Attorney for Jackson County sheriff, deputies in Hagan suit steps down

Owen: Civil and criminal defenses should be separate

mbbaker@sunherald.comAugust 27, 2013 

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd


PASCAGOULA -- Gulfport attorney Joe Sam Owen has asked Jackson County to hire a new attorney to represent Sheriff Mike Byrd and the four deputies named in a civil lawsuit former Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan filed against them in U.S. District Court in June.

A judge granted the request Friday.

Jackson County hired Owen and Robert P. Myers Jr. of the firm, Owen, Galloway & Myers PLLC to represent Byrd and deputies Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark and Chad Heck, in Hagan's lawsuit, records show.

The Sheriff's Office arrested Hagan in 2011 on charges of embezzlement, child pornography possession and molestation, though the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.

In the suit, Hagan alleges the sheriff and the depart

ment participated in improper search and seizure, witness tampering, perjury, false arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, defamation, gross negligence and providing false information in sworn arrest affidavits and search warrants.

In the motion filed Friday, Owen notes he represents Byrd in an unrelated matter.

"Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the unrelated matter, the undersigned counsel cannot fully disclose and discuss the particulars of the unrelated matter," Owen wrote. "However, within the past several days, the other matter relating to Mike Byrd has intensified and the scope enlarged."

To avoid any delay in the progress of the civil suit, Owen said he felt "that it is in the best interest of the defendants and in the interest of this court that the Board of Supervisors of Jackson County appoint/hire new counsel for these defendants."

In addition, Owen told the Sun Herald, "you've read in the paper about the activity with Sheriff Byrd. Having said that, I don't want to be in the position of handling the criminal defense at the same time as handling any civil matter, though that might not be … any type of conflict. If there were any issue that I was to defend him (Byrd), I didn't want any civil matter to encroach into that. I just don't want to have any problems."

If Owen were to defend Byrd in any possible criminal matter, he said, Byrd himself rather than the county would be responsible for paying for his defense.

Grand jury investigation

In recent months, a stream of witnesses, including current and former deputies, testified as part of a grand jury investigation with links to Byrd and others who work for him.

Since then, a circuit judge has ordered testimony from two key grand juries be turned over to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office. The order says the testimony will assist in an investigation into "allegations of impropriety" believed to be tied to the Sheriff's Office.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence asked for the order, which grants federal authorities access to the testimony.

The order doesn't mention Byrd by name, but he has been among the witnesses who testified before the grand jury during the dates listed, October 2012 to present.

Task force probe

Among those who have testified at the time the two key grand juries convened were agents with the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County over an investigation into an unreported shooting at their office in July 2012.

Then-Cmdr. Jackie Trussell was indicted on a charge of simple assault in the case, pleaded guilty and later resigned. Byrd did not disclose information about the shooting.

Hagan case

Other witnesses are tied to the Hagan investigation.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence and Byrd have said they cannot comment on matters connected with grand jury investigations.

But Lawrence has confirmed in court records his office investigated the way the Sheriff's Office handled the Hagan investigation.

A circuit judge has since ruled evidence from the district attorney's investigation into Hagan's arrest be turned over to defense attorneys in dozens of other criminal cases.

Circuit Judge Robert Krebs said the evidence the DA gathered raises questions about the credibility of investigators Thornton and Jones.

Krebs has not ruled on whether the evidence would be admissible at trial, only that lawyers are entitled to review the information.

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