Plaintiff's attorney plays race card during mistrial hearing over Record's trial coverage

David Yates Jan. 14, 2009, 11:30am

Valorie Davenport

On Dec. 3, one of the first days of the medical malpractice trial of Stacy Thompson vs. Dr. James Woodruff, squabbling between opposing counsel caused Judge Donald Floyd to tell the attorneys he would declare a mistrial "and hold someone in contempt" if their disruptive behavior didn't cease.

After several more incidents of attorney outbursts and other events, a hearing to discuss a mistrial was finally held on Jan. 14. However the mistrial request did not come from the judge, but from plaintiff's attorney Valorie Davenport who alleged the trial coverage by the Southeast Texas Record was "slanderous" and "inaccurate."

During the Wednesday morning hearing, Davenport told Judge Floyd, an African American, that the Record's coverage of the trial made her look as if she were "disrespecting" the judge and Davenport believed that if the nine black jurors had read the stories they would punish her with an unjust verdict.

Defense attorney Joel Sprott countered Davenport's allegations by saying the Record's trial coverage has "never implied race."

Sprott called the hearing over the Record's coverage an "insulary matter," arguing that the articles should not be used to "exonerate" Davenport for disruptive behavior.

"The jurors have witnessed this (disruptive) behavior from the beginning (of the trial)," Sprott said. "The idea that they get it from the newspaper is laughable."

The Record has written three articles concerning the med-mal trial. The first two focused on the attorneys' disruptive behavior.

During the first two weeks of the trial, Floyd abruptly halted the proceedings so he could admonish the attorneys on both sides.

The third article, published in the Jan. 12 edition, reported that a bailiff for Judge Floyd was ordered to bring back Davenport, who had left Floyd's courtroom to attend a hearing in another case across the hall.

But Davenport stated on Jan. 14 that she had notified the court she would be attending the other hearing.

Nonetheless, the defense counsel took issue with Davenport's absence, claiming that they had not been notified, which led them to express disdain for Davenport's perceived repeated tardiness.

Throughout the mistrial hearing, the crux of Davenport's complaints about the Record's coverage centered on what she called "numerous inaccuracies."

The one example cited by Davenport concerned the Record reporting that the defense attorneys had accused her of jury tampering.

On Dec. 3, the Record reported that lawyers for "(b)oth sides exploded and began yelling at one another when it was discovered Davenport had passed out notebooks and binders with possible case information to jurors without notifying the defense."

When the defense learned of the notebooks, they accused Davenport of jury tampering.

Davenport argued the newspaper had improperly linked her to jury tampering by reporting defense counsel's accusation.

Davenport also took issue with the Record being present when the jurors had been escorted out of the courtroom so Judge Floyd could admonish them.

She argued that journalists don't have knowledge of the law and shouldn't report on matters outside the jury's presence due to the possibility jurors may read the paper and learn about sensitive case issues written by a non-lawyer.

At the start of the med-mal trial, Judge Floyd had instructed jurors not to read or watch media reports.

Toward the end of the hearing on Wednesday, Davenport withdrew her request for a mistrial but asked Judge Floyd to question jurors to discover if they had indeed been reading Record articles. She also asked the judge to tell the jurors that the articles were filled with "slanderous inaccuracies."

The judge declined to do so when the trial reconvened, and instead opted to repeat his earlier instruction to jurors to not read or watch media reports.

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