A federal judge has ordered two people who sat on the jury for the 2011 racketeering trial of former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt to answer questions about their service in the case as the judge seeks to determine whether their guilty verdict was influenced by comments posted anonymously online by a former federal prosecutor.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle last month deemed the questioning necessary to determine whether Gill Pratt deserves a new trial in light of prosecutorial misconduct. His order further delayed the date she will begin serving her 50-month prison sentence. The judge, in a follow-up order issued last week, required only Jurors 21 and 22 — both of whom identified themselves as readers of nola.com, the website where the inflammatory comments appeared — to report to the federal Clerk of Court’s Office by Aug. 1 to answer unspecified written questions.
As troubling as Lemelle said he found the online commenting to be, he has said the record before him has failed to persuade him that Gill Pratt was deprived of a fair trial by the online ranting of former Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone.
That could change, however, depending on the answers provided by the jurors, who presumably will be asked about whether they read or recalled comments left under news stories about Gill Pratt and her involvement in a scheme by several members of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s family to swindle more than $1 million from nonprofit organizations.
Lemelle authorized the unusual juror questioning over the vehement objection of federal prosecutors, who called it unnecessary in light of the extensive screening of jurors before the trial began. Of the two jurors who said they read nola.com, prosecutors said, neither mentioned the comment section and “neither appeared particularly interested in the goings-on of Renee Gill Pratt.”
“No post-trial reason has been presented to second-guess the jury’s answers to this court’s 34-question jury questionnaire (before trial), which was followed with about 70 pages of general voir dire (questioning) and 500 pages of individual, private voir dire,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin G. Boitmann wrote in a court filing. “The questionnaire covered all media sources, and no one has suggested that any juror lied about the extent of media exposure.”
Gill Pratt’s defense attorney, Michael Fawer, has called for Lemelle to conduct a broader inquiry into the extent of the online commenting, saying his client has a right to know which prosecutors knew about Perricone’s commenting and failed to report it to the court.
“If it turns out the office countenanced Perricone’s activities, or if it turns out that others were commenting as well, then Ms. Gill Pratt should receive a new trial regardless of whether the jurors were influenced by the commentary,” Fawer wrote in a court filing.
Fawer has contended that Perricone’s comments, some of which were racially insensitive — he is white and she is black — amounted to such an affront to the justice system that her conviction should be overturned even if they are not proved to have caused any “actual prejudice” against his client.
Juror 21 is described in court filings by federal prosecutors as an environmental engineer from Madisonville “who said she had heard of Gill Pratt but was ‘not too into the news,’ ” reading only the headlines. Juror 22 reported hearing of Gill Pratt before the trial and said that one article he read “was brief and appeared slanted,” according to court documents.
Gill Pratt, who also served as a state representative, was convicted of steering public dollars to charities whose funds she knew would be pilfered by allies in the Jefferson political clan. According to prosecutors, she knew the charities to which she was funneling state and federal grant money were shams. Those nonprofits were run by members of the Jefferson family, including Mose Jefferson, Gill Pratt’s longtime boyfriend.
Gill Pratt remained free during her appeals and recently had her original 87-month prison sentence reduced significantly after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Lemelle initially applied the wrong sentencing guidelines.
In addition to her four-year prison term, she’s been ordered to pay restitution of more than $571,000 to the state and $117,000 to the city of New Orleans.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.