Just days before former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt is set to report to federal prison to begin a four-year sentence for racketeering, a federal judge will hear oral arguments Wednesday about why she might deserve a new trial.
Gill Pratt is scheduled to surrender to the federal Bureau of Prisons on Monday, nearly three years after she was convicted by a jury of helping to loot a chain of charities set up by members of disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s family.
It will be up to U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who allowed Gill Pratt to stay out of prison while her appeal was pending, to decide whether the former councilwoman and state representative deserves another shot at justice.
The arguments being made by Gill Pratt’s lawyer, Mike Fawer, are by now familiar to most New Orleanians: that misconduct by members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, primarily in the form of caustic pseudonymous postings about criminal defendants who were the subject of stories on nola.com, had the effect of prejudicing public opinion and tainting the jury pool against Gill Pratt.
If Lemelle doesn’t grant a new trial, Fawer, who filed his motion last month, is seeking an evidentiary hearing that would allow him to further develop his arguments. He proposes to subpoena numerous federal prosecutors, FBI agents, jurors in the case and reporters who he alleges received “confidential information” about the case involving Gill Pratt from federal authorities.
The misconduct defense has been employed by numerous defendants in the two-plus years since Sal Perricone, then a top lieutenant in U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office, was unmasked as a prolific commenter on nola.com who used a series of aliases to criticize people under scrutiny by federal authorities. Gill Pratt was among the many targets of his scorn.
The Perricone scandal didn’t end with the prosecutor’s admissions. Jan Mann, Letten’s longtime top assistant, later admitted that she, too, had been posting anonymously, and in late 2012, both she and Letten stepped down. The Justice Department, meanwhile, opened an internal probe into the matter.
While many defense attorneys have sought to make hay from the scandal, they’ve been successful in only a couple of high-profile cases. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt set aside the guilty verdicts of five New Orleans police officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings, citing misconduct by federal prosecutors. The Justice Department also announced it was dropping a years-long probe into landfill owner Fred Heebe, who was the target of some of the anonymous commentary.
In his motion seeking a new trial, Fawer says that 86 percent of the prospective jurors in the first of Gill Pratt’s two trials had negative impressions of Gill Pratt or the Jefferson family, largely due to media coverage.
“What the court did not know when it struggled to pick an impartial jury was that a highly placed member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was inciting the prejudice,” he wrote.
Perricone, Fawer notes, was the lead prosecutor in a separate corruption case involving Mose Jefferson, Gill Pratt’s longtime companion. Mose Jefferson was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in that case; he died while incarcerated.
Perricone posted extensively at nola.com about Gill Pratt and the rest of the Jefferson family, with which she was closely linked, Fawer’s motion notes. The motion quotes extensively from those posts.
Gill Pratt’s first trial ended in a mistrial when one juror would not vote to convict her. She was found guilty at a second trial. Lemelle initially sentenced her to seven years in prison, but he reduced the term to four years earlier this year after an appeals court ruled that he had misapplied federal sentencing guidelines.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.