A federal judge has disqualified herself from the death penalty case against a former New Orleans police officer, more than two decades after she began overseeing the high-profile proceedings.
In a one-page order Monday, U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan didn't specify a reason for recusing herself from the case against Len Davis, who was sentenced to death for arranging a woman's 1994 murder. Berrigan merely cited a law that requires judges to disqualify themselves if their impartiality "might reasonably be questioned."
Last year, a federal prosecutor had asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reassign the case to a different judge. But a three-judge panel from the court denied the request in October, so Berrigan could have continued to handle it.
Davis was convicted in 1996 of directing a drug dealer, Paul Hardy, to shoot and kill Kim Groves after she filed a brutality complaint against him. Berrigan, who sentenced Davis to death for a second time in 2005 after the 5th Circuit reversed his initial sentence, was still handling his post-conviction proceedings.
The cases against Davis and Hardy were reassigned to U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.
Berrigan agreed to let Davis represent himself during his post-conviction proceedings, but she appointed "standby counsel" to assist him. In 2012, without Davis' permission, those attorneys filed motions to vacate his convictions and sentence. Their court filing argued that Davis has a serious mental impairment that rendered him incompetent to stand trial.
In a court filing last year, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael McMahon argued that Berrigan erred by "usurping" Davis' right to control his legal strategy and allowing his standby lawyers to "raise issues that Davis has specifically rejected."
"These decisions could cause an objective observer to question the district court's ability to act as an impartial and neutral arbiter," McMahon wrote.
The 5th Circuit panel rejected McMahon's argument, saying they "are not persuaded that reassignment is needed to preserve the appearance of justice."
Prosecutors said Davis recruited Hardy, a drug dealer he protected in exchange for favors, to kill Groves. Groves had filed a complaint against Davis after she saw his partner pistol-whip somebody in her neighborhood.
Hardy originally was sentenced to death for fatally shooting Groves in October 1994, but Berigan ruled in 2010 that Hardy is mentally retarded and isn't eligible to be executed. She sentenced him to life in prison in 2011.
Damon Causey, a third man convicted in Groves' killing, is serving a life sentence.
FBI agents had tapped Davis' phone as part of an undercover drug investigation and taped his order to Hardy to shoot Groves. The agency also recorded Davis' joyful reaction to news that Groves had been shot.
In a 2005 letter, Groves' family urged the Justice Department to drop its efforts to carry out a death sentence for Davis and Hardy and accept a life sentence for both of them so it wouldn't prolong the family's ordeal.
"The family believes that the death penalty would in fact be the lesser of the punishments and that the finality and duration of a life sentence would be much more difficult and severe to Mr. Davis in particular, than death," they wrote.