State law bars lawyers from revealing the identities of victims in rape cases except during trials, but it is unclear on whether they can reveal those names later in other court cases.
That legal issue took center stage Wednesday as a judge weighed possible contempt charges against a pair of prominent local lawyers accused of revealing a rape victim’s identity in a case that has opened a deep rift between Orleans Parish prosecutors and Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office secured an indictment in December accusing Taryn Blume, an investigator with Bunton’s office, of impersonating a peace officer by allegedly claiming she worked for the DA as she investigated a rape case last year that ended with the conviction of Curtis Hawthorne Jr.
Blume’s attorneys, Mark Cunningham and Michael Magner, claim Cannizzaro’s office concocted the charge against her as payback for complaints lodged by Hawthorne’s public defense attorneys against the lead prosecutor in the rape case, Jason Napoli. Those attorneys had accused Napoli of hiding a key report until shortly before the trial.
In arguing that Cannizzaro’s office and Napoli should be barred from prosecuting Blume, her attorneys filed an unredacted copy of a police report that named Hawthorne’s victim.
Cunningham and Magner, of the Jones Walker law firm, later asked Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier to replace the report in the court record with a version blacking out her name. According to Cannizzaro’s office, the damage was done, and prosecutors are pressing the judge to hold the two lawyers in contempt for violating the victims’ rights law.
The two lawyers argue there was no damage because the rape victim’s identity was revealed publicly several times in Hawthorne’s case, including at a pre-trial hearing in which Napoli said her name.
“My clients didn’t disclose the name of the victim in the Hawthorne case. Mr. Napoli did,” the lawyers’ attorney, Pauline Hardin, argued Wednesday. “I don’t see (the DA’s Office) charging themselves with this violation. I would call that selective prosecution.”
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman argued in a recent court filing that Napoli identified the victim only because a judge ordered him to read a stipulation out loud.
The victims’ rights law is aimed at preventing “repeated and unnecessary” identifications of rape victims, Bowman said Wednesday.
The first issue to be decided, however, is whether the law even applies when the name is revealed in a different case, Flemings-Davillier said.
Bowman argued that it does.
“I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around this idea that once a victim walks out the door, that’s it, and we can go litter public records with her name,” he said. “It’s going to cause victims to go into hiding, and it will cause people to under-report sex crimes.”
The two lawyers claim that interpreting the law that broadly would be unconstitutional.
Flemings-Davillier set an April 2 date to rule on the first question.
Blume, 24, has pleaded not guilty.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.