It’s a time of forced reflection for Judge Frank Marullo Jr., who was busy last week gathering notes and keepsakes stored on three floors of the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse, his bustling citadel for the past four decades.
Marullo, who grudgingly announced his retirement Dec. 4 because he was weary of shadow-boxing the state’s age limit for judges, has plenty of history to draw upon.
On a recent morning, he cackled recalling the cocaine trial when he sent the jurors home after a clumsy prosecutor accidentally flocked them with a boxful of the powdered narcotic.
There was the time in the mid-1980s when Marullo persuaded the chief justice of France’s La Cour de Cassation — a model for the Orleans Parish court — to hang out and talk about the Napoleonic code, to the astonishment of a once-dismissive French consul.
And who could forget Red Beans Jackson, a murderer and rapist who leaped angrily from the witness chair as prosecutor Glen Woods cross-examined him.
“He had a shiv he put up his sleeve, and the shiv came out right next to me. This guy was this close. He could have got me. But he didn’t really want to cut me. He wanted to cut Glen Woods!” Marullo howled. “This guy (Jackson), just for the hell of it, used to do so many hundreds of push-ups a day. He didn’t need to. He was a big, fit guy. But he was crazy.”
At 75, Marullo has no problem recalling details about the rogues’ gallery of high-profile defendants who have passed through his courtroom since 1974, often en route to the state penitentiary at Angola.
Amid the courthouse crawl of zealous lawyers, wheeling bondsmen, violent criminals, inmates and addicts, his contemporaries say, no one else has presided with quite the same devotion or autonomy as the New Orleans Athletic Club boxer from Eagle Street.
Lauded by some as a fair-minded champion for what he thought was right and dismissed by others as a purveyor of who-you-know New Orleans justice, Marullo’s imprint is embedded on the courthouse he will leave as Louisiana’s longest-serving judge.
He officially hangs up his gloves on Dec. 31, his 76th birthday.
“It was just the appropriate day,” he said.
Had he been born two minutes later, after the ball dropped on the 1930s, or had Louisiana voters passed a constitutional amendment last year to end the judicial age limit of 70, Marullo might still be sporting a black robe for an eighth term, which parish voters granted him last year after the Louisiana Supreme Court chose to let him run at age 74.
Instead, more than a month into his new term, the state’s high court suspended Marullo in February while it reviewed the issue of whether he was too old to legally take the bench.
Marullo argued that he should get the benefit of the 75-year age cap that was in effect when Gov. Edwin Edwards appointed him in 1974, when he shifted from state legislator to local judge. But he also claimed a right to the current constitution’s allowance for judges to finish out their terms when they hit the age ceiling.
Although it never ruled publicly, the Supreme Court apparently wasn’t buying Marullo’s legal pirouette. So after 10 months in legal limbo, he filed a two-paragraph retirement notice late on a Friday afternoon. Marullo said he finally had decided he couldn’t spend years and countless dollars pursuing a federal claim of age discrimination.
No plans for the future
“It’s hard to leave,” he said during an interview in his wood-paneled chambers. “Your brain makes good sense sometimes and says, ‘Hey, what are you going to do? Just sit in limbo? You can’t do this.’ So I made a decision.”
Marullo said he’s been encouraged to run for the City Council, where no age limit exists.
“Whatever the future holds it holds, but I don’t feel like doing that,” he said. “I want to get past this before I decide what I want to do.”
Marullo certainly won’t be missed by everyone at Criminal District Court, where his long refusal to retire rolled a few eyes.
From former longtime District Attorney Harry Connick to current DA Leon Cannizzaro, the city’s top prosecutors regularly tangled with the son of a New Orleans police lieutenant and a seamstress for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Marullo’s feud with Connick ran decades, first sparked in the late 1970s when Connick indicted Marullo’s father in a corruption case, said defense attorney Frank DeSalvo. “Frank’s father died two weeks before the trial,” said DeSalvo, who represented the senior Marullo. “Frank was not happy over that, because he kind of thought that may have caused his father’s death.”
The tension spilled down the courthouse steps.
Connick would hammer Marullo over, among other things, his penchant for granting criminal defendants low bails or outright release at the request of defense attorneys. Connick upped the ante by enlisting his first assistant, Camille Buras, to run against Marullo in 1996 — the judge’s last contested race before drawing a crowd of opponents last year, when his age made him ripe for challenge. Marullo squeaked past Buras, now a judge whose courtroom abuts his.
“The criticism was like a snowball. Once it was decided he may have been somewhat liberal on bonds, it extended to everything he touched,” said Judge Franz Zibilich, Marullo’s law clerk in the mid-1980s. “He’s clearly got more people serving more time than any judge in the history of this state. He believed in second chances but was harsh when it came to any crime of violence.”
Last year, a long-retired Connick lent his endorsement to his old nemesis.
“They had a running feud. It went on for years. I don’t know how they kissed and made up,” said Woods, who prosecuted what was perhaps Marullo’s highest-profile case, the 1995 triple murder that landed NOPD Officer Antoinette Frank and her friend, Rogers Lacaze, on death row. “Marullo was a law-and-order man, but he was also a politician. Marullo knew how to play his politics.”
Attempts to reach Connick were unsuccessful.
‘A no-nonsense judge’
Cannizzaro, Marullo’s former colleague on the bench at Tulane and Broad and later frequent sparring partner when he became DA, said he and Marullo “didn’t always agree, but in many cases it was not personal. This is the business we’re in. My hope and my wish for Judge Marullo is that he enjoys his retirement. Lord knows he deserves it.”
Marullo defended his longtime practice of freeing some defendants on his signature, often in cases that weren’t destined for his section of court.
“That’s the way it’s always been, when I walked in this building,” he said. “There’s nothing magical about paying a bondsman. Why should you be deprived of being able to get out of jail just because your parents and you don’t have the wherewithal to pay a bondsman?”
Veteran defense attorney Arthur “Buddy” Lemann said Marullo “just wasn’t a ‘yes man’ for the prosecution. He was a no-nonsense judge. He has a real sense of street people and what goes on in the minds of people.”
Lemann recalled forming a cash business with Marullo while they attended Loyola Law School together, selling cigarette lighters and trinkets in barrooms across the state.
Lemann said Marullo later threatened him with jail time for stepping out of line in court. “I said something that crossed him the wrong way, and he rightfully said, ‘I’ll put you in jail,’ and I believed him,” Lemann said.
Girded by a steady diet of food from Mandina’s restaurant and steeped in the law, the portly Italian jurist seemed to bask in the political heat.
It was at Mandina’s where his political acuity suffered an embarrassing lapse last year. Marullo was caught in a secretly taped lunch meeting with an election opponent, Marie Williams, agreeing to give her his vote on the court for a plum magistrate commissioner’s post when she proposed dropping out of the race.
Marullo’s camp insisted it was no quid pro quo, that he’d pledged his support for Williams only after he thought she’d already decided to bow out, and that by the end of the meeting, the judge was offering her nothing. It only slowly dawned on him, Marullo claimed, that Williams was shaking him down.
Some of his colleagues on the court say Marullo retained a vast, up-to-date knowledge of criminal case law that he readily recited. He also lobbied in Baton Rouge each year on behalf of his fellow state judges, asking legislators for higher pay and helping fend off a bid to merge the civil and criminal courts in New Orleans.
Paving the road for others
Marullo said he takes pride in introducing one of the first drug-testing operations inside an American criminal courthouse, launching intensive probation and creating Louisiana’s first drug court — programs that have become standard, but which at one time drew resistance from judges.
“Judge Marullo has paved a lot of the road for most of these state judges,” said Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson, who served as district attorney after Eddie Jordan resigned in 2007. “He was our biggest legislative voice, and that will be missed. If I could do half of what he’s done in the 40 years, I’d feel accomplished.”
Many defense attorneys and former prosecutors as well praise Marullo for his independence and for giving trial lawyers leeway to work their craft in the courtroom. The compliment comes as little surprise; defense attorneys favored Marullo above all other Criminal District Court judges when it came to forgoing a jury and leaving the verdict to the bench. More often that not, statistics showed, the result was an acquittal.
Two years ago, Marullo rankled Cannizzaro’s office when he acquitted Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Hurricane Katrina literary hero, on charges of attempting to kill his wife and then putting out a $20,000 hit on her while he sat in jail. Marullo flatly disregarded an inmate who claimed Zeitoun had solicited him to do the killing — “That guy is a liar,” the judge said — while saying the DA had overcharged Zeitoun for an alleged tire-iron beating of his wife on Prytania Street. Zeitoun is now back in jail on charges of stalking her and repeatedly violating a protective order.
Marullo seems to marvel at some of the circus-like cases he oversaw from the bench, many of them involving horrific crimes.
On his short list was the prosecution of private eye Gordon Novel for a plot to firebomb a St. Charles Avenue building on Mardi Gras in 1976.
“We had to blow up the bomb ... they used a pick. A mosquito pick was the fuse for the bomb. We had the lieutenant governor, the governor on the stand,” Marullo said. “They arrested Gord after he met with (Edwin) Edwards at the mansion; they had an ATF agent taping him. He was convicted. I was gonna put some heavy years on him.”
But Marullo said a champion for Novel hired lawyers and experts who brought a closet-sized computer into Marullo’s chambers to analyze the ATF tapes, finding they’d been spliced. The conviction was challenged and overturned.
‘A nasty, nasty case’
The 1995 prosecution of former Catholic priest Dino Cinel, accused of keeping child pornography and videotaping male sex in the rectory at his local church, was “just a nasty, nasty case,” Marullo recalled.
It featured another episode in his feud with Connick, who had earlier shelved evidence of alleged misdeeds by Cinel, a priest at his own church, according to media accounts.
Marullo twice threw out the case and then granted a bid by Lemann, Cinel’s attorney, to get Connick excused from it, to no avail. Cinel ultimately won acquittal, but that wasn’t the end of Marullo’s interest, he said.
“They wanted to get the pictures down in the clerk’s office. All these naked pictures. I said I’m giving them the seal. I kept them 25 years or so, filled out the order to destroy them,” he said. “I didn’t want those little boys as men seeing the pictures out in Esquire magazine or something.”
Marullo presided over the first trial in Louisiana to use DNA evidence — the 1990 prosecution of accused murderer and rapist Steven Quatrevingt, a case tried by the future Wendy Vitter and Connick himself. The jury didn’t buy the DNA stuff, but it convicted Quatrevingt anyway.
Marullo’s handling of the trials of Antoinette Frank and Rogers Lacaze, for what remains the most infamous New Orleans massacre in a generation, has drawn enduring rebuke.
He stubbornly refused to heed an internal NOPD probe or to step away from the case when his signature was discovered on an earlier order granting the possible murder weapon — a 9mm Beretta handgun that the court had held as evidence from an earlier case — to Frank.
Marullo maintains that the nefarious actor in the gun controversy was Officer David Talley, a friend of Frank’s in the NOPD property room,. Marullo insists he never signed over the gun to Frank.
“I have never given a gun to anyone without me directly giving it to them. That was a lie,” Marullo said, growing animated. “This guy (Talley) knew Antoinette Frank very well. So he’s going to get me recused for his girlfriend?”
In 2011, Marullo traveled to Washington for a bird’s-eye view of the U.S. Supreme Court as it considered an alleged failure by Connick’s office to disclose key evidence in the case of Juan Smith, a man convicted in Marullo’s court for slaughtering eight people in two 1995 melees. Marullo watched as the justices browbeat Cannizzaro’s office for trying to defend the omission.
“(Justice Antonin) Scalia’s doing this with his head! And saying, ‘You should have gave them the evidence!’ ” Marullo said, slapping a palm over his forehead. “I said, ‘You’re absolutely right! They should have given them the evidence!’ ”
The criticism of prosecutorial tactics from that time is warranted, Marullo said.
“At some point in time, people were hiding evidence. There was no doubt about that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case today.”
‘You’re a human being’
Marullo said he leaves with some frustration. He never could sell his plan, for instance, to erect a perimeter security fence around the courthouse.
As for his rulings, he said, “I’m sure I got things I regret. You don’t make right decisions every day. You’re a human being. The frailty of human nature takes over occasionally.”
Marullo’s last day presiding in his courtroom was Feb. 20, a Friday. He had wrapped up a run-of-the-mill docket and made his way to his car in the courthouse basement. A court official caught up with him with the news that the state Supreme Court had ordered his “interim” disqualification.
“It’s going to be hard for him to leave,” DeSalvo said. “He’s always thinking about the business, the politics, the state Legislature, what needs to be done. He’s not a guy who’s ever learned to have a leisure life. He doesn’t relax well.”
Said Zibilich: “As much as we all will miss him, it pales by comparison to how much he’ll miss this place.”
Lemann said many of Marullo’s friends urged him to resign after state voters last year upheld the judicial age limit. “I thought that was it for my friend Frank. But he’s hard-headed,” Lemann said.
Marullo has a condo in Miami and plans to get surgery there to repair a bum shoulder that he said is keeping him from working the heavy bag at the gym.
Long ago vested in his retirement plan, he is fond of noting that he has worked essentially for free for some 15 years.
“I can eat steak any night I want. Or red beans and rice. Whatever I feel. It’s not the money. I enjoyed trying cases,” Marullo said. “When you can get somebody off of drugs or you can help somebody or try these notable cases, you feel like you’re accomplishing something. We’ve had some fun here.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.