A three-judge state appellate panel found St. James Parish prosecutors violated grand jury secrecy rules and threw out a nearly three-year-old corruption indictment against St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel as he winds down his final year in office.

Prosecutors improperly disclosed and opined on grand jury testimony to grand jury witnesses in 2016 to the point that the disclosures may have "exerted prejudice and influence" on the other witnesses and on the grand jurors themselves, the appellate panel found.

The Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal judges noted that unnamed prosecutors working for District Attorney Ricky Babin identified prior grand jury witnesses to subsequent witnesses during closed-door proceedings and described their testimony or documents previously provided.

The judges added that prosecutors characterized one witness's testimony as unreliable, mischaracterized what another witness said and suggested yet another witness had engaged in criminal activity.

"Unnecessarily informing a subsequent grand jury witness of the content of a particular witness’s testimony could have influenced the subsequent witness’s testimony and thwart(ed) the goal of promoting free and open disclosure of information by the witness," 5th Circuit Judge Hans J. Liljeberg wrote in the 20-page unanimous ruling issued Monday.

Circuit Judges Stephen J. Windhorst and John J. Molaison Jr. concurred with the ruling, which reverses a district court decision from March.

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In the ruling, the appellate judges also found 23rd Judicial District Judge Jason Verdigets abused his discretion in denying the defense's bid to throw out Roussel's indictment. 

The appellate ruling is the latest blow in Babin's attempt to prosecute Roussel and his chief lieutenant, Blaise Gravois, over accusations they directed parish workers to do work on private property, including the installation of gas lines for an industrial facility then coming to the parish.

The men were indicted in late September 2016 on multiple counts of malfeasance in office. Despite repeated challenges over the indictment, Babin office's role in the case and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, Roussel, who is not seeking reelection this fall, had been nearing the end of his final term in office with the case still pending before Monday's ruling. 

Both men's attorneys have decried the prosecutions as politically motivated attacks stemming from a dispute between Roussel and Babin over one of the district attorney's prosecutors who was formerly the parish attorney.

"We agree with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision putting an end to this unjust and unfair prosecution," Roussel defense attorney Brian Capitelli wrote in a statement Tuesday. "This affirms what we have said from the outset of this matter, that Timmy Roussel never did anything wrong and in no way violated Louisiana law."

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Assistant District Attorney Chuck Long, one of the lead prosecutors in the St. James officials' cases, said Babin's office plans an appeal of the ruling but also may simply file a bill of information against Roussel.

Unlike a grand jury indictment, which lays out criminal charges from a panel of parish residents who are presented evidence in secret, a bill of information has charges brought directly by prosecutors.   

The case against Gravois, who is Roussel's director of operations, is still pending.

In April 2017, a state district judge threw out Gravois' indictment after a finding of prosecutorial misconduct. In late 2017, state appellate panel affirmed there was some misconduct but found it wasn't enough to throw out the charges and reinstated them.

Under state and federal law and longstanding custom, the secrecy of grand jury testimony is seen as a critical principle of the criminal justice system, allowing investigators to gather facts but avoid unduly harming people's reputations. 

But, for more than a year, attorneys for Gravois and Roussel had unsuccessfully tried to get access to the grand jury testimony transcripts, arguing there were indications of possible undisclosed exculpatory evidence, a claim prosecutors disputed. 

What those lawyers were alluding became more clear in the appellate ruling issued Monday.

The Louisiana Attorney General's Office, which was involved in the cases and, for a time, led Roussel's prosecution after Babin's office was briefly recused, had reviewed the testimony of all 36 witnesses called before the grand jury.

The office issued "review sheets" of each witness's testimony, finding numerous situations where prosecutors referred back to prior witnesses's testimony and some instances of potential exculpatory evidence.

At issue for the judges at the 5th Circuit is a 2008 state Supreme Court case, State v. Gutweiler, that held defendants aren't required to prove their cases were prejudiced to have them thrown out if prosecutors violate grand jury secrecy, only that secrecy was violated.

In that case, prosecutors violated grand jury secrecy, the courts found, when they provided transcripts of prior testimony to prosecution witnesses before they also testified in the grand jury room.

Prosecutors in St. James tried to draw a distinction between what happened in that case and what they did because their disclosures happened during the secret proceedings, about which the witnesses and jurors are bound to remain silent.

The appellate judges rejected that argument Monday.

While the judges agreed that what happened in the Gutweiler case and in the St. James cases were different situations, they found the prosecutors in St. James unnecessarily disclosed the prior grand jury testimony. The judges added that if prosecutors felt doing so was necessary, they should have gotten a court order but didn't.

The judges added that other exceptions to grand jury secrecy "do not permit a witness under examination unfettered access to prior grand jury testimony."

The state Attorney General's Office couldn't immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

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Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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