Testimony in the trial of a Hewitt man charged in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme was delayed Monday by a last-minute bureaucratic mix-up involving a prosecution witness in federal custody.
Judge Matt Johnson seated a 54th State District Court jury Monday in the capital murder trial of Tyler Sherrod Clay. However, the judge did not swear in the jury and told them to return to court Wednesday morning.
The judge explained only that the delay was caused by a “scheduling issue” before recessing the jurors for the evening.
Clay, 29, of Hewitt, is charged with hiring Keith Antoine Spratt, 30, of Waco, to kill Joshua Ladale Pittman in December 2015. Pittman, 37, was shot several times in the chest at an East Waco convenience store.
Late Monday afternoon, prosecutors Robert Moody, Hilary LaBorde and Christi Hunting Horse informed the judge that a federal prisoner that they described as an important material witness in the case was in bureaucratic limbo and might not be available to testify until later in the week.
Johnson chose not to swear in the jury panel so that he would have the option to release this jury and seat a new one later if the delays became excessive.
Moody explained that the witness had been brought from a federal prison in Beaumont to testify in a federal matter in Waco. Federal prosecutors released him as a witness and he remained in the private Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco Monday afternoon.
However, federal officials told prosecutors Monday that the witness would have to be returned to federal prison in Beaumont before the state witness writ could be processed. Only then could he be returned to Waco to testify in Clay’s trial.
Clay’s attorney, Randy Schaffer, of Houston, suggested that officials could expedite Clay’s trial by capturing the witness’s testimony on video at the Jack Harwell facility before the witness is sent back.
Johnson said the issue of getting federal prisoners brought to state court to testify is not a new problem. He said federal authorities, including those at the federal Bureau of Prisons, abide by their own regulations and pay little attention to requests from state officials.
Schaffer was critical of the prosecution team, calling their efforts to secure the witness “dilatory” or sluggish. He said that by waiting until so late to line up witnesses, prosecutors failed to use due diligence.
LaBorde told the judge that the witness is absolutely necessary to the state’s case because he was at the scene when the shooting occurred and is the only one who can identify Spratt as the gunman, despite the shooter wearing a mask.
Waco police reported that Pittman had been involved in multiple robberies and said Pittman “set up” Spratt and Clay to be robbed. That led to Spratt and Clay conspiring to murder Pittman, Waco police officials said.
Pittman was shot by a masked man at the Pick N Pay Foodmart, 504 Faulkner Lane, about 11 p.m. Dec. 23, 2015. No suspects were identified immediately after the shooting, and the case remained open for 18 months.
According to arrest warrant affidavits, Pittman robbed Clay earlier in 2015, and Clay hired Spratt to murder Pittman in retaliation. Confidential sources also identified Spratt as the shooter, and detectives were told Spratt received payment from Clay for the murder, according to the documents.
Johnson likely will hear testimony from other inmates Tuesday outside the presence of the jury. Schaffer wants to determine what, if anything, the inmates have been offered or if they have expectation of help on their paroles in exchange for their testimonies against Clay.