HOUMA — Defense attorneys for River Parishes serial killer Daniel Blank mounted an attack Monday on his death penalty conviction in the 1997 murder of a Gonzales woman with a mountain of law enforcement reports that his original defense team never saw.
Gary Clements, director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, also tried to show that Blank’s trial attorneys failed to raise the possibility his schizophrenia and paranoia may have affected his memory and the accuracy of what he told investigators nearly 18 years ago.
In November 1997, Blank, 53, formerly of St. James Parish, admitted during a 12-hour videotaped interview with investigators that he killed six people in Gonzales, St. Amant, LaPlace and Paulina between Oct. 27, 1996, and his arrest on Nov. 14, 1997. During that period, he had also tried to kill Gonzales couple Leonce and Joyce Millet, he admitted.
Blank was running an automotive shop in Onalaska, Texas, in late 1997 when detectives tracked him down and questioned him.
Clements told 23rd Judicial District Judge Jessie LeBlanc on Monday that the reliability of that statement is the core of what his team of lawyers plans to probe through a weeklong evidentiary hearing this week in Houma.
Clements and the attorneys with the post-conviction project are challenging Blank’s September 1999 conviction in the brutal beating death of Lillian Philippe, 72, in her Gonzales home on April 9, 1997, as part of a botched burglary attempt. The Louisiana Supreme Court already has affirmed the conviction, but the defense attorney is now claiming Blank had ineffective defense counsel at trial and did not receive all the evidence pointing to innocence that he should have received.
The post-conviction appeal of the Ascension Parish homicide is being heard at the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse by Ascension’s Judge LeBlanc because that is where the trial was held. The trial was moved from Ascension because of pretrial publicity in the shocking murders of mostly older people that, for a time, gripped the River Parishes in fear.
At trial, prosecutors were allowed to present evidence of the other slayings, though Blank had not yet been convicted of any of them.
Clements has argued in court papers and on Monday that factual discrepancies and other details those undisclosed reports raise, along with his client’s mental condition, could have undercut Blank’s admission.
Clements drove home through questioning of Blank’s public defender Harold Van Dyke that the reports and Blank’s mental condition should have been raised during a pretrial hearing over whether to allow testimony about the other slayings in the Philippe trial.
The Philippe conviction was the first by prosecutors in the string of slayings and the only case for which Blank faces the death penalty. Blank is on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Following the Philippe conviction, a jury convicted Blank in October 2000 for the slaying of Joan Brock, 55, of LaPlace, and sentenced him to death. But after an appeal, the case was sent back to the lower court. Blank pleaded guilty in July 2009 and received a life sentence.
Blank had years earlier received two other life sentences following guilty pleas for the murder of Barbara Bourgeois, 58, of Paulina, and Sam Arcuri Sr., 76, and his wife, Louella, 60, in their LaPlace home.
For several hours Monday, as Blank, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, watched, Clements presented Van Dyke with report after report detailing how law enforcement had other possible suspects, how key witnesses who shaped a composite description of the killer could not identify Blank, and other facts Clements suggested called into question what Blank told investigators.
Clements argued these facts, if raised, could have aided his attorneys in getting Blank’s confession thrown out.
In each instance, Van Dyke, who handled the Philippe case with lead counsel Glenn Cortello and three other slayings for which Blank was convicted, said he had no recollection of the reports or never received them.
Van Dyke repeatedly agreed with Clements that the reports could have helped the defense attorneys raise questions in a pretrial court hearing on whether the confession met the “clear and convincing evidence” standard necessary to allow testimony about the other slayings at the Philippe trial.
The standard is one notch below the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” used for felony convictions.
Van Dyke said throwing out Blank’s statement was critical to the defense strategy because prosecutors had no physical evidence connecting Blank to Philippe’s home.
But on cross examination of Van Dyke, Assistant District Attorney Chuck Long, who prosecuted the Philippe case, brushed off what he called the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” questions Clements raised. Long noted Blank’s testimony matched more significant details from the crime scenes that only the killer could have known.
For instance, Long read from a transcript of Blank’s confession, pointing out Blank testified he threw the bat with which he had beaten his first murder victim, Victor Rossi, on Oct. 27, 1996, in the bathroom.
Then Long presented Van Dyke with a crime scene photo of a bat in the bathtub. Blank was never convicted in the Rossi slaying.
Van Dyke acknowledged repeatedly that such elements of corroboration, as in the Rossi case, would not have helped Blank’s defense.
Long also showed Van Dyke a letter he sent to Blank’s defense team that said they were entitled to open-file discovery and could obtain other reports that might be held by the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, Gonzales Police Department and other agencies.
In an interview after the hearing Monday, Van Dyke said a task force involving multiple local agencies and the FBI were working on the slayings. They should have had someone coordinating the investigations and the evidence discovery for Blank’s defense lawyers.
“I thought it was astounding that we didn’t get it,” Van Dyke said.
The brother and nephew of Lillian Philippe were on hand for the hearing Monday. L.J. Heath, 82, of St. Amant, Philippe’s brother, said during one recess Monday that he has a hard time understanding how a long-standing murder conviction could be undone years later.
“It’s a sad thing. It’s a sad thing,” Heath said.
Testimony is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday from three witnesses and possibly Blank’s other defense attorney, Cortello.
Editor’s note: This story was changed July 22, 2015, to show that a photograph presented during the hearing showed a bat used to kill Victor Rossi was in a bathtub.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.