A judge must decide whether Ada County prosecutors based any of a 2016 murder case on confidential notes intended for one of the defendant’s attorneys, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The state’s high court threw out the conviction of Anthony Robins Jr., who was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison after a jury decided he arranged the killing of two Boise men over a drug theft.
Robins was accused of hiring John Douglas to carry out the May 2014 killings of Elliot Bailey and Travontae Calloway, who allegedly stole $100,000 worth of marijuana. Robins and Douglas were tried together, and both were held in the Ada County Jail leading up to and during the trial.
Prosecutors, seeking a letter from Douglas that another inmate alerted them to, at one point ordered a search of Robins’ cell. The search didn’t turn up the letter — but it did produce several pages of written notes that a judge later said Robins intended for his attorney.
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The judge intervened, but that intervention caused more damage, the Supreme Court said. It failed to fully acknowledge the violation of Robins’ rights, and didn’t give Ada County prosecutors a chance to defend themselves and prove that their case did not rely on the notes.
“The record here shows that the prosecuting attorney had prolonged access to privileged notes that included at least some of Robins’ possible trial and defense strategies,” wrote Justice Robyn Brody in Thursday’s unanimous opinion. “While there are not clear answers as to if and how the prosecution’s access and retention led to specific outcomes that were prejudicial to Robins at trial, this uncertainty is precisely the problem when the privileged communications at issue consist of the defendant’s plans and strategies.”
According to the Idaho Supreme Court, jail staff on May 12, 2015, gave Robins permission to use the jail library to review files on his case and take notes in anticipation of a meeting with his attorney, Brian McMonagle.
Meanwhile, the attorney for another inmate told prosecutors that his client had a letter Douglas wrote to Robins that “outlined an attempt to coordinate stories and minimize Robins’ culpability for the murders.” Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Shelley Akamatsu asked jail staff to search for the letter. Two days after Robins received the library access, his cell was searched and his notes for his attorney were confiscated.
Deputies later testified that the notes did not appear to be typical legal documents, and believed they matched the focus of the search, Brody wrote.
Searches of the cells that belonged to Douglas and Robins did not produce the reported letter, only Robins’ notes. The third inmate’s attorney later went to the prosecutor’s office and turned over a letter that “was revealed to be the true objective of the searches the day before.”
Akamatsu told Robins’ attorney what had been seized. Robins then filed a motion arguing prosecutors violated his attorney-client privilege, and asking for either his charges to be dismissed or for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office to be recused from the case.
He also asked for his case to be split from Douglas’ because of the letter, in which Douglas laid out an apparent alibi for Robins and wrote, “aint no need both of us going down.” The letter, Robins said in his motion, was hearsay and could not be admitted without violating his constitutional rights.
The district court did determine that Robins’ notes were confidential and ordered the state to return all copies, but left the burden on Robins to object during trial if he thought prosecutors used anything they learned from the documents. That solution put the wrong burden on Robins while not offering prosecutors the chance to prove their evidence in no way hinged on the notes, Brody wrote.
The letter by Douglas was admitted at trial, using a hearsay exemption that was improperly applied, the Supreme Court decided. Only one line met the exemption’s standards, Brody wrote: “the admission that ‘I bodyed them 2 dudes.’ “
Thursday’s ruling includes a page and a half laying out the instructions for repairing the case. The district judge must now hold a hearing to allow the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that its full strategy — all evidence and arguments in the case — came from sources aside from Robins’ notes.
If the prosecutor fails to prove that, the Supreme Court wrote, Robins’ Sixth Amendment rights will have been violated, and the district court will decide how to remedy the situation. Solutions could include a retrial, a recusal of the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office or a dismissal of the charges.
And even if prosecutors prove they didn’t need the notes, “a new trial must be conducted from which the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office must be recused,” Brody wrote.