It was decades before an arrest was made in a New York college student’s brutal death. Now her family has doubts about the DA.

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In the two decades after Megan McDonald’s bludgeoned body was found on a dirt path in upstate New York, her family fought for justice in the unsolved killing. They held anniversary events, placed billboards around their county and maintained a Facebook page, “Justice for Megan McDonald.”

But after an arrest in the killing last year, her family turned their attention to an unlikely subject: the prosecutor.

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Megan McDonald.Dateline

They have accused Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler of trying to stymie the investigation, failing to disclose that he once represented a suspect in McDonald’s killing and offering a “secret” plea deal with the man charged with second-degree murder in her death in 2003.

The allegations were detailed in disciplinary complaints that McDonald’s sister and mother filed against Hoovler last month with the judicial oversight body that investigates allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

In February, McDonald’s sister, Karen Whalen, and her husband appeared at a lectern alongside the head of the New York Police Department’s detectives union as the group called for state and federal officials to investigate Hoovler over what the group called his “unethical and underhanded” actions. (Karen and Megan’s father, who died in 2002, was a detective with the NYPD.)

Days before the union’s news conference, a local reporter revealed a series of explosive allegations after having obtained what was described as an internal New York State Police report detailing the agency’s troubled relationship with Hoovler. According to the report, published by USA Today Network New York, state police believed Hoovler had deliberately tampered with the investigation.

“It’s time for the truth to come out,” said James Whalen, Megan McDonald’s brother-in-law. “We’re confident that when the truth comes out, there will be consequences.”

In response to a list of detailed questions last week, Hoovler said in an emailed statement that the suggestion that he or anyone in his office sought to tamper with or compromise the investigation was “inaccurate, unfair and offensive.”

Hoovler said that he and his staff have always adhered to the highest ethical standards. He declined to comment further on the complaints, noting that they’re reviewed confidentially, but he added: “I am cognizant that in investigations such as this one, it is not uncommon for family members of the deceased — as well as the generations of investigative personnel who devoted untold hours of effort — to experience profound frustration resulting in perspectives that may fail to appreciate significant details and important legal realities.”

A state police official declined to comment on the USA Today report but said he was “grateful for the team that we built that is fighting for Megan.”

Officials in the offices of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Attorney General Letitia James and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland didn’t respond to requests for comment. Messages left with the FBI’s New York field offices weren’t answered.

Edward Holley, 44, was indicted nine months after his arrest and is scheduled to go on trial this summer. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. His lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

‘We are all watching’

The Whalens said they met Hoovler two years ago, at an event for crime victims in Newburgh, New York. There had been news of a possible arrest in McDonald’s death, Karen Whalen said, and she was thrilled to meet “the man that is going to hold this case in his hands and find justice for my sister.”

But Hoovler appeared distant, she said, avoiding eye contact and conversation. James Whalen recalled, “It just leaves you feeling unsettled.”

Hoovler didn’t respond to a request for comment on the encounter.

By last spring, uneasiness had turned into something darker. James Whalen said he had been told there were “concerns” about the relationship between state police — the lead investigative agency in the case — and the DA’s office. 

James declined to say who relayed those concerns to him. At a news conference April 20 announcing Holley’s arrest in McDonald’s slaying, the developing friction between McDonald’s family and Hoovler was evident.

Hoovler wasn’t at the event, even though McDonald’s slaying had been among the county’s best-known unsolved crimes since her body was discovered in a rural section of Orange County at 1:15 p.m. March 15, 2003, the Whalens said.

“To the district attorney who is not here,” James said at the news conference, “we say today: All eyes are now on you. We are all watching — Megan’s family, the community and the media. Justice for Megan does not only mean handcuffs at this point.”

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Megan McDonald with her dad.Dateline

Hoovler said in a statement shortly after the announcement that state police had arrested Holley without consulting his office and that police had let him know about the news conference only four hours before it happened. 

The DA’s office had worked tirelessly with state police on the investigation, Hoovler said, adding that it is a “better practice” to consult with prosecutors before pursuing an arrest.

In his email to NBC News, Hoovler said he hadn’t pursued charges against Holley because investigators hadn’t gathered enough evidence.

“I sought the opinion of the most senior homicide prosecutors in this Office to review the case,” he said. “Each of them saw the same deficiencies that I detected.” Hoovler didn’t say what those deficiencies are. 

Hoovler added that he also sought the opinions of homicide prosecutors from around the state. They, too, expressed concern about the evidence, he said, and “uniformly advised that the investigation continue.”  

A second suspect and a recusal

Five days after the announcement of Holley’s arrest, at a meeting with his staff and law enforcement officials, Hoovler told the family that he was recusing himself over an appearance of a conflict of interest, according to Karen’s complaint.

During the meeting, Hoovler — who had been a criminal defense lawyer before his election in 2013 — initially attributed the recusal to “a guy” who “said some stuff” and was “tangentially” related to McDonald’s homicide investigation, according to the complaint. The account was so vague, James said, that the couple pressed Hoovler for more details.  

According to the complaint, Hoovler said that the person hadn’t been a client and that he’d never been paid for the work. Eventually, he acknowledged that he’d represented the man and, in 2008, had sought a plea agreement with the district attorney’s office that he now leads, according to the complaint. (Hoovler didn’t respond to a request for comment on the apparent differences in his description of his relationship with the client.)

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Orange County, N.Y., District Attorney David Hoovler.Courtesy Orange County New York

In a news release one day after the meeting, Hoovler’s office announced that he was seeking a special prosecutor in the case. The former client he’d represented had “potential information” about the homicide and had died before Hoovler’s election, the release says.

In the email, Hoovler identified the client as Andre Thurston, a suspect in McDonald’s homicide. In the 17-page felony complaint that accused Holley of murder, Thurston was described as “Suspect 2,” Hoovler said. (A state police official declined to comment on the identity of Suspect 2.)

According to the felony complaint, Suspect 2 was allegedly inside McDonald’s 1991 Mercury Sable when, authorities believe, McDonald was struck repeatedly in the head with a handheld weapon while she was sitting in the driver’s seat.

During his meeting with McDonald’s family, Hoovler didn’t identify his former client by name, the Whalens said, though there had long been rumors that Thurston — a friend of McDonald’s — was linked to her killing. (A relative of Thurston’s didn’t respond to messages left at a phone number listed under his name.)

The Whalens said they felt betrayed that Hoovler hadn’t previously disclosed the relationship and stepped away from the case. They were also angered by his seemingly shifting accounts of that relationship.

Hoovler didn’t respond to a request for comment about why he didn’t recuse himself earlier. In his email, he said state police and officials in the district attorney’s office were “well aware of my long-ago representation of Andre Thurston.”

“It was only after Mr. Holley’s premature arrest by the State Police — made without advance notice to me, and in defiance of my previously stated decision to ask for additional investigation — that my brief association with Mr. Thurston — who died in 2010 — became an issue that could potentially create the appearance of impropriety,” he said. “As such, at that time I took the necessary steps to pursue the appointment of two Special Prosecutors and have fully supported their efforts.”

Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor who is a professor at Pace University Law School studying prosecutorial misconduct, said attorney-client privilege barred Hoovler from disclosing his conversations with the former client. 

Gershman wasn’t familiar with the case, but he said he believes Hoovler should have disclosed the “obvious” conflict of interest immediately after he took office and distanced himself from any potential prosecution, because his office would most likely have been involved in the state police investigation. (Hoovler said he never denied any requests for resources from state police and had authorized tens of thousands of dollars in expenditures.)

Richard Zitrin, a legal ethics lecturer at UC Law San Francisco and a specialist in criminal law, said he saw no reason for Hoovler to recuse himself immediately because there was no case to remove himself from. Zitrin noted tht he recently advised a prosecutor who was formerly a criminal defense lawyer on ethics issues and never would have told the lawyer to recuse himself from every case he’d previously been involved in. 

“It’s impractical and unnecessary, unless another defendant becomes charged or at the very least is a known target of an investigation,” he said.  

A ‘secret’ plea agreement?

What the Whalens said they learned next at their meeting with Hoovler left them furious. A person whom James would identify only as an official told him that Hoovler had met with Holley and his lawyer in 2022, before Holley was arrested in McDonald’s killing, James said. 

According to the family’s complaint, which recounts parts of the 2022 meeting, Hoovler advised Holley that he was the “prime suspect” in the McDonald investigation and offered a “secret plea deal without State Police knowledge.” The complaint also accused Hoovler of telling Holley that police were listening to his phone calls with his wife, who was incarcerated at the time and whose calls were being recorded. (State police declined to discuss the 2022 meeting.)

“After being pressed further, Hoovler angrily admitted the State Police only knew about his conversation with Holley because the Police had heard Holley’s recorded jail calls,” the Whalens said in an email.

To James and Karen, it seemed the prosecutor was working against the police.

“Our blood was boiling,” James said in an interview.

Hoovler dismissed the idea that the meeting with Holley was secret. Holley’s lawyer was present, Hoovler said, as was his office’s chief criminal investigator, and it followed all legal and ethical standards. Holley’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Plea negotiations are by no means out of the ordinary, and certainly don’t require the presence of the police,” Hoovler said. “Further, any assertion that the investigation was ‘hampered’ by ‘telling Holley that he was a suspect’ at that meeting is patently false. Prior to that meeting, Mr. Holley was well aware that he was a suspect in the case and had in fact invoked his right to counsel earlier in the investigation.” 

“I categorically deny any accusation of wrongdoing or insinuation of deception,” he added.

The legal experts NBC News interviewed said they felt Hoovler’s conversation with Holley was most likely a clear conflict of interest. Zitrin said that as prosecutor, Hoovler would “bring to bear” whatever information he’d learned as a defense lawyer representing Thurston.

“For that reason, you should not be involved in any negotiation with Holley,” he said.

To Gershman, Hoovler’s conduct was “almost astonishing” and “hard to imagine.”

“He represented as a defense attorney a co-defendant,” he said, adding: “You can’t be a prosecutor and a defense attorney in the same case. That’s impossible.”

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