One of two men charged with joining former football star Darren Sharper in a scheme to drug and sexually assault women agreed Monday to plead guilty in New Orleans federal court, while the other man moved forward with selecting a jury to hear the case against him.
In exchange for a 10-year prison sentence, Erik Nunez told U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo that he was guilty of a federal conspiracy to distribute drugs with the intent to commit sexual battery.
As part of the deal, the former steakhouse waiter and self-identified event promoter said he would also plead guilty to sexual battery in a New Orleans Criminal District Court case against him rooted in the same allegations. He also said that like Sharper — who faces up to two decades in prison after pleading guilty last year — he is prepared to testify against the lone remaining defendant, former St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brandon Licciardi.
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Milazzo ordered Nunez to return to court following a pre-sentencing investigation. At that hearing, tentatively set for Oct. 13, Milazzo will indicate whether she approves of the plea deal.
Nunez could withdraw his guilty plea if Milazzo rejects the 10-year deal as inappropriate.
One of his attorneys, Sara Johnson, declined to comment on Monday’s deal. However, the maximum punishment Nunez faces in state court is 10 years in prison, which appears to explain why that figure is central to the agreement in Milazzo’s courtroom.
Meanwhile, Licciardi’s attorneys, federal prosecutors and Milazzo spent Monday questioning potential jurors about whether they could listen to the case against the former St. Bernard lawman impartially, despite the widespread attention it’s received in the news media as well as allegations that one member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office described as “horrifying.”
Picking the jury could last through Tuesday. Oral arguments and testimony are set to begin Friday, with the trial expected to last about 10 days.
In the most recent of several federal indictments filed against them in the case, Nunez and Licciardi were accused of teaming up with their friend Sharper beginning in 2012 to secretly give women drugs such as Ambien to make them easy to rape.
Nunez, 29, was also charged with obstruction of justice because prosecutors say he destroyed a cellphone shortly after a Sept. 23, 2013, incident at a condo Sharper had on Tchoupitoulas Street. The former Saints star has admitted to raping two women — including a former Saintsation cheerleader who was a friend of Licciardi — at his condo that day.
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Licciardi is accused of delivering the cheerleader to Sharper, 40, as part of the rape and drugging scheme. State prosecutors also charged Nunez with raping the two women — one of whom had a past sexual history with him — at Sharper’s place.
Pending the final approval of Monday’s plea agreement, the obstruction charge against Nunez was dropped, and the rape-related allegations were reduced to a lesser offense, sexual battery.
Meanwhile, aside from state charges, the 31-year-old Licciardi is also accused of federal witness tampering by twice trying to dissuade a victim from testifying. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and seemed to be relaxed Monday while potential jurors were questioned at a table in a small conference room next to Milazzo’s courtroom.
Wearing a tan blazer, blue dress shirt and navy slacks, Licciardi jovially greeted two reporters who were in the room to observe the proceedings, asking one of them how her son was doing. Licciardi chuckled alongside others when potential jurors said lighthearted things not directly related to the case material, such as that they were familiar with Sharper because they were big “Who Dats,” or Saints fans.
Sharper last year pleaded guilty or no contest in local courts in Louisiana, California, Arizona and Nevada, as well as New Orleans’ federal court, as part of a global deal to resolve charges that he drugged and raped — or tried to rape — nine women across the four states. All of the assaults occurred after Sharper, who helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV, retired from the NFL and was working as a commentator for the league’s television network.
As part of his plea deal, Sharper was required to meet with investigators. He did that at least three times last year, with the first session happening about four days after he pleaded guilty in state court in New Orleans to the two rapes at his condo as well as another at a hotel across the street about three weeks earlier.