Two brothers received reduced sentences more than five years after they were arrested on drug charges stemming from the testimony of a disgraced Baton Rouge Police narcotics detective.
Their cases are two of thousands that attorneys have reviewed since the BRPD narcotics division imploded last year with a string of highly publicized officer arrests, resignations and demotions.
Attorneys for inmates Deandre and Darryl Robertson filed for their post-conviction relief in the months after BRPD Corporal Jason Acree's Feb. 2021 arrest on malfeasance and drug counts. They claimed the detective's alleged misconduct is cause for reconsideration of their cases.
In court Thursday before 19th Judicial District Court Judge Fred Crifasi, Darryl Robertson had his conviction vacated; he pleaded guilty to a different charge with a shorter sentence. His brother Deandre Robertson was re-sentenced to less time.
“The amended convictions entered today came about after a re-evaluation of the cases in light of developments concerning the case agent, a now-former Baton Rouge City Police Officer,” said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. “The case resolutions entered today were reached with the best interests of justice, trust in the system, judicial economy and public safety in mind.”
It's not clear when the brothers will be released from prison, because of the complex Department of Corrections sentencing calculation guidelines that include factors like credit for good behavior. David Utter, an attorney with the Claiborne Firm representing the Robertsons, says they could be out on parole in 2-3 weeks at the earliest.
“This has been an exhaustive process but it’s really rewarding seeing all this come to fruition," said Kathryn Jakuback Burke, another attorney representing the brothers. “This has been a massive undertaking by an enormous collaboration of people.”
Family of Darryl Robertson present in court said they were glad that, at last, "justice has been served."
A division in disarray
In the months following his arrest, Acree resigned from the department after BRPD criminal investigators accused him of stealing marijuana from the evidence room and giving it to his friend. He was subsequently arrested three more times within the same year, in one instance on allegations he lied on a search warrant application.
His February arrest sent the narcotics division into a tailspin, with the unit soon the target of a criminal and administrative corruption probe. In addition to Acree, another detective was arrested and later resigned from the department, and four supervisors were transferred into street patrols.
The internal investigation remains ongoing, according to BRPD Chief Murphy Paul in an interview late last month — though he said the conclusions of that audit should soon be publicly available.
In the meantime, Paul has folded the officers who were previously assigned to the narcotics squad into the street crimes unit, where they continue to investigate drug activity. The department also works with other federal forces to address drug crimes, the chief said.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said last year that hundreds of cases could potentially be affected after the credibility of those detectives was challenged. Indeed, prosecutors ended up quickly dismissing more than 100 cases involving the officers accused of misconduct in the immediate aftermath of the news.
While those dismissed cases were active at the time of Acree's arrest, the Robertson brothers took plea deals years before the allegations against Acree and the accused officers of the narcotics division came to light.
That information could have changed the outcome of the Robertson cases, their attorneys argued in their applications for post-conviction relief.
Those two cases are a small fraction of the thousands the team of attorneys sifted through for months to determine who was eligible for reconsideration.
Three different law firms — Longman Jakuback, the Georgia-based Claiborne Firm and the Murell Law Firm — issued public records requests for subpoenas over the last decade naming members of the accused narcotics division. Their request yielded upwards of 7,000 cases with Acree and his colleagues on a subpoena list, Utter said.
Someone who has been incarcerated can only challenge their conviction on constitutional grounds. The legal team reviewed every case to see who was still locked up, eventually paring the list down to fewer than 100.
Only 20-25 of those cases involved inmates behind bars directly because of the narcotics division's involvement in their cases, Utter said. The attorneys crafted post-conviction relief applications for all of them.
"They were entitled to file some sort of paperwork and we only had a year to do it because it’s newly discovered evidence," Utter said.
The Robertson cases, unlike most of the others, hung on Acree's testimony, Utter said. The two were arrested in December 2016 after Acree executed a search warrant of a Sherwood apartment. Both were accused of heroin possession, among other charges.
"How can you trust the affidavit that Acree submitted for the search warrant?" Utter said. "How can you trust that the drugs Acree claims he found were actually found at the scene?"
The brothers took separate plea deals in 2019.
A matter of 'judicial economy'
Darryl's new plea to attempted possession with intent to distribute heroin earned him a sentence of 8 years and 7 months; he previously was ordered to serve 12 years. Deandre was re-sentenced to 15 years from his prior term of 21 years.
Moore said after the decision that the action does not negate the guilt or sentences of the Robertsons, nor does it acknowledge any wrongdoing in those cases by any officer or agency. Rather, it “resolves any potential claims in any criminal or civil action,” he said.
“We believe that the sentence reductions in these specific cases, under these circumstances, responsibly balances the need to preserve trust and legitimacy in our criminal justice system while also ensuring safeguards are in place to maintain public safety,” he said.
The practice of joint, post-conviction plea deals has recently come under fire by Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Prosecutors have long asked judges to grant such post-conviction deals, often to avoid a drawn-out legal fight when newly discovered evidence casts doubt on an older verdict, but for other reasons as well. Landry went to court over a law passed in last year's legislative session that gave legal cover to the practice, arguing it usurps the governor’s exclusive power to grant clemency under the state constitution.
The Robertsons are not the first to be granted relief based on Acree's involvement. Another case involving Acree’s testimony appeared before a judge last week, resulting in the inmate's release from East Baton Rouge parish custody, his attorneys said.
Staff reporter James Finn contributed to this report.