Abilene Reporter-News

Judge to face ethics charge

By Jason Sheehan / Reporter-News Staff Writer
October 27, 2004

A current Taylor County judge will go to trial in May on a charge of ethical misconduct from when he was a county prosecutor.

John Robert Harper, judge for Taylor County Court at Law No. 1 and a former Taylor County prosecutor, will go to trial May 16 in Taylor County's 104th District Court.

The disciplinary suit, filed by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, an arm of the State Bar of Texas, alleges Harper failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense in the murder trial of James Masonheimer in December 2002.

Harper was the lead prosecutor during the trial. He faces the possibility of disbarment, suspension or a public reprimand. A judge also could find insufficient evidence and dismiss the suit, said Mark Pinckard, spokesman for the Texas State Bar's Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

Harper could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Masonheimer was accused of shooting Gilbert Sanchez of Merkel five times in June 2001. Masonheimer admitted to fatally shooting Sanchez, but maintained he killed his daughter's former boyfriend in self-defense. Masonheimer contends Sanchez, 40, terrorized and threatened his daughter.

Lee Hamilton, 104th District Judge, declared a mistrial after unavoidable delays during the trial caused a lack of continuity.

Masonheimer was reset for trial in April 2003 and pleaded no contest to the murder charge. During the punishment phase, visiting Senior Judge Billy John Edwards declared a second mistrial after Taylor County prosecutors failed to turn over alleged evidence that steroids may have been found in a Coca-Cola machine in Sanchez's home.

Masonheimer's attorneys said Sanchez's alleged steroid use, which can cause violent and erratic behavior, was a major factor in their self-defense argument.

Harper was not involved in prosecuting Masonheimer's second murder trial because by that time, he had been elected judge for Taylor County Court at Law No. 1.

Still, the State Bar of Texas alleges in its disciplinary suit that Harper failed to turn over evidence favorable to the defense in Masonheimer's original murder trial. The state bar oversees lawyers' professional conduct.

''Specifically, while Respondent (Harper) was lead prosecutor on the Masonheimer case, the District Attorney's Office received information from a witness regarding the victim's alleged steroid use and resultant behavior. However, neither Respondent (Harper) nor anyone on his prosecution team timely provided this information to the defense,'' the suit alleges.

Those actions violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional conduct, according to the disciplinary suit.

Taylor County District Attorney James Eidson faced a similar disciplinary suit related to the same case, but the State Bar of Texas declined to file the suit after reviewing the evidence.

After Masonheimer's second mistrial, Edwards ruled that double jeopardy attached to the case, meaning he could not be tried again on the murder charge.

Taylor County prosecutors appealed the ruling, and a hearing is set to for 3 p.m. on Thursday in Eastland's 11th Court of Appeals to determine whether the double jeopardy rules apply to the Masonheimer case.

Contact justice writer Jason Sheehan at sheehanj@reporternews.com or 676-6784

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice