A state appeals court panel has reversed a judge’s ruling last summer granting a new trial to death-row inmate Rogers LaCaze, who was convicted, along with former NOPD Officer Antoinette Frank, in a 1995 triple killing that stands as the most infamous New Orleans massacre in a generation.
An attorney for LaCaze pledged to appeal the one-page ruling, which overturned a blockbuster 128-page decision by ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby in July.
Kirby found “a structural error” in LaCaze’s trial on three counts of first-degree murder. He said one of the jurors, David Settle, was a commissioned law enforcement officer for the State Police at a time when they were legally barred from jury service, and Settle hid that fact from the court.
Kirby, a retired Plaquemines Parish and 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judge, found little merit to the litany of other claims raised by LaCaze’s attorneys, who have argued for years that his case was botched by prosecutors, police, the judge at his trial and his own, now-deceased trial attorney.
LaCaze’s attorneys claimed his conviction and death sentence were the result of a slipshod defense, biased jurors and the suppression of key evidence by prosecutors with former District Attorney Harry Connick’s office.
In appealing Kirby’s decision to give LaCaze a new trial, current District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office said it would not seek to put LaCaze, now 39, back on death row. But LaCaze still faces the possibility of a life in prison.
“Rogers LaCaze didn’t receive a fair trial. We’re going to continue to fight this,” said Cecilia Trenticosta Koppel, an attorney with the Justice Center. “Nobody can receive a fair capital trial when they’re accused of killing a police officer and they have a dispatcher and a badge-wearing law enforcement officer on the jury.”
Koppel vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment on the ruling.
The appeals panel, made up of Judges Edwin Lombard, Paul Bonin and Madeleine Landrieu, found that “the trial court erred in finding that the seating of Mr. Settle on the defendant’s jury was a structural error entitling him to a new trial; we do not find that the trial court erred in denying the remaining claims.”
The decision comes more than 20 years after a jury found LaCaze guilty of three counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Officer Ronnie Williams II, 25, and siblings Cuong Vu, 17, and Ha Vu, 24, inside the Kim Anh restaurant in New Orleans East.
The March 4, 1995, slayings marked a low point in image and morale for a New Orleans Police Department that was beset by corruption charges and an explosion of deadly street violence, with the city’s murder rate about double what it is today. It peaked in 1994 at 421 murders.
Inside Kim Anh, there were police officers on both ends of the fatal attack.
Williams had worked a security detail at the restaurant with his partner, Frank, who had dined there with LaCaze on the evening of the murders. LaCaze and Frank were convicted in separate trials within months of the bloody melee and were sent to death row.
Prosecutors theorized that the 18-year-old LaCaze and Frank, a 23-year-old rookie cop, were lovers who had come and gone from the Kim Anh restaurant together multiple times on the night of the killings.
Frank led Ha and Cuong Vu’s sister, Chau, to the back of the restaurant when the gunshot that ended Williams’ life rang out at the front of the business, according to testimony at LaCaze’s trial.
Frank then ran toward the front of the building. As she and LaCaze robbed the restaurant, Ha Vu and Cuong Vu also were killed, according to testimony.
Chau Vu, another of her brothers, Quoc Vu, and a restaurant worker hid in a walk-in cooler.
Frank then joined other officers who responded to the 911 call from the restaurant massacre, acting as if she was there to help investigate the killings, according to testimony.
Frank was soon arrested, having been identified by those in the cooler. So was LaCaze, who police said used Williams’ credit card to buy gasoline on the West Bank following the killings.
LaCaze has always denied being at the restaurant at the time of the killings, saying he was at a pool hall when they occurred.
Frank remains the last murder convict from Orleans Parish to remain on Louisiana’s death row.
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