Commonwealth's attorney responds to judge's order

-A A +A

Shaw: 'I stand by the commitment and competency of my staff'

By Sarah Bennett

Several days after a Hardin Circuit Court judge delivered a written order in which he chided the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, prosecutor Chris Shaw responded in the form of a letter to The News-Enterprise.

“In determining whether to try cases a second (or third) time in this county, I take my cues from Hardin County juries as to what cases and laws they find important enough to convict on,” Shaw wrote in a letter dated Feb. 9.

“I stand by the commitment and competency of my staff, and the honorable job that they do each and every day for the citizens of this community,” he added.

The commonwealth’s attorney’s letter came just more than a week after Judge Kelly Mark Easton granted a prosecutor’s motion to dismiss without prejudice the indictment against Steven Gray, a former Central Hardin High School teacher accused of having sexual contact with two female students.

In December, a Hardin County jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the case, and Easton declared a mistrial. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Heather Paynter presented the motion to dismiss Jan. 10.

In court, Paynter said she was “dismayed” by the jury’s finding in the case, but after speaking with several jurors as well as the alleged victims in the case, she did not feel she could present the case differently to yield a different outcome.

The judge ultimately granted the motion for dismissal but identified problems with the statute Gray was charged with violating and the commonwealth’s presentation of its case, targeting the prosecutor’s closing argument and failure to object to information stated in the defense’s opening and closing statements.

“Historically, such motions are rare,” the judge wrote about the commonwealth’s motion to dismiss. “Yet this is the third such motion by the commonwealth’s attorney in the last six months in this division alone.

“Although each motion must be determined on its own merits, the cumulative effect of such motions may influence public confidence in the local criminal justice system.”

The News-Enterprise sent a copy of Shaw’s letter to Easton, who declined to comment further.

Shaw’s letter reveals the jury was deadlocked 10-2 and 6-6 on the two counts of Gray’s indictment, and certain jurors “refused” to convict Gray. On the 10-2 count, Easton indicated he believed it should be retried but stated that decision falls on the prosecutor.

“At least one juror told his fellow jurors that he did not care what Kentucky law said, he would not convict Gray due to his belief that the victims were culpable,” Shaw wrote. “That, and that alone, is why a guilty verdict was not obtained.”

According to the prosecutor’s letter, the Gray jury was the third hung jury in a two-month period, and the jurors who were solidly for guilt should be asked where they think the problems lie.

“I am not inclined, nor would I ever be so inclined, to take such instruction or information from Judge Kelly Mark Easton,” Shaw wrote.

In his letter, Shaw stated a copy would be sent to the Office of the Attorney General and the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission. According to the attorney general, the letter has yet to be received. A call to the Judicial Conduct Commission was not returned.

A copy of Easton’s order also was sent to the Office of the Attorney General. Shelley Johnson, director of communications, confirmed Monday the attorney general is reviewing the order but declined to comment further.

According to Kentucky Revised Statute 15.200, the attorney general “may intervene, participate in, or direct any investigation or criminal action ... within the Commonwealth of Kentucky necessary to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth” whenever requested in writing by the governor, courts or grand juries.

Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.