Prosecution pushes back in River Parishes serial killer appeal _lowres

Associated Press photo -- Daniel J. Blank

A baseball bat that was the murder weapon in the brutal 1996 slaying of Ascension Parish businessman Victor Rossi has been turned over to experts working on behalf of convicted River Parishes serial killer Daniel Blank, along with other evidence collected from murder scenes in the mid-1990s.

Defense attorneys representing Blank want experts to do new DNA testing on the bat, cigarette butts and fingernail scrapings and review a number of fingerprints. They want to see if that evidence can be linked to other suspects.

The string of high-profile murders and other crimes in Ascension, St. James and St. John parishes prompted law enforcement officials to create a task force to investigate the unsolved murders, attempted murders and robberies and see if they were connected.

Investigators settled on Blank after his confession to all the crimes during a 12-hour interrogation in Texas in late 1997, where he had recently moved to start a car repair business.

He had grown up in St. James but had been living in Sorrento at the time of the slayings.

Defense attorneys for Blank say law enforcement was never able to find any forensic evidence from the bat or other evidence linking Blank to any of the six murders and two attempted murders to which he admitted guilt. Those murders included the violent beating and stabbing of 72-year-old Lillian Philippe in her Gonzales bedroom in April 1997.

Blank still faces a death penalty sentence from that first-degree murder conviction.

During his trial in the Philippe murder, prosecutors introduced extensive evidence from the other slayings. Blank faces life sentences from four other convictions.

The Philippe conviction is the subject of a more than 4-year-old challenge in federal court though a habeas corpus petition, a kind of last-chance civil challenge to a criminal conviction after appeals in state court run out.

Blank's petition is 622 pages long, with exhibits that are hundreds of pages or more. It attempts to detail alleged flaws in the case against him and the handling of his trial by the district court, prosecutors and his then-defense attorney.

The original 1999 Philippe conviction has previously been through multiple layers of appeal and upheld by the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review it in 2007. His post-conviction appeal was also rejected after a July 2015 evidentiary hearing in Houma.

Blank's original trial had been moved to Terrebonne Parish due to pre-trial publicity; the post-conviction hearing had to be held in the same place.

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A succession of appellate attorneys for Blank have unsuccessfully argued for years that his confession was coerced by an aggressive and leading FBI agent and other interrogators and obtained from a man with a diminished mental capacity who was susceptible to suggestion.

Three weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson ordered the evidence turned over after the Baton Rouge judge had overruled the recommendations of a federal magistrate. Court records show law enforcement officials have since been turning over the material.

The ruling, which sustains several of Blank's points of contention -- from juror bias to flawed jury instructions by the presiding judge -- breathes life into Blank's federal challenge of the Philippe conviction but could also call into question other convictions as well.

Some of the evidence, including the baseball bat, fingernail scrapings and cigarette butts, had the DNA of other unknown men or a woman. Previous FBI testing definitively ruled out Blank, defense attorneys said.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Philippe case knew this at the time, the federal petition alleges, but the defense was never given the underlying data to see if they could be linked to anyone else.

"The evidence available to this Court indicates that Mr. Blank is not only likely innocent of the murder of Lillian Philippe, but he is also likely innocent of all of the other crimes he was accused of at trial, most notably the murder of Victor Rossi," defense attorneys argued in the habeas corpus petition filed four years ago. "No physical evidence, of which there was an abundance, connected Mr. Blank to the crimes."

"Mr. Blank may have broken down under that intense pressure" of interrogation, the attorneys added, "but that does not mean that he told the truth."

Gary Clements with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana filed the federal petition in 2017 but he has since transferred the case to federal public defenders and private defense attorney Letty Di Giulio.

She declined to comment on the case Monday.

Tyler Cavalier, a spokesman for 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin, did not return calls and emails for comment on Monday and Tuesday. The office prosecuted Blank in the Philippe case.

It's not clear how long Blank's experts will take to review the evidence, but Jackson has sent other portions of Blank's federal challenge back to the federal magistrate judge for further hearings.

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