District Judge James Rush is considering a motion to reduce bond amounts for 23-year-old Grace McDonald after discussions in a pre-trial hearing Thursday morning with defense counsel and newly assigned prosecution.
Grace McDonald and her adoptive brother, Gabe McDonald, are accused of fatally shooting their parents, Gregg and Jana McDonald, in the early morning hours of March 2, 2016 in their Conley Avenue home.
Assistant Attorney General Geoff Barr was assigned to both siblings’ cases after Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland recused his office in December.
The motion to recuse states, “Due to how evidence developed in this case and questions of impartiality raised by the defense as a result of said development, the District Attorney believes that it is in the best interest of justice that an outside agency should handle the prosecution of this case to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
Issues arose during a December pre-trial hearing in which Grace McDonald’s defense attorney Steve Brand said the DA’s office had not been forthcoming with information and was not turning over information about her case in a timely manner. Eight months passed with Brand’s client incarcerated while he said they were “in the dark” due to the lack of information provided by the DA’s office when they were expected to go to trial Jan. 22.
Bland contested he did talk to Brand about witnesses in the case and a potential plea agreement with Gabe McDoanld following Grace McDonald’s June indictment on a sexual conduct charge. He also said he understood it would have been better if it was done sooner, apologizing to the court and defense counsel if they felt he was not as diligent as he should have been.
When asked by Rush if he felt up to speed on evidence for the case, Barr said he was feeling up to speed on motivations on how evidence arose, but he needed to be able to investigate that and how certain statements came about and if there’s more to the story.
“Some of the charges that are existing, I have not yet seen the basis of those charges yet with my own two eyes or ears,” Barr said.
Grace McDonald is facing a count of capital murder of multiple persons, conspiracy to commit capital murder and prohibited sexual conduct. Gabe McDonald, who is accused of pulling the trigger, faces a single count of capital murder of multiple persons.
The count of prohibited sexual conduct stemmed from a conversation the DA’s office had with Gabe McDonald in April, court records detail.
Brand told the court in December that during the April meeting Gabe had with the DA’s office, Gabe initially denied having sex with his adopted sister when first asked about it, but later said it happed four times. The DA’s office then told Brand “…we weren’t able to verify that essentially, based on where he said his parents were (at the time),” court records show.
But the DA’s office received enough information to go to a grand jury in June and add a charge of improper sexual contact between the adopted siblings, Brand said in December.
Barr told the court Thursday, due to the nature of the situation he would be starting from scratch on the case.
“I need to start from the beginning and review the integrity of the investigation as it relates to her from the very beginning,” Barr said via conference call during the hearing.
Barr said Grace’s charges, from what he could tell by reading the file, have arisen out of the DA’s office and while there is nothing wrong with that, he needs to review it and reestablish the integrity of that process from an objective point.
Brand previously told the court his client was made aware the recusal would likely mean a continuance of the case and she would remain incarcerated past her trial date originally set for Jan. 22.
Another pre-trial hearing has been set for 1:30 p.m. April 12 in Judge James Rush’s courtroom.
MOTION TO REDUCE BOND
On Wednesday, a day before the pre-trial hearing, Brand filed a motion to reduce Grace McDonald’s bond and the court also discussed the reduction Thursday.
“The state is unopposed to that motion,” Barr said.
The assistant attorney general said he spoke to a family member she would potentially go live with, should she post bond if bond amounts were reduced, and he was convinced with that individual it would be a “safe, nurturing environment” that would protect McDonald.
“Are you satisfied that it would be in the best interest of justice in this matter?” Rush asked.
“I do,” Barr said.
Brand said his client has been in custody since September 2016, and to his knowledge she’s never actually been accused of being a perpetrator, herself, as far as the safety of the community issue goes.
“I have no evidence to refute his assertions other than the charges themselves,” Barr said.
As part of the bond conditions though, Barr said any attempt Grace McDonald makes to injure herself would be a violation.
“Ms. McDonald can, has and may injure herself,” Barr said.
Another condition of the bond would be that she would only be able to reside with Amanda and Christopher Richardson. Should that cease at any time, it would be a violation of bond conditions.
The motion states Amanda Richardson is a “longstanding friend” of Grace McDonald’s.
Other bond conditions listed on the motion included that McDonald report to a pretrial supervision officer once per month, she have a curfew of 9 p.m., she could have no contact by any means with her grandparents Monty and Betty Wootten, nor with her brother Gabe McDonald and she would submit to random drug testing.
McDonald’s bond amounts currently total more than $2 million. In the motion, defense counsel asked the bond to be reduced to a total of $200,000.
“…As several issues have been raised which the parties are attempting to resolve together, it would appear that Ms. McDonald should be afforded bond amounts that she can pay, in-part due to her lack of criminal history and her ties to the community,” the motion detailed.
Rush said he would review the proposal to reduce bond amounts and let both defense counsel and the assistant attorney general know when he makes a decision.
A trial date for Gabe McDonald was set for June 11 during a pre-trial hearing Thursday afternoon. His trial was previously expected to come after his sister’s due to certain announcements during hearings made by counselors, Rush said.
“It appears we need to set this one back on the front burner so to speak,” he added.
Gabe McDonald’s defense attorney Justin Low said the district attorney turned over everything he had and he was just waiting on either a DNA or GSR test on the co-defendant. Another pre-trial hearing was set for 2 p.m. May 8.
Low had a plea agreement in the works prior to the DA office’s recusal and said Thursday he will be discussion the possibility of a plea agreement with the attorney general’s office. Low said they are a little disappointed that they will be having to start over.
“I know Gabe is ready to get this done. His family’s ready to get this done, but you know it’s beyond our control so we’ll take it as it comes,” Low said. “We’re happy to know there will be a new prosecutor in the sense that it will give us a chance to maybe start fresh with some things that had maybe gotten a little stale with the case getting old so I think it’s neither an advantage or disadvantage it’s just good to sometimes start over.”