A top trial prosecutor in Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office was on the receiving end of some bitter allegations Tuesday, accused of nefarious maneuvers that included ginning up a criminal indictment against a Public Defenders Office investigator out of sheer vengeance.
A hearing before Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier on a bid to recuse Cannizzaro’s office from prosecuting that case turned into a daylong hearing on the tactics and manners of 32-year-old Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli.
Among the witnesses were fellow Judge Franz Zibilich, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton and defense attorney Robert Jenkins.
Jenkins, an attorney for the Guste apartments in Central City, suggested he was the conduit for an allegation that Taryn Blume falsely represented herself to Housing Authority of New Orleans police as a District Attorney’s Office investigator in a rape investigation in early 2014.
Blume is accused of tricking the officers into handing over a police log that showed the victim reported only having been robbed, not sexually assaulted, when she first approached a HANO officer for help on Feb. 9, 2013.
Blume, 25, faces a felony count of false impersonation of a peace officer.
The victim was a 22-year-old University of Texas senior on a Mardi Gras vacation with friends when she flagged down a late-night ride with a stranger in the French Quarter. She ended up raped, bruised and shoeless in Central City, with Curtis Hawthorne’s DNA all over her.
Napoli prosecuted that case, helping send Hawthorne away for life, though defense attorneys said he repeatedly failed to comply with their requests to turn over police logs and other evidence in the case.
Two weeks after the conviction, Napoli went to a special grand jury to secure an indictment against Blume on the charge of impersonating a DA’s Office employee.
Her attorneys, Mark Cunningham and former federal prosecutor Michael Magner, argued Tuesday that the indictment marked only the latest rogue move for Napoli.
“When you have the victim saying nothing about a rape, and that is recorded in a written log by a HANO police officer, that’s an important piece of evidence. We believe that because of his failure, that he was caught in that failure, that’s why he lashed out at Ms. Blume,” Magner said.
Two public defenders testified about what they described as strong-arm tactics and sidelong courtroom threats by Napoli.
One public defender, Sarah Chervinsky, testified that Napoli told her, “How about you next, Sarah?” when she mentioned the indictment against Blume in court.
Napoli walked to the podium to personally cross-examine Chervinsky, but Flemings-Davillier turned him away.
Bunton testified that Napoli had made physical threats against his attorneys, though he couldn’t offer specifics. Bunton described a toxic relationship between his office and Cannizzaro’s office in the wake of the indictment against Blume.
Zibilich testified about an incident in which he considered filing a formal complaint against Napoli after the prosecutor left the courtroom cursing, but he said he decided against doing so to avoid harming Napoli’s career.
Lauren Boudreaux, a former public defender who represented Hawthorne, described a litany of motions she filed seeking the HANO logs from Napoli. She recalled the prosecutor approaching her client in court and saying, “I’m going to bury you.”
“We have really undeniable evidence that they were going to stop at nothing to make sure they were going to take this shot across the bow whether she was collateral damage or not,” Magner said of Blume’s prosecution. “The threats and the disrespect and the intimidation to the other public defenders ... are further examples that this (prosecutor) will do whatever he needs to do ... to secure his convictions.”
Blume’s attorneys claim Napoli and Cannizzaro have a “personal interest in the outcome” of her case and should be barred from prosecuting it.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, who argued the case for Cannizzaro’s office, repeatedly sought to rein in the wide-ranging testimony, describing the proceedings as gratuitous bashing of the prosecutor. “Mr. Napoli is not on trial,” he said.
Bowman called the hearing “shameful” and said Blume’s attorneys had failed to show any credible evidence to support the allegations of a personal vendetta in her prosecution.
“Jason Napoli has never been found by any court to have failed to produce evidence. The Public Defenders Office doesn’t like Jason Napoli, that’s clear. Then again, that’s not a basis for recusal,” Bowman said. “They put up no credible evidence that somehow Ms. Blume has been framed. They can’t establish this was retaliatory. It’s time to get this case to trial.”
Flemings-Davillier declined to rule immediately on the recusal motion, saying she would decide the issue in two weeks. Blume is scheduled to stand trial May 10.
Blume remains free on a $50,000 recognizance bond , a figure that Magner argued was more evidence of a vendetta.
The HANO logs were never used at Hawthorne’s trial, after the rape victim testified that she only told a housing officer she’d been robbed.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.