A Lafayette judge has declined to remove fellow Judge Patrick Michot from a teenager’s first-degree murder trial, a ruling that went against defense attorneys who wanted Michot recused because of alleged improper communication with a prosecutor.
Judge Thomas Duplantier issued his ruling Tuesday following a brief hearing and a review of a transcript of an April 7 meeting, which Michot had with prosecutor Michelle Billeaud and public defender Thomas Rimmer. The meeting was about a hearing that was scheduled for the next day, a Friday, for defendant Earl Joseph III.
Joseph, now 17, is accused in the February 2014 killing of Jockey Lot flea market employee Michael Patin. The trial is scheduled for July 11.
Rimmer’s boss, 15th District Public Defenders Office chief G. Paul Marx and former public defender Jane Hogan filed papers Friday seeking to keep Michot from presiding over Joseph’s trial. Although Hogan is no longer an employee with the defenders office, she remains as unpaid counsel on the legal team that’s trying to keep the teenage defendant out of prison for life.
Hogan wrote in the motion to recuse that, although Rimmer was an attorney with the Public Defenders Office, he was not Joseph’s attorney. He argued that Rimmer was not able to contribute to the teen’s defense and should not have been in the meeting.
The motion claimed the meeting was an improper communication between a judge and a prosecutor because the defense attorney in the room knew little to nothing about the case.
But after reading the eight-page meeting transcript and hearing testimony from Rimmer on Tuesday, Duplantier ruled there was nothing of substance discussed about Joseph’s case.
“I don’t believe it was ex parte communication,” Duplantier said.
Michot did not testify Tuesday.
The motion Marx and Hogan filed last week alleged clear-cut improper dialogue between Michot and Billeaud, and implied that Rimmer was a reluctant participant who was pulled into the meeting to technically satisfy the rule that required a defense attorney be in on the conversation. On Tuesday, Rimmer testified that “At the time of the conversation I didn’t even know what he was charged with.”
But Duplantier said the dialogue he read did not delve into the nuts and bolts of two motions that were to be addressed at the hearing the next day.
Rather, according to the transcript, most of what was discussed was whether the hearing should remain on the schedule for the next day, which it did.
The transcript also shows Rimmer didn’t object to being called into the meeting. At one point, toward the end, Rimmer tells Michot and Billeaud that “I can’t argue the issue” of whether to delay the next-day hearing. That hearing was to address requests by defense attorneys, who wanted to move the trial away from Lafayette and who also challenged the constitutionality of trying Joseph as an adult.
The circumstances that led to Marx and Hogan’s attempt to remove Michot from the Joseph trial are tied to the Public Defenders Office’s budget crisis.
Over half of Marx’s direct staff, including Hogan, who now practices criminal defense outside Lafayette, are gone. And the contracts of dozens of criminal defense attorneys who are not employed by the local defenders office have been canceled, though some have returned to handle certain cases after 15th District judges agreed to fund some cases until July 1.
The meeting with Michot, Rimmer and Billeaud on April 7 occurred at the end of a long docket day in court, where most of the 100-plus defendants who could not afford attorneys were not assigned one. Rimmer, who graduated from law school two years ago and has never defended a first-degree murder charge, was the lone public defender in the courtroom.
Marx on Tuesday said Rimmer was in court that day for nine hours, had 11 cases assigned to him and then handled three more felony cases that were not assigned to him.
Rimmer that day also had a spirited dialogue with Michot, who wanted the public defender to accept the case of a defendant who was charged in the same crime as someone Rimmer already was representing. Rimmer refused.
Then, after court was adjourned, Rimmer — the only lawyer from the Public Defenders Office in sight — was asked to enter Judge Michot’s office for a brief meeting where the discussion about Joseph’s case took place.