Orleans jury convicts ‘3NG’ gang leader after 10-day racketeering trial _lowres

Kentrell 'Black' Hickerson

In the first courtroom challenge to the New Orleans Police Department’s use of sophisticated crime-fighting software, a judge on Wednesday granted a convicted Central City gang lord a chance to try to prove his allegation that a Palantir Technologies program spat out exculpatory information on him that was never revealed to his attorneys.

Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras set an April 3 court date to rule on subpoenas that attorneys for Kentrell "Black" Hickerson will be seeking in order to learn how Palantir's program, called "Gotham," has been used in New Orleans — and particularly in the case against Hickerson and 19 other suspected "3NG" gang members.

Buras said that Hickerson's lead attorney, Kevin Vogeltanz, could add the argument to Hickerson's pending motion for a new trial.

In a legal filing last week, Vogeltanz claimed that police used Gotham to build the 2013 indictment of alleged 3NG members. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office should have disclosed that fact to Hickerson, as well as the software’s role in analyzing whether the gang existed at all, Vogeltanz said.

Vogeltanz’s motion hinged on a Feb. 27 article from The Verge that first brought the city’s use of Gotham to public attention. Citing former Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the article said the NOPD used Gotham to zero in on gangs “like” 3NG.

However, the article did not elaborate on whether or how Gotham was used to build the 3NG case in particular.

The city does not plan to renew a contract with Palantir that expired in February, a Mayor's Office spokesman said Wednesday. Craig Belden said Gotham is no longer being used by the NOPD.

The top gang prosecutor for the District Attorney’s Office said in court that he had no objection to Buras considering Vogeltanz’s motion, but he dismissed Palantir’s role in the sprawling 3NG investigation.

“The state of Louisiana wants full transparency,” Assistant District Attorney Alex Calenda said. “All (Palantir) does is take 15 to 16 law enforcement databases and aggregate information that’s already accessible to law enforcement and compiles this information in a concise manner, rather than have a detective go through the 16 databases.”

Vogeltanz said that if the software produced a negative report on Hickerson’s gang connections, or even a total absence of Hickerson’s name in a report on 3NG, that should have been turned over to the defense before trial.

Calenda said he was unclear what Hickerson’s lawyer was alleging.

Buras said he was “looking for any Palantir/Gotham report that shows Mr. Hickerson was not connected to the 3NG case, or the absence of his name,” which “perhaps” might undermine the testimony of officers at his trial, she said.

Calenda called the idea that Palantir analysis spurred the 3NG investigation “revisionist history.” The case began the old-fashioned way, he said, with a detective hidden inside an abandoned house in Central City taking pictures of drug dealers.

Hickerson, 38, was convicted of racketeering and drug conspiracy counts after a 10-day trial in Buras’ courtroom two years ago. Prosecutors and former gang allies said he committed or directed a series of killings in a battle over turf rights around Third and Galvez streets.

At the trial and afterward, however, Vogeltanz argued that authorities had created the idea that 3NG was a gang. He pointed to testimony from a key cooperating witness, Tyrone Knockum, who cast doubt on the gang’s cohesiveness.

“Is it a bona fide gang, or is it a group of people that grew up around each other and hang around with each other?” Vogeltanz asked.

“It’s a group of people that grew up around each other,” Knockum said.

In March 2017, Vogeltanz filed a motion for a new trial based on testimony during the separate federal trial of 10 alleged “39’ers” gang members that the government had promised leniency to Knockum if he testified for the state.

The new allegations about Palantir were made in a motion to supplement that earlier bid for a new trial — a motion that Buras granted Tuesday.

After the hearing, a District Attorney's Office spokesman issued a flat-out denial that Palantir was used against Hickerson.

"The NOPD’s Palantir software played no role whatsoever in Mr. Hickerson’s indictment and prosecution. Furthermore, any claim that the NOPD’s Palantir program contained exculpatory evidence to Mr. Hickerson’s defense is without merit," spokesman Ken Daley said.

Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this story.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432