Federal Prosecutor Removed From Criminal Cases After DOJ Report Criticizes Conduct
“She abused her power and took her oath to a whole other level – her and the police department.”
The assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Lamonte McIntyre for a crime he did not commit is no longer handling criminal cases.
Federal court records show that since last week, Terra Morehead has been removed from more than 20 criminal cases and that those cases have been reassigned to other prosecutors.
Duston Slinkard, the acting U.S. Attorney for Kansas, could not be reached for comment. But the move comes after a recent finding by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility criticizing a federal prosecutor’s handling of a case.
The office's investigative summary does not identify the prosecutor by name, which is its customary practice, but its description of the case mirrors one
that Morehead handled against a defendant named Gregory Orozco.
In December 2017, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson threw out Orozco’s conviction on drug charges after finding that Morehead had interfered with his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
According to Robinson’s order, Morehead “substantially interfered with a defense witness’s decision to testify in the case.”
The Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, conducted its own investigation and disagreed with Robinson that the prosecutor made impermissible or threatening statements that caused the witness to decline to testify.
But in its investigative summary, it said the prosecutor “exhibited poor judgment” in not adopting “a more measured and less aggressive manner.”
Melody Brannon, who heads the federal public defender’s office in Kansas, said that reassigning prosecutors to handle civil cases is “a standard DOJ (Department of Justice) tactic when they’ve got a problem they can’t deal with.”
“It took them this long to take this kind of half action where she’s still making well over six figures a year,” Brannon said. “Are they going investigate any of the cases that she has prosecuted since then? Are they going to do any kind of conviction integrity review? Are they going to look at the pending cases that she’s had to withdraw from right now? It seems that those are the next logical steps that should be taken.”
The Office of Professional Responsibility did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Tom Bradshaw, a criminal defense attorney who has faced off against Morehead in court, said he was surprised Morehead is being allowed to handle civil cases.
“If ethical violations are at the root of the problem in a criminal case, what justifies letting her handle civil cases?” Bradshaw said.
Morehead did not return a call seeking comment.
Morehead, whose career has been dogged by controversy, has been a federal prosecutor for nearly 20 years. Before that, she was a prosecutor in the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office.
It was as a Wyandotte County prosecutor that Morehead prosecuted McIntyre. Arrested at the age of 17 for the 1994 shotgun killing of two men sitting in a car in Kansas City, Kansas, McIntyre was tried and convicted though no forensic evidence tied him to the crime and family members swore he was at home when the crime occurred.
Niko Quinn, who said Morehead threatened to take away her children if she failed to identify McIntyre as the crime’s perpetrator, said Monday she was happy with the decision to remove Morehead from criminal cases because Morehead won’t be able to abuse more victims in the future.
“She abused her power and took her oath to a whole other level – her and the police department,” Quinn said.
Still, Quinn said, it wasn’t enough.
“I felt like that’s just a little tap on the hand,” she said. “She should have been fired.”
The case against McIntyre, who always insisted on his innocence, was largely based on two witnesses’ testimony: one who said the killer vaguely resembled someone she knew with the name Lamonte; and Quinn, who later recanted her testimony after saying she was coerced into fingering McIntyre by the lead detective in the case, Roger Golubski.
In a motion arguing that McIntyre was innocent of the crime, his attorneys accused Morehead of flagrant misconduct in the case, including:
· Failing to disclose that she had a romantic relationship with the judge just a few years earlier.
· Threatening to bring contempt charges against the eyewitness and to have her children taken away if she refused to testify against McIntyre.
· Withholding from the court that she had threatened the eyewitness.
· Suppressing witness statements that McIntyre did not commit the crime.
A KCUR review in 2017 of criminal cases pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City, Kansas, painted a portrait of Morehead as a prosecutor who consistently took maximalist positions in her cases.
In 2012, for example, 42 defendants were charged with conspiring to distribute marijuana and cocaine. One of the defendants, Trent Percival, was given a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and ordered to forfeit $17 million — the same as the other defendants — even though he pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution.
Morehead told the court that Percival had been untruthful and his assistance insubstantial, according to court documents — even though his information was used to obtain guilty pleas from other defendants.
U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil later granted Percival’s motion to vacate his sentence, and Morehead eventually agreed to a sentencing recommendation of five years and a forfeiture amount of $300,000.
In accepting the new sentencing terms, Percival agreed to forgo his claims of prosecutorial misconduct against Morehead.
In another drug case in 2016, a prominent local defense attorney, Carl Cornwell, secured an acquittal for his client. As Cornwell was gathering his papers and preparing to leave, Morehead, who was the prosecutor in the case, demanded of him, “How does it feel letting a guilty guy go?” according to other attorneys who were present in the courtroom.
In yet another drug conspiracy case in 2012, Morehead warned a defendant that if he sought release pending trial, she would file a motion subjecting him to a minimum 20-year sentence upon conviction.
Quinn, along with Khadijah Hardaway of Justice for Wyandotte, called for throwing out all of the cases Morehead prosecuted while in Wyandotte County, along with others who were involved in McIntyre’s prosecution.
“Every case that has to do with Golubski, Burdette, her, anybody -- it needs to be tossed out,” Quinn said.
Hardaway said the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department should create a system that would allow any potential victims of the criminal justice system to come forward
“The police department needs to put in a way for people to come forward if they have been coerced by a prosecutor or by a detective to give false testimony,” Hardaway said.
This article is part of a collaboration between The Kansas City Star and KCUR.