A third judge is now presiding over the case of a Baton Rouge man accused in the 2019 killing of civil rights activist Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who founded the city's African American history museum two decades ago.

State District Judge Christopher Dassau, who inherited Ronn Jermaine Bell's cases after he defeated incumbent Judge Richard Anderson in November, voluntarily recused himself on Feb. 5.

"In my previous private practice of law, I was employed by the family to complete the succession of the decedent, and alleged victim in this case, Sadie Roberts Joseph," Dassau wrote in his recusal order.

The case has been randomly allotted to state District Judge Kelly Balfour, according to an order entered into the court record Friday.

Bell, 39, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder in the July 12, 2019, slaying of Roberts-Joseph, 75.

She was found in the trunk of her car behind an abandoned house in the 2300 block of North 20th Street. Police said she had been suffocated. Bell's DNA was found on Roberts-Joseph's body, an arrest report says.

Bell was a tenant in one of Roberts-Joseph's properties and had fallen about $1,200 behind on his rent, police said. He acknowledged that during an interview with detectives, but said Roberts-Joseph agreed he could remain in the house as long as he paid her something, police said.

Video evidence shows Bell near where Roberts-Joseph's car was found — about three miles from her Scotlandville home, police stated. That home is down the street from the house Bell was renting.

Bell later admitted to detectives that he had been in the location where the car was dumped, but said he was not inside the vehicle and had not seen Roberts-Joseph for several days before her death, police said.

A search warrant indicated bleach was poured over her body in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence. Detectives later found two empty bleach bottles inside Bell's home.

Bell, who has pleaded not guilty, also is charged in the case with failing to register as a sex offender.

Roberts-Joseph was best known for founding the Odell S. Williams African-American Museum in downtown Baton Rouge in 2001 and organizing an annual Juneteenth festival celebrating the end of slavery in the United States.

The museum on South Boulevard was vandalized one month after her death but later reopened. It is now set to relocate into the Municipal Annex Building on St. Louis Street and expand under a cooperative endeavor agreement between the city-parish and museum.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.