In December, Alexander Bishop’s defense attorney Allyn Sharp made a highly unusual move: she asked the judge to hold prosecutors in contempt of the court, which could put them behind bars.
Much of the evidence against Alexander, a Durham teenager charged with killing his wealthy father Bill Bishop, had been tossed in October after a judge said the lead investigator “invent[ed] facts.”
After that, Sharp filed the December motion to hold the investigator, Tony Huelsman, and prosecutors in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked that the case be dismissed.
Until then, the case against Alexander seemed to be proceeding as expected, pending an appeal regarding the tossed evidence. Prosecutors had given no indication they were throwing in the towel on the case.
By Feb. 3, no hearing on the contempt motion had been scheduled. In a letter to Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., Sharp suggested that District Attorney Satana Deberry was dragging her feet in scheduling a hearing in which she would have to defend herself. If found guilty of contempt, Deberry, Huelsman, and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas each could face up to six months in jail.
Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Alexander, citing insufficient evidence. They haven’t explained why. Could the charges have been dropped to avoid the hearing?
“The timing certainly raises questions,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for the district attorney seat in 2018.
Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment when asked about the timing. Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, also declined to expand on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on cases after they are dismissed.
Unusual moves and delays seeing evidence
Motions to hold a prosecutor in contempt are “exceedingly rare,” according to Durham criminal defense attorney Alex Charns. Meier agreed.
Usually, if prosecutors aren’t turning over evidence, a hearing will be held to discuss why the information isn’t being provided, Meier said.
“If it’s legitimate, everyone moves on,” Meier said. “If there is no good reason, (the evidence) is ordered turned over.”
But in the Bishop case, the typical process seemed to fall apart.
During the initial discovery phase, Sharp noticed many items that prosecutors were supposed to hand over were missing. At a homicide status conference in April, a judge told her to list all 33 of the missing items, which Sharp emailed to prosecutors, according to her contempt motion.
But nearly a month later, she hadn’t received any of the evidence, according to her motion. And when some of it arrived, it was incomplete. In mid-May, when she got police body camera footage, four of 19 body camera footage files she requested were missing.
Sharp asked for the missing files. She got back duplicates of ones she had already received, not the missing ones. She asked again. Those missing videos turned out to be crucial to the case.
Huelsman misrepresented what Alexander said to first responders in the videos in search warrants in three of the four missing videos, Judge Hudson found when he tossed swaths of evidence due to Huelsman’s misconduct.
“It is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements,” Sharp wrote in the motion.
In September, Hudson ordered prosecutors to turn over the complete file.
That still hadn’t happened by December, Sharp claimed in the Dec. 17 motion. Some of the missing evidence included financial documents from Bill’s computer.
After unsuccessfully trying to get a hearing date in January, Sharp wrote a letter to Judge Hudson on Feb. 3 asking him to schedule a hearing on the contempt motion. Three days later, prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against Alexander.
Although Meier said the timing raises questions, Charns said he didn’t want to speculate on why the charges were dropped.
Alexander was already free on a $250,000 unsecured bond before the charges were dropped.
“Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution,” Sharp said in a statement.
Prosecutors had appealed Hudson’s move to toss evidence, but that appeal has become “moot” due to the dropped charges, Willets told the 9th Street Journal.
But charges against him could be refiled later, Willets said, although she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.
Meier said, “The charges could be refiled pretty much whenever the prosecutor wanted to do so. However, it’s very rarely done unless there is some new evidence that comes to light.”