In June we highlighted an excellent column by James Gill at the Baton Rouge Advocate in Louisiana which honed in on three capital cases from 1995 out of former District Attorney Harry Connick’s office and which have since given the Orleans District Attorney’s Office a lot of trouble.
One of those cases involves Rogers Lacaze, who recently went back to court for an evidentiary hearing in June to determine whether he received a fair trial.
Gill contends that he most likely didn’t, since Connick’s office was in charge of the prosecution:They continue to hope that one of these days a court will rule a death row inmate from the Harry Connick era was justly convicted and sentenced. They are certainly pulling out all the stops to make Rogers Lacaze the exception. Indeed, they are so keen to show he was not the victim of prosecutorial misconduct that they have resorted to tactics that defense attorneys regard as dirty tricks.
According to the state, a witness came forward after the hearing was closed to provide evidence that would undermine some of the defendant’s key claims. The state dealt with this witness by putting them before a grand jury (the purpose of which is to deal with presently triable offenses) which meant his or her testimony would be kept secret. According to Gill, Lacaze’s attorneys still know nothing of the witness or the substance of their claims.Prosecutors, Lacaze’s attorneys complain, proceeded to pull a fast one, hauling their deus ex machina in front of a grand jury to repeat his or her allegations and delivering a transcript to Kirby with a motion to reopen the hearing. Prosecutors, evidently wary less the justice system become too adversarial or open, kept the defense in the dark. They went to the grand jury, they explained in a motion, to provide a “sworn record” for Kirby to use in making his decision and to ensure the witness would remain safely anonymous.
While the state ultimately conceded that the grand jury was unnecessary and ended up providing the judge with an affidavit, the identity of the witness remains a mystery. But Gill isn’t holding his breath that the state’s new witness will undermine the defendant’s case, given when and where he was tried:The only issue is whether Lacaze’s constitutional rights were adequately safeguarded at trial. We need not look beyond the performance of his inexperienced, hopelessly inept and now late trial attorney to conclude that they weren’t, and that Orleans prosecutors will have to keep trying.
Just minutes ago, nola.com broke the story that Judge Michael Kirby has ruled that the hearing will be reopened to consider the testimony of the state’s new witness:Presiding Judge Michael Kirby ruled that the new witness’ testimony doesn’t “wholly refute” LaCaze’s arguments for a new trial, though it does cast his claims about things such as police brutality, mental retardation and actual innocence “in a completely different light.” Kirby ordered the state and LaCaze’s Capital Appeals Project attorneys to arrange mutually available hearing dates and secure a courtroom at Tulane and Broad.
The Open File will continue to provide updates on the case, which involve claims of prosecutorial misconduct.