Two Baton Rouge officers fired Friday, indicted this week in sex case _lowres

Emerson Jackson, left, and Travis Wheeler

An appeals court has reinstated the firing of two Baton Rouge police officers who were accused, but acquitted, of acting as lookouts while another officer allegedly sexually assaulted a young woman at a BREC park in 2014.

Prosecutors said Emerson Jackson and Travis Wheeler stood by as Isaac Bolden forced the woman to perform a sex act on him at Old Hammond Park on Feb. 4, 2014. All three officers were acquitted on abuse of office charges in 2017, but they had already lost their jobs — and the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board upheld their terminations.

The men did not testify at their trial.

State District Judge Wilson Fields ruled in October that the civil service board’s decision "went outside their scope of authority.” But a three-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal on Jan. 2 reversed Fields' ruling and reinstated the board's decision, saying it was “based upon substantial and competent evidence."

Even though the officers were not found guilty in court, there was a “preponderance of the evidence” that the officers did act inappropriately, Chief Judge Vanessa Whipple wrote in the ruling.

A “preponderance of the evidence” is a lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is required for a criminal conviction. The latter is enough to justify a firing, the appeals court said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said jurors indicated after the trial they believed something occurred in the park. But jurors say they wanted more evidence, particularly some form of physical evidence such as DNA, to convict.

The panel also suggested that, in the future, an outside agency should be brought in to investigate when a member of the police force is accused of such wrongdoing.

Kyle Kershaw, who represents Jackson and Wheeler, said Tuesday he disagrees with the 1st Circuit ruling and intends to appeal the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Wheeler works at the Baker Police Department, Kershaw said, but Jackson’s employment status is unknown.

The officers' accuser, who was 20 at the time of the alleged incident, testified she was in the park after hours with a male companion when the officers arrived. She said the officers allowed the man to leave, leaving her alone with them. Bolden, she testified, told her he wanted a "10-minute girlfriend."

The appeals court said the record supports a finding that Jackson and Wheeler "knowingly and intentionally used the authority of their office to coerce the victim to provide sex to the third officer.”

After checking the victim and her companion’s drivers’ licenses as well as the license plate of the victim, the officers learned there was a flag on the vehicle due to an insurance issue, Whipple stated.

“Rather than issuing a citation, or simply letting the two young people go, the officers, using their authority, separated the young man from the woman, and told the woman she would only be released if she agreed to have sex,” the chief judge wrote. “Rather than helping the young woman, Jackson and Wheeler stood by, and prevented the young man from helping the young woman while she was sexually assaulted by the third officer.”

Whipple was joined on the appeals court panel by Judges John Michael Guidry and William “Will” Crane.

The civil service board had explained in court filings that it believed Jackson and Wheeler "were guilty of malfeasance in office and failing to protect" the woman involved, and called the men "accessories" to the alleged rape.

Jackson and Wheeler were fired two days after an East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury indicted them and Bolden in late 2014. The city-parish has said Bolden resigned months before the grand jury returned the indictment, but Bolden claimed he was involuntarily terminated about three weeks after the alleged sexual assault after he refused to resign.


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