Prosecutors pulled from Masciarella case

By TRACEY HACKETT
Posted 8/3/16

In an unusual role reversal, two assistant district attorneys took the witness stand at a hearing Tuesday in athe high-profile murder case involving the death of Courtney Cash.

Following testimony from Bret Gunn and Beth Willis, the judge removed …

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Prosecutors pulled from Masciarella case

Posted

In an unusual role reversal, two assistant district attorneys took the witness stand at a hearing Tuesday in athe high-profile murder case involving the death of Courtney Cash.

Following testimony from Bret Gunn and Beth Willis, the judge removed them both as prosecutors in the case of Wayne Gary Masciarella. He is charged in the March 2014 death of Cash, a relative of country music legend Johnny Cash.

As the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office regrouped to assign new prosecutors after the hearing, members of Cash’s family seemed pleased with the decision by Criminal Court Judge David Patterson.

“If Willis is able to be called to testify, then why wouldn’t Gunn be also?” Patterson said. “The defendant should not be limited in his choice of witnesses.”

The decision comes from a motion filed by court-appointed defense attorney Doug Dennis requesting the District Attorney’s office be removed and substitute prosecutors be assigned.

Misfiled evidence and undocumented interviews by the DA’s office revealed inconsistencies in the story of a key witness, William Austin Johnson. He was Cash’s boyfriend and had a child with her. The prosecutors were therefore possible defense witnesses who could be called to challenge the credibility of Johnson, Dennis contended.

In a previous hearing, Judge Patterson removed Willis from the case but retained Gunn.

With Masciarella’s trial date imminent, however, Judge Patterson postponed it and revisited the issue, asking Dennis to provide more proof for his request.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Dennis questioned both prosecutors about whether they discussed the crime of perjury with Johnson.The only other eyewitness at the scene of Cash’s death, Johnson testified in a preliminary hearing that he did not take methamphetamine and that he did not have a weapon to defend himself against Masciarella.

Johnson claimed he and Cash had been held against their will by Masciarella, who shot them up with preloaded syringes of meth. He claimed he escaped with the child through a bedroom window, where a hunting knife and sheath were later found and which Johnson admitted was his.

Medical records also revealed that he had tested positive for methamphetamine in a drug test administered only a few days prior to Cash’s death.

“We did not discuss perjury, but we had a lot of discussion about telling the truth,” Gunn said.

Dennis asked Gunn about Johnson’s admission to owning the knife and testing positive for meth use.

Gunn said those admissions came after Johnson was confronted about the issues.

But Gunn also said he didn’t think Johnson’s admission of having a knife — the same type of weapon that likely killed Cash — was a direct contradiction from his previous testimony.

“It was my impression that he didn’t have a weapon to defend himself during the violence and that he realized the knife was there only after the violence subsided,” Gunn said.

Upon being confronted with the evidence, Johnson told the prosectors the knife was a last-ditch defense.

Willis said she and Gunn made a discretionary decision not to charge Johnson with perjury, so the issue was never discussed with him.

Dennis also questioned both about the timing of a recent settlement offer and a recent notice that Johnson had changed his story yet again. The notice says the DA’s office received another conflicting story from Johnson on Friday, July 15.

At that time, he told them he tested positive for meth because he had falsified a drug test using someone else’s urine.

On the same day, the state presented the settlement offer.

It came with a condition: Masciarella was required to accept or reject it by a Tuesday, July 19, deadline.

Gunn said he and Dennis were in email communication about the settlement on Saturday and again on Monday morning. He notified Dennis that Johnson had again changed his story in an email sent near 3:30 p.m. on Monday.

That notice was filed with the court at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the deadline day for the settlement.

While those questions seemed to imply the prosecutors had intentionally withheld important information about the case from the defense, Judge Patterson ultimately ruled there had been no wrong-doing or unfairness by the DA’s office.

“I find no reason to disqualify the DA’s office,” he said.

Although he ordered the removal of Gunn and Willis, he said District Attorney General Bryant Dunaway and the remainder of his staff are not disqualified.

Dunaway said his immediate task will be assigning new prosecutors, but as of press time, none had been named.

The trial is expected to be rescheduled for later this month or next month.