DALLAS — It's the case that took the city of Dallas by storm and has become a political hot potato.
Now, a judge has disqualified the Dallas County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting the case.
The decision comes after lawyers for Austin Shuffield filed a motion to disqualify the DA's Office due to "bias ... shown in the prosecution of the case," his attorneys said in a statement.
"The whole decision-making process is very muddled and very suspect on a lot of this,” said Scott Palmer, one of Shuffield's attorneys.
Shuffield was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after a video surfaced of him armed with a gun and punching L'Dajohnique Lee on March 21 in a Deep Ellum parking lot.
Shuffield was initially charged with a misdemeanor assault but the charge was upgraded after protests and pushback from community activists.
But Shuffield's attorney says the gun seen in his hand was never used during the altercation.
They claim there is an audio recording between the lead detective and prosecutor in which they discuss there wasn't enough evidence to charge Shuffield with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
"Both the trial bureau chief and the lead detective agree in this recorded conversation that those elements weren't there,” said Rebecca Perlstein, Shuffield’s defense attorney.
Shuffield's attorneys say Lee was the one who committed a crime that night by causing thousands of dollars worth of damage to Shuffield's truck after the incident in Deep Ellum.
While Dallas police filed charges against Lee, the DA's Office later dropped the case.
Shuffield's attorneys have also pointed their finger at Lee, noting three months after the incident, she was arrested for theft/organized crime in Mesquite. The DA's Office cut her a deal and she served no time, they said.
"The appearance of impropriety and giving her another favor is what motivated us to file a motion to disqualify and it was granted,” Palmer said.
A special prosecutor has now been assigned.
The Dallas DA's office issued a statement in response to the judge's decision:
We do not agree with Mr. Palmer’s legal analysis and conclusions publicized in this case. It was out of fairness to the defendant and victim in the case, and to avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety, that our office consented to the appointment of the Attorney Pro Tem to handle the matter.
Our office acknowledges that the presiding judge appointed Russell Wilson as the Attorney Pro Tem for this matter. We must refer any comments concerning the case or investigation to his office.
Shuffield's attorneys say they hope their client can get a fair trial but worry the politics may taint their case. Their full statement below:
On March 22, 2019, one day after Austin Shuffield was arrested on three misdemeanor charges (Assault, Interference with 911, and Public Intoxication). Detective Evans spoke to Glen Fitzmartin, the Trial Bureau Chief of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, who advised him (Evans) that the District Attorney’s Office would not accept an Aggravated Assault case because Shuffield’s gun remained in his waistband during the alleged assault, and because Lee did not suffer a serious bodily injury. This conversation was recorded. By March 23rd, activists began calling for the public to pressure the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and the Dallas Police Department to increase charges against Shuffield. This spurred a week of protests calling for felony charges against Shuffield. Within five days, the charge was reclassified to a felony charge by command staff who cited in emails that it was a high-profile case. On April 2, 2019 DPD issued a warrant for the felony Criminal Mischief charge against Lee for the destruction she caused to Shuffield’s car. Before the warrant issued, Lee admitted to the conduct and Shuffield provided documentation that the damage was over $3,000. That same day, activists protested the decision to prosecute Lee. One day later, District Attorney, John Creuzot, made the decision not to prosecute Lee for this felony offense. On June 2, 2019 Lee was arrested by the Mesquite Police Department for Engaging in Organizing Criminal Activity for a theft at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store. The Mesquite Police Department filed their case against Lee with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office on June 18, 2019. The DA’s Office accepted the charge but dismissed the charge on July 10, 2019 as part of a prosecution agreement that merely required the completion of an online theft class. The Dallas District Attorney’s Office accepted all original charges against Austin Shuffield, plus an additional charge of unlawful carrying of a weapon and a felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon despite their administration telling law enforcement it did not meet the elements of the crime. Each of these offenses were to be presented to a grand jury. Due to the bias the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has shown in the prosecution of this case, the defense filed a motion to disqualify the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office has demonstrated that their office is unable to make objective decisions on this matter by their actions of clearly intending to enforce laws only when it benefits their cases. The motion to disqualify was granted by District Judge Lela Mays. Former Dallas County Prosecutor Russell Wilson has been assigned as a special prosecutor. Mr. Wilson will now take over the case and the presentation of charges to the grand jury. It is our sincere hope that Mr. Wilson will not be swayed by public pressure and will seek justice, rather than a conviction by any means necessary, as is required by law. Scott Palmer and Rebekah Perlstein –attorneys for Austin Shuffield
Attorney Lee Merritt, who represents Lee, issued the following statement:
September 9, 2019 To Whom It May Concern:
On March 21, 2019 L'Daijohnique Lee was brutally assaulted by Austin Shuffield. The assault was captured on a camera phone by a nearby observer. It is irrefutable that Shuffield was illegally carrying a firearm, violently beating Ms. Lee by repeatedly striking her with a closed fist to her head and brandishing his weapon, when she tried to call the police he knocked her phone away. Assault victims are encouraged to do as Ms. Lee did. She caused damage to Mr. Shuffield’s vehicle so it would be recognizable in the event he attempted to flee. The damage was done to his vehicle only after the brutal assault. The initial criminal charge against Austin Shuffield was a misdemeanor assault and woefully insufficient. Ms. Lee suffered serious injuries which she continues to recover from still to this day. The District Attorney’s office rightfully dismissed criminal charges against Ms. Lee as it relates to the alleged vandalism of her assailants vehicle. It is not uncommon or inappropriate to increase charges against a criminal suspect when additional evidence comes to light. That is why felony charges were prepared by the District Attorney’s office to present to the grand jury against Austin Shuffield, not because of any undo-pressure from the public. The District Attorney’s office voluntarily agreed to appoint a special prosecutor in this case in order to avoid the appearance of bias or impropriety. We believe this decision was appropriate. No matter who prosecutes this case the facts remain Austin Shuffield launched an unprovoked attack against a defenseless woman alone in a dark parking lot; Shuffield brandished an illegal firearm; Shuffield repeatedly struck this woman about the head; as a result of the attack Ms. Lee suffered serious injuries including swelling, concussion, and abrasions; the entire incident was caught on video; and Shuffield will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Best Regards, S. Lee Merritt, Esq