‘This brings back all my anger,’ says survivor of 1995 restaurant massacre after judge grants new trial in case _lowres

Rogers LaCaze

Former death row inmate Rogers LaCaze, who last summer won a new trial on three murder counts stemming from the most infamous New Orleans massacre in a generation, only to see an appeals court brusquely reverse that decision, has appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

LaCaze’s attorneys with the Capital Appeals Project argued in Friday’s appeal that a state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal panel ignored reams of evidence and the law when it issued a terse, one-paragraph ruling discarding a blockbuster decision by ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby.

Kirby, a former 4th Circuit jurist, found the evidence of LaCaze’s guilt “overwhelming” but granted him a new trial based on a single issue. In a 128-page ruling, Kirby found that David Settle, a juror at LaCaze’s trial two decades ago, failed to mention he was a “badge-wearing law enforcement officer” with the State Police.

Such commissioned officers were legally barred from serving on juries at the time, a law that has since been reversed.

Kirby denied a myriad of other claims made by LaCaze’s attorneys in seeking a new trial. Among them was a claim that evidence pointed to the brother of former New Orleans police Officer Antoinette Frank as the likely other killer, besides her, in the 1995 triple slaying for which both Frank and LaCaze were shipped to death row.

Kirby also dismissed a claim that since-retired Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo, who presided over the trials of both Frank and LaCaze, shouldn’t have done so.

Marullo’s signature appears on an order granting Frank possession of the possible murder weapon, then sitting among surplus police evidence, before the killings.

Marullo has denied signing the order, but LaCaze’s attorneys raised that argument again in Friday’s appeal, along with several others that have failed to gain traction.

LaCaze’s attorneys have long argued that his case was botched by prosecutors, police, Marullo and his own, now-deceased trial attorney.

Last month’s ruling by 4th Circuit Judges Edwin Lombard, Paul Bonin and Madeleine Landrieu found that Kirby “erred in finding that the seating of Mr. Settle on the defendant’s jury was a structural error entitling him to a new trial.” They agreed with Kirby in denying the remaining claims.

That decision effectively handed LaCaze a life sentence. In its successful appeal of Kirby’s ruling, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to give up on sending LaCaze back to death row for the triple slaying inside the Kim Anh Restaurant in New Orleans East on March 4, 1995.

The dead were Frank’s partner, Officer Ronnie Williams II, and siblings Cuong Vu and Ha Vu.

The slayings marked a low point in image and morale for a New Orleans Police Department that was beset by corruption charges and an explosion of deadly street violence, with the city’s murder rate at the time more than twice what it is today.

Williams had worked a security detail at the restaurant with Frank, who had dined there with LaCaze on the evening of the murders. Prosecutors theorized that the 18-year-old LaCaze and Frank, a 23-year-old rookie cop, were lovers.

Frank led Ha and Cuong Vu’s sister, Chau, to the back of the restaurant when the gunshot that ended Williams’ life rang out at the front of the business, according to trial testimony. Frank then ran toward the front of the building. As she and LaCaze robbed the restaurant, Ha Vu and Cuong Vu also were killed, according to testimony.

Three other people hid in a walk-in cooler.

Frank, who joined other officers responding to the 911 call about the restaurant massacre, was soon arrested based on identifications from survivors. Police said LaCaze used Williams’ credit card to buy gas on the West Bank following the killings. LaCaze always has said he was at a pool hall during the melee.

His attorneys, Blythe Taplin and Cecelia Kappel, noted in their appeal that the 4th Circuit panel “provided no legal or factual support for its reversal” of Kirby’s ruling.

They claim the panel veered from prior state and federal court decisions over a defendant’s right to an impartial jury and that failures such as the one Kirby found were not harmless errors.

Frank remains on death row, the last murder convict from Orleans Parish to sit there.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.