Rogers LaCaze scored a fleeting victory last year when a state judge granted him a new trial over one of New Orleans' most infamous massacres — the 1995 triple slaying of a New Orleans police officer and two others inside the Kim Anh Restaurant.
But on Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court delivered what appeared to be a fatal blow to LaCaze's attempts to secure a new trial and to stay off death row, at least through the state court system.
Rogers LaCaze, who was shipped to Louisiana’s death row 20 years ago along with former New O…
In an 18-page ruling, the state's high court unanimously found that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal got it right in January when it reversed ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby's decision to grant LaCaze a new trial based on one juror's failure to identify himself as a "badge-wearing law enforcement officer."
The decision from the Supreme Court, which rejected numerous other claims that LaCaze's attorneys cited in their appeal, also seemed to mean LaCaze will return to death row.
While District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office had agreed to give up on sending LaCaze back to death row for the triple killing following Kirby's ruling, Friday's Supreme Court order appeared to reinstate LaCaze's death sentence, despite no indication that the 4th Circuit had ever taken that step.
LaCaze, 40, was convicted and sentenced to death months after the March 1995 massacre, in which NOPD Officer Ronald "Ronnie" Williams II and siblings Cuong Vu and Ha Vu were slain inside the New Orleans East restaurant.
Williams' former partner, rookie officer Antoinette Frank, also was convicted of the triple slaying in a separate trial that year, and she remains on Louisiana's death row — the last New Orleans killer to be housed there.
Former death row inmate Rogers LaCaze, who last summer won a new trial on three murder count…
Kirby, a former 4th Circuit jurist, found the evidence of LaCaze’s guilt “overwhelming” after a prolonged series of hearings, dismissing a litany of claims filed by LaCaze's attorneys.
But in his 128-page ruling, Kirby nevertheless found a new trial for LaCaze was warranted because juror David Settle had failed to mention he was a state law enforcement officer. Such commissioned officers were legally barred from serving on juries at the time, though the law has since been reversed.
A panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal responded in January with a terse, one-paragraph ruling, dismissing Kirby's blockbuster decision with little explanation.
The Supreme Court offered a far more elaborate response on Friday. It noted that the law has since changed and found that, even if it hadn't, there was no evidence that Settle was "the sort of badge-wearing officer" who would be deemed unfit for jury service.
Settle, the court said, was working without arrest powers at a desk for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles when he was called to jury service.
If he had offered up his job description, the court found, it would not have prompted a valid challenge to his ability to serve on the jury that convicted LaCaze and sentenced him to death.
LaCaze "must also show that (Settle) harbored actual bias, or at least point to specific facts from which bias must be presumed," the court found, determining that he had not done so.
The court also rejected other claims that the case was botched by prosecutors, police, Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo or LaCaze's own, now-deceased trial attorney, Willie Turk.
Frank Marullo, Louisiana’s longest-serving judge, has submitted his resignation papers, choo…
Marullo presided over the trials of both Frank and LaCaze, even though his signature appeared on an order granting Frank possession of the possible murder weapon — which then was sitting among surplus police evidence — before the killings.
Marullo has denied signing the order, but LaCaze’s attorneys raised that argument again in their appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing he should have recused himself from the trial.
"There has been considerable inquiry, to no avail, as to whether (Marullo's) signature is genuine" on the weapon release order, and in any case it didn't weigh on LaCaze's guilt, the Supreme Court found.
LaCaze's attorneys also claimed evidence pointed to Frank's brother, Adam Frank, as her likely accomplice, not LaCaze. But that evidence "is insufficient to undermine the verdict in a case in which the state presented substantial evidence of LaCaze's guilt," the high court found.
The court deemed LaCaze's state appeals to be "fully litigated" and its denial to be "final."
The 1995 slayings marked a low point in image and morale for a New Orleans Police Department that was beset at the time by corruption charges and an explosion of deadly street violence, with the city’s murder rate more than twice what it is today.
Williams had worked a security detail at the restaurant with Frank, who dined there with LaCaze on the evening of the murders. Prosecutors theorized that the 18-year-old LaCaze and Frank, a 23-year-old rookie cop, were lovers.
Frank led Ha and Cuong Vu’s sister, Chau, to the back of the restaurant when the gunshot that ended Williams’ life rang out at the front of the business, according to trial testimony. Frank then ran toward the front of the building. As she and LaCaze robbed the restaurant, Ha Vu and Cuong Vu also were killed, according to testimony.
Chau, her brother Quoc Vu and a third person hid in a walk-in cooler.
Frank, who then joined other officers responding to the 911 call reporting the massacre, was soon arrested based on identifications from survivors.
Police said LaCaze used Williams’ credit card to buy gas on the West Bank following the killings. LaCaze always has said he was at a pool hall during the melee.
Williams' father, Ron Williams, said he greeted Friday's news about the Supreme Court ruling with caution. He said countless other decisions have prompted him to believe LaCaze is closer to receiving the punishment to which he was originally sentenced, only to have them followed by more lengthy delays.
"I think the whole system is dysfunctional and ... that there's no finality," Williams said by phone. "I can't say I'm relieved. I won't be relieved until it's really over."
Nonetheless, Williams said he felt a measure of gladness that the Supreme Court spared him and his family from having to listen again to days of testimony about the slayings of Ronnie and the Vu siblings as well as the investigation that followed.
Williams said Ronnie's sons — Christopher and Patrick, who was born shortly before his father's death — remain in the metro New Orleans area, along with their mother, Mary.
In a statement Friday, LaCaze's lead appellate attorney, Blythe Taplin, said Friday's order means "the federal courts will now once again be forced to step in and grapple with another ... wrongful conviction" from an era when New Orleans' district attorney was the controversial Harry Connick Sr.
"Rogers LaCaze was only 18 years old when he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death," Taplin's statement said. "His trial was tainted by misconduct from the judge, the prosecution and even ... jurors who were law enforcement officers. No one could receive a fair trial under these circumstances."
Chau Vu did not respond to a message seeking comment, though last year she spoke with The New Orleans Advocate about her desire to forever "close the book" on LaCaze, Frank and the slayings at the Kim Anh restaurant, which now operates in Harahan.
In granting LaCaze a new trial, Kirby also threw out his death sentence, finding that his lawyer didn't properly represent him in the penalty phase of the trial. In its successful appeal, Cannizzaro’s office didn't ask the 4th Circuit to reinstate the death penalty for LaCaze.
However, Friday's Supreme Court decision stated that the 4th Circuit "correctly reversed the order for a new trial and reinstated LaCaze’s convictions and death sentence."
Taplin declined to comment on that wording in the ruling.