A federal judge Wednesday rejected former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt’s bid for a new trial, ruling that jurors who convicted her in a 2011 racketeering trial were not “tainted in any way” by a former federal prosecutor who posted inflammatory comments about the proceedings under online news articles.
The ruling paves the way for Gill Pratt, who has remained free throughout her appeals, to begin serving a federal prison sentence she has managed to put off for several years.
After summoning two jurors to answer written questions, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle concluded there was “no cause for granting a new trial” after reviewing their responses. Both jurors had earlier acknowledged reading news on nola.com, the website where former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone authored anonymous, often racially insensitive rants about Gill Pratt.
“The jurors’ responses reveal that they heeded the court’s instructions to avoid extraneous materials in reaching their verdict,” Lemelle wrote in a four-page order Wednesday. “There is no evidence to suggest that the jurors knew of or were exposed to Perricone’s comments either before or during trial.”
Gill Pratt’s attorney, Mike Fawer, said Lemelle’s ruling was “disappointing but not unexpected given the limited nature of his inquiry” into the online commenting. He said he plans to appeal the ruling and ask that Gill Pratt be afforded another reprieve from prison while the appeal is pending — a request he acknowledged was unlikely to be granted.
Indeed, the ruling seemed likely to mean the end of Gill Pratt’s unexpectedly prolonged freedom, as Lemelle ordered she surrender Sept. 2 to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin serving 50 months behind bars. She has also been ordered to pay restitution of more than $571,000 to the state and $117,000 to the city.
Gill Pratt’s appellate efforts were not entirely for naught, however. She initially had been sentenced to 87 months in prison for her role in a scheme by members of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s family to siphon more than $1 million from nonprofit organizations, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later found Lemelle had applied the wrong sentencing guidelines in meting out her punishment. She was resentenced to 50 months in May.
Prosecutors had accused Gill Pratt, who also once served as a state representative, of steering public money to charities whose funds she knew would be misused by allies in the Jefferson political clan. Those nonprofits were run by members of the Jefferson family, including Gill Pratt’s longtime boyfriend, Mose Jefferson.
In light of what he called egregious prosecutorial misconduct, Fawer argued Gill Pratt deserved a new trial regardless of whether jurors had actually been prejudiced by Perricone’s remarks.
Prosecutors objected at every turn, arguing it was insulting and unnecessary to ask jurors questions about media exposure that Lemelle explored thoroughly during jury selection. Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Harper contended Perricone’s comments, aside from being anonymous, had been made among hundreds of others, saying his former colleague’s behavior was “not the same as a government prosecutor cloaked in his prosecutorial garb standing on the courthouse steps and making those statements.”
After listening to arguments from both sides, Lemelle said last month that there was nothing in the record to indicate jurors had been influenced by the comments, which he condemned as “highly unpleasant” and inappropriate. Some of Perricone’s invective mentioned Gill Pratt specifically, and some was even posted during jury selection and Gill Pratt’s trial, the judge acknowledged.
“Many of the comments relevant to the instant case were long tirades against the Jefferson family in general, without naming Pratt specifically in most,” Lemelle wrote Wednesday. “For example, on Dec. 24, 2008, Perricone posted ‘a Christmas message for the Jefferson family’ in which he at length described pending criminal actions against members of the family and criticized their conduct. He also made several comments specifically suggesting their guilt and need for retribution, commenting, ‘it’s time for them to pay.’ ”
In one rant, Perricone referred to Gill Pratt as “a paragon of virtue defending herself for behavior when she was a New Orleans city councilPERSON. What a town!!!!”
While Lemelle agreed to have two jurors answer written questions — an extraordinary step, by all accounts — he clearly came away persuaded that Perricone’s comments had no impact on the outcome of the case.
Rejecting Fawer’s contention that a new trial should be awarded simply to penalize the U.S. Attorney’s Office for allowing the online commenting scandal to grow and fester, Lemelle cited the 5th Circuit’s holding in U.S. v. Poole that “a new trial is not a mechanism for punishing contempt, by a prosecutor or otherwise, but a way to avoid injustice generally and to avoid a jury verdict for which one has compromised confidence specifically.”
Lemelle’s ruling further underscored the difficulty criminal defendants have had in capitalizing on the online comments of Perricone and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann. The most notable exception has been a ruling by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt that, citing the online commenting, set aside the guilty verdicts of five New Orleans police officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings.
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