Days before she was to begin serving a four-year sentence, former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt received another reprieve from federal prison Wednesday when a judge agreed to question jurors in her 2011 racketeering trial to determine whether they were exposed to inflammatory online comments made by former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone.
The ruling marked a partial legal victory for Gill Pratt, who had asked U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle to grant her a new trial in light of the online commenting scandal that has roiled the U.S. Attorney’s Office and led a parade of defendants to challenge their convictions or indictments with claims of prosecutorial misconduct.
Lemelle, speaking from the bench for more than 40 minutes, for a while seemed ready to reverse Gill Pratt’s conviction, condemning Perricone’s behavior and quoting extensively from U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s ruling that set aside the guilty verdicts of five New Orleans police officers — convicted earlier in the Danziger Bridge shootings — because of similar online commenting on news articles posted to nola.com.
Lemelle said the comments relating to Gill Pratt’s case were “highly unpleasant, highly inappropriate,” racially insensitive and apparently made with an intent “to prejudice the outcome of her trial.”
The “tirades” referenced Gill Pratt multiple times by name, the judge said, “and in some instances occurred contemporaneous with jury selection and trial.”
“There’s no question, in my mind, that this U.S. Attorney’s Office, the assistant U.S. attorneys appearing before me now, acknowledge and agree and recognize that the use of the media in ways that might very well prejudice defendants and create an overriding tenor of guilt in the community long before trial must be avoided,” Lemelle said.
But Lemelle added that the comments in Gill Pratt’s case weren’t as frequent or egregious as those seen in stories about the Danziger case. Most critically, he ruled that the record in Gill Pratt’s case does not show jurors were swayed by the online comments.
“The question is: Did (the online commenting) have that intended effect?” Lemelle said. “The record before us now, in my view, does not establish that.”
To probe deeper into the actual impact of the comments, Lemelle ordered an extraordinary hearing in which jurors — at least two of whom acknowledged reading their news on nola.com — will be asked to fill out a questionnaire, which “in lieu of live testimony” will seek to determine whether they were affected by any of Perricone’s invective.
“I disagree with defense counsel’s assertion that such a hearing should be one conducted in an adversarial nature, particularly since the issue of questioning any juror about what extraneous information they might have been exposed to is only authorized in exceptional cases,” Lemelle said, adding that case law “generally prohibits jurors from testifying about deliberations.”
The judge asked prosecutors and Gill Pratt’s defense attorney, Mike Fawer, to submit suggested questions for the jurors to him by Wednesday. He postponed Gill Pratt’s self-surrender date indefinitely, saying he would reschedule it.
The ruling further delayed punishment for Gill Pratt, who remained free during her appeals and had her original 87-month sentence reduced significantly after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Lemelle had applied the wrong sentencing guidelines.
Gill Pratt was convicted of involvement in a scheme by several members of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s family to steal more than $1 million from a string of Central City nonprofit organizations. Her main role had been to steer public dollars to charities whose funds she knew would be pilfered by her allies in the Jefferson political clan, federal prosecutors charged.
They said Gill Pratt, a former state representative, knew the charities she was funneling state and federal grant money to actually were shams. The nonprofits had been run by members of the Jefferson family, including Mose Jefferson, Gill Pratt’s longtime boyfriend and the former congressman’s chief political strategist, who was convicted in a separate bribery scheme but died in prison before coming to trial in the racketeering case.
In addition to serving 50 months behind bars, Gill Pratt was sentenced to pay $688,444 in restitution, with payments of $150 a month to begin during her incarceration.
Before ruling Wednesday, Lemelle heard impassioned arguments from Fawer and Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Harper.
Harper said he would not defend the actions of rogue prosecutors like Perricone. But he contended that Perricone’s anonymous comments were made among hundreds of other comments and “not the same as a government prosecutor cloaked in his prosecutorial garb standing on the courthouse steps and making those statements.” He opposed questioning the jurors in Gill Pratt’s trial, saying it would send “a terrible message if jurors — years later, on a whim, on an assumption — were to be asked” whether they essentially lied during jury selection about their exposure to media coverage of a case.
Fawer, who as in previous appearances before Lemelle became so animated that the judge cut him off, said Gill Pratt was more than justified in her efforts to “resurrect her right to a fair trial.” He differed sharply with Harper on the impact of Perricone’s comments, saying the U.S. Attorney’s Office had “prosecuted corruption, (yet) they were corrupt.”
He added, “Everybody’s bypassing the need to find out who knew what and when, and I think this is a singular opportunity and you have good cause to find that out.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.