DA asks judge to stop contact between suspect, potential witnesses

Attorney Stephen Doerr, left, talks with slaying suspect James Smith during a hearing Thursday at the Curry County Courthouse. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

District Attorney Matt Chandler asked a judge Thursday to stop all communications between a former Clovis dentist and potential state witnesses involved in James Smith’s murder case.

Chandler said the conversations could compromise the testimony in Smith’s trial.

Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Joe Parker said he will make a ruling on the request after reviewing written briefs by the state and defense.

“There has been a lot of communication between the defendant and witnesses who the state may call,” Chandler told Parker on Thursday during a pre-trial hearing. “We ask that he not be allowed contact with witnesses that are going to be testifying in this trial.”

Citing an ongoing investigation, Chandler would not elaborate on the type or frequency of the incidents involving Smith allegedly contacting potential state witnesses.

Chandler said Thursday’s hearing was the first opportunity for the state to ask the court to restrict communications between the defendant and potential witnesses, which he said was a standard request. The restriction does not include family members.

Chandler’s request was met with strong objections from Smith’s attorney, Stephen Doerr of Portales.

Doerr agreed a judge may impose communications restrictions on a defendant as a bond condition.

However, Doerr argued, his client has been held without bond since being arrested Dec. 20 in connection with the strangulation death of a 30-year-old Clovis waitress and mother of two, Laura McNaughton.

“I can’t find any authority for the court to impose (such restrictions) prior to release,” Doerr said.

Parker said he is familiar with the law as it relates to restricting a defendant’s communications as a condition of release from jail while awaiting trial, but he acknowledged that he was not sure how or if the communications of an incarcerated person could be restricted.

Smith, 37, who has pleaded not guilty, appeared in court alongside his attorney as the family members of the victim listened via teleconference in California.

The defense and the prosecution did agree on at least one point during the 45-minute hearing — they need four weeks of uninterrupted time set aside for the capital murder trial: four to five days for jury selection, two weeks for trial and a week for sentencing.

Chandler said scheduling conflicts with court staff could interrupt the trial, originally set for October.

Parker rescheduled the trial for Jan. 8 through Feb. 2.

Parker also imposed a July 1 deadline for filing of evidence under discovery at the request of Chandler, who said that a deadline would assist his office in obtaining evidence from state crime and forensic laboratories.

“A court deadline for discovery completion of perhaps July or August would give us something to hang our hat on when we call the labs,” he said.

In other matters, Chandler ask Doerr to clarify on the record a defense motion reserving the right to use limited mental capacity as a defense.
Doerr said while he will not argue a lack of competency to stand trial, a defense expert will be called to testify that Smith lacked the competency to form intent.

Smith attempted suicide Dec. 13, the day after officials first questioned him about McNaughton, officials have said. Court records show that in a note to his wife, Smith denied killing McNaughton.

However, according to court documents unsealed Dec. 30, Smith told police McNaughton “died very quickly” at his home during a “very physical embrace,” and that he undressed her body and left it in the ditch the next day.