Attorneys for 10 of the 13 defendants in the Telly Hankton case seek a venue change _lowres

Telly Hankton (Courtesy WWL-TV)

An imprisoned former New Orleans homicide detective who spearheaded the investigation of accused Central City crime boss Telly Hankton is himself now the subject of a federal probe into whether he improperly influenced witnesses, according to defense attorneys who said they were briefed on the situation this week.

It is unclear just how far the new investigation into former NOPD Detective Desmond Pratt goes beyond an earlier review of supposedly “dirty” policework by Pratt, which federal prosecutors undertook in 2013 as Hankton’s attorneys sought evidence to help him fight a wide-ranging racketeering case naming Hankton and a dozen family members and associates as defendants.

A federal judge has held the results of that review under seal.

Claims that Pratt, 45, spoon-fed witnesses or suppressed their statements have complicated at least a few cases in the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse, including one that ended this week with unusually light plea deals offered by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to a pair of defendants in a 2010 murder case.

Demond Taylor and Terrance “Thugur” Nobles faced second-degree murder charges in the Oct. 10, 2010, killing of 18-year-old Roderick Sheppard in New Orleans East. Instead, Cannizzaro’s office let Taylor, 24, plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a 16-year prison sentence, to run concurrently with the 15-year sentence he got in May on an attempted murder count for stabbing another inmate in the Orleans Parish jail.

Nobles, 31, also pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Sheppard’s slaying and received a 10-year sentence from his plea deal Tuesday.

Deneal Evans, a third defendant who was accused of helping the two men flee the murder scene, walked out with a three-day sentence, pleading guilty to an accessory charge that carried a maximum five-year term.

Pratt, who is serving a three-year state prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to sexual battery and carnal knowledge of a juvenile, was the lead homicide detective in that case. He found witnesses who identified Taylor and Noble through photo lineups, police reports show.

As he faced his own felony charges, Pratt refused to testify about those identifications. But he was subpoenaed to take the stand this week, more than five years after Sheppard’s murder, before Cannizzaro’s office filed an unusual disclosure.

“The state has been made aware that in a pending federal proceeding, there are documents currently under seal, which may contain information that may be favorable to the defense or could be used for the purpose of impeachment of Detective Pratt,” the statement read.

It said one of the witnesses in the case indicated through his defense attorney “that Detective Pratt improperly influenced his identification,” while a second witness “indicated that some of the facts may have been provided to him by Detective Pratt.”

Witnesses frequently recant their statements, and allegations of coercive police tactics are fairly common in Orleans Parish criminal cases. Federal investigations into such allegations are not.

“My understanding from the District Attorney’s Office and Pratt’s attorney is that he is accused of influencing witnesses in other cases, and that he’s encouraging witnesses to lie,” said Craig Mordock, who represented Evans in the murder case.

Pratt’s attorney, Robert Jenkins — who also was Noble’s attorney and negotiated the 10-year deal for him — said the disclosure was news to him.

“The first time we heard anything about this was (Tuesday). We’ve never been contacted by the FBI or any agency,” Jenkins said. “The FBI has not reached out to me or Mr. Pratt.”

As for the allegations, Jenkins said, “Mr. Pratt denies all of that.”

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office did not respond to requests for information about their interest in Pratt. Craig Betbeze, spokesman for the FBI’s New Orleans office, declined to comment.

Questions about Pratt’s police work were raised two years ago by Hankton’s attorneys as they sought disclosures from the feds to help buttress their plea to the U.S. Attorney’s Office not to seek the death penalty for Hankton, who was among five defendants in the racketeering case who faced that possibility.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman reviewed the evidence of Pratt’s alleged misdeeds and kept it under seal, court records show. Feldman found that Hankton’s attorneys already knew of the allegations that prosecutors revealed after they had obtained records from the New Orleans Police Department’s Public Integrity Bureau.

The feds ultimately declined to pursue the death penalty in the case. Just how the disclosures, or Pratt’s criminal troubles, might affect the federal case against the Hankton clan remains uncertain. That case is scheduled for trial in June.

Hankton’s attorney, Majeeda Snead, declined to comment, citing a gag order in the federal case.

Pratt was the lead detective pursuing Hankton and alleged associates in a string of suspected retaliatory attacks. Those killings and attempted murders remain central to the wider federal racketeering case that names Hankton, his mother, Shirley Hankton, and others in an alleged drug conspiracy laden with violent acts that lasted for decades.

It was Pratt, police reports show, who tied several of those attacks together in a narrative of vengeance and witness silencing allegedly spawned by the 2007 murder of a cousin, George “Cup” Hankton.

Three years after the Hankton indictment, none of the 13 defendants has agreed to plead guilty in the case, at least not publicly.

Among the violence attributed to Hankton was the 2008 murder of Darnell Stewart on South Claiborne Avenue, a slaying for which Hankton is now serving life in prison after his conviction in 2011.

Stewart and another man, Jessie “TuTu” Reed, were suspected but never charged in Cup Hankton’s murder. A year after Stewart’s slaying, Telly Hankton — out on $1 million bond — and two other men killed Reed as he sat on a porch on Terpsichore Street, raining 50 bullets down on him, prosecutors allege.

Then, two weeks after Reed’s murder, a witness to that killing, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, was slain, allegedly on Hankton’s behalf while he sat in jail for Reed’s murder. At the time, police reports show, Pratt had secured Williams as a witness to the shooting and was trying to protect him.

Pratt was moved from the Homicide Division and was working as a 6th District officer in April 2013 when he was booked on a forcible rape count, accused of assaulting a 15-year-old girl.

The charges widened, and he wound up pleading guilty in March 2014 to three felony counts stemming from allegations that he sexually molested three juveniles dating back as far as 1998, his first year as a New Orleans police officer.

Accused of rape and incest, Pratt pleaded guilty to lesser charges despite the reluctance of victims in the case to testify. As he left the courtroom, he mouthed, “I didn’t do it.”

Pratt is being housed at David Wade Correctional Center in Homer. According to the state, he is due for release in August.

Allegations that Pratt meddled with witnesses also cropped up in a murder case against five defendants accused of gunning down 16-year-old Roderick Gordon in 2009 in the 1500 block of Conti Street. Five men were accused in that killing, but only one, 22-year-old Travis Burke, was convicted of the murder and is now serving a life prison term.

The rest pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received suspended sentences after a witness came forward following Burke’s trial to claim he told Pratt six months after the killing that he knew Burke and another suspected shooter, Jamal Clay, and that they weren’t among the three shooters he saw.

A claim that Pratt suppressed that information is part of Burke’s pending challenge to his conviction.

John Hall Thomas, who was Taylor’s attorney in the murder trial that was scheduled to begin this week, called the disclosure of the federal interest in Pratt “a checkmate situation all around,” as defense attorneys would have sought more information on the allegations against Pratt that were contained in sealed federal documents.

“It probably would have forced the feds to disclose whatever they had,” he said.

Thomas said this week’s disclosure was “the first time I’d heard the feds have additional information about Pratt coercing witnesses.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.