Defense attorneys who publicly revealed a rape victim’s name are making a big song and dance about the ethical lapses of New Orleans prosecutors.
We pride ourselves on America’s “adversarial” criminal justice system, but that sometimes seems to mean that the kettle is obliged to call the pot black.
In New Orleans these days, moreover, relations between the DA’s and Public Defender’s offices are not so much adversarial as bellicose.
The current unpleasantness arose after Curtis Hawthorne was found guilty of aggravated rape, kidnapping and robbery in December.
A couple of weeks later, the assistant DA who handled that case, Jason Napoli, persuaded a grand jury to indict Taryn Blume, an investigator for the Public Defender, on a charge of impersonating a peace officer. Several months earlier, Blume had allegedly claimed to be from the DA’s Office when trying to extract the initial report on Hawthorne’s crimes from the Housing Authority of New Orleans police department.
Two veteran attorneys from the silk-stocking firm Jones Walker, representing Blume pro bono, responded with a claim that Napoli had secured the indictment as cover for his own misdeeds. Napoli, according to the motion filed by Michael Magner and Mark Cunningham, had tried to suppress the HANO report, which he was legally obliged to turn over to the defense. Hawthorne’s trial attorneys eventually obtained it directly from HANO.
In a motion seeking the recusal of Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office, Magner and Cunningham claimed that Napoli concocted the charge against Blume to “shift blame away from his own misconduct” and to “retaliate against public defenders who bring prosecutorial misconduct to the attention of the courts.”
Attached to their motion was the public report, which names Hawthorne’s victim. This was an opening that the DA’s Office was not about to miss, for the law forbids attorneys to disclose such information except during trial. Prosecutors filed their own motion demanding that Magner and Cunningham be held in contempt of court.
Magner and Cunningham responded by refiling their motion with the victim’s name blacked out, and conceding, doubtless blushing crimson, that they had been “unaware of this statute” until they read the DA’s motion. The tone of the DA’s next filing took on a distinctly gleeful tone, the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse being so rudimentary that “the state of Louisiana does not believe it requires a citation.”
If prosecutors and public defenders weren’t at each other’s throats before the Hawthorne case, they sure are now, as the courts mull whether to sanction Magner and Cunningham for contempt and whether Attorney General Buddy Caldwell should take over the Blume prosecution from Cannizzaro. Only serious adversaries could turn such a minor squabble into a cause célèbre.
Blume denies the impersonation rap, but indicting her seemed a petty move regardless. When she went to HANO, sometime before the end of April last year, she was seeking a report containing potentially exculpatory material to which the defense was clearly entitled under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling known to lawyers as Brady.
Napoli says he did not hand over the report, because he did not know it existed, a proposition that Magner and Cunningham greeted with incredulity. The report certainly qualified as exculpatory, for it shows that, in her initial complaint, the victim did not allege rape, merely robbery. It made no never mind, however. The defense opted not to introduce the report into evidence, the prosecution stipulated to the facts in it and the jury nevertheless did not take long to convict.
Wake any New Orleans defense attorney from his slumber these days and he will immediately yell “prosecutorial misconduct!” Such is the reputation of the DA’s Office for dirty tricks, earned largely under Cannizzaro’s predecessor Harry Connick.
Magner and Cunningham accuse Napoli not only of hiding evidence, the standard trick, but claim he harbors a “deep-seated animosity” toward public defenders and has been known to threaten them with some rough stuff. The indictment will serve to deter Blume, who recently witnessed one of Napoli’s courtroom confrontations, from testifying in any proceedings that result, according to the motion filed by Magner and Cunningham.
Certainly, Napoli and the rest of Cannizzaro’s staff might reasonably be suspected of an ulterior motive in prosecuting Blume. There is no chance that the criminal justice system in Orleans Parish will lose its adversarial edge any time soon.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.