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

Emerson Jackson, left, and Travis Wheeler

A state judge has reversed the terminations of two Baton Rouge police officers who were fired for their role in a 2014 alleged rape in a BREC park but later acquitted at a trial.

Judge Wilson Fields ruled the civil service board that reviewed the cops' discipline "went outside their scope of authority" when it upheld the terminations of former Baton Rouge police officers Emerson Jackson and Travis Wheeler, according to court minutes. 

Then-Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie fired Jackson and Wheeler in 2014 for a "violation of law" — a fireable offense under department policy — after they were indicted on abuse of office charges. Prosecutors had said the men served as look-outs while another officer forced a woman to perform a sex act on him in a BREC park. The two officers were acquitted in 2017 but the Municipal Police and Fire Civil Service Board upheld their terminations. 

Fields ruled Oct. 25. Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said Friday he would appeal the judge's ruling to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which stalls any immediate changes in Jackson or Wheeler's employment. The attorney for Jackson and Wheeler said the officers would have been reinstated had Paul not appealed.

"I think we'll be successful at the First Circuit," said attorney Kyle Kershaw, who represents Jackson and Wheeler. "I think the judge was correct his legal reasons were sound. ... It is quite apparent from a review of the (civil service) board’s findings that it went far afield of the limited issues it was to consider.”

Fields this year asked the civil service board to explain why they voted to uphold Jackson and Wheeler's terminations. In their reasoning, the board said the still believed the two men "were guilty of malfeasance in office and failing to protect" the woman involved and called the men "accessories" to the alleged rape, according to court filings.

“The Board considered the jury finding in the criminal trial but determined it was not bound to the same conclusion based on the differing standards of review and the testimony of the officers which was not presented in the criminal trial," the board members wrote. Wheeler and Jackson were accused of standing guard while former officer Isaac Bolden allegedly coerced a young woman to perform oral sex Feb. 4, 2014, at Old Hammond Park. Bolden was also acquitted. 

Civil Service Board President Julie Cherry said in her 10-year tenure on the board, its decisions have never been overturned by a state judge, but she said "it's all within the realm."

"It's part of the process," Cherry said. "This is the rights of the officers and the department to exhaust all avenues of appeal."

Board attorney Floyd Falcon said this decision, if upheld at the Court of Appeals, could mean the city will have to turn over quite a large amount of money in back pay. He said that would be the standard for such a case, but would not comment on specifics. 

"If it's reversed, they'll get reinstated retroactive to the day of termination," Falcon said. "So it would be a lot of money."

Kershaw said while back pay is an important outcome, he doesn't think the sum will be as large because both Jackson and Wheeler have been working elsewhere in the meantime, and that other income would be subtracted out.

He said the most important aspect for them is getting Wheeler back to work at the Baton Rouge Police Department, is possible. Wheeler is currently working at the Baker Police Department, Kershaw said, but wants to return to the capital city's police force.

"I'm fighting for his job back," Kershaw said. "Travis wanted to be a police officer. That was his goal in life, he got it taken away from him, and now, potentially, he gets it back."

Kershaw was not sure whether Jackson would also want his job back. He said he knew Jackson had been working, but was not sure where or what he was doing. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.