strother would not have unsealed the files if not for what he called the inappropriate meeting with the prosecutors. He said if they wanted the files unsealed, the prosecutors should have filed a motion, scheduled a hearing and provided the defense and chance to address the matter instead of meeting alone with the judge in what is known as ex parte communication.