HOUMA — Prosecutors pushed back Thursday against testimony that they did not give defense attorneys for River Parishes serial killer Daniel Blank all the investigative findings needed for him to challenge his 12-hour confession to a murderous one-year period in the mid-1990s that left six people dead.
Glenn Cortello, Blank’s lead defense counsel at trial, acknowledged Thursday on cross-examination that he had, in fact, received many of the documents his co-counsel Harold Van Dyke testified Monday that their defense team never received or that he could not remember receiving.
Attorneys with Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana have argued Blank’s defense team did not have all the information on other suspects, about crime scenes and other facts that could have undercut the reliability of his confession and kept it from being used in his first trial in 1999 for the murder of Lillian Philippe, 72, of Gonzales.
Gary Clements, director of the post-conviction project, has raised this alleged failure to turn over key information as one reason Blank had ineffective defense counsel.
Long-standing U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires prosecutors to turn over any information that might point to a defendant’s innocence.
Clements also has charged that Blank’s attorneys failed to object during one pretrial hearing over allowing the confession at the Philippe trial. But Cortello testified Thursday that their strategic decision came after he had lost attempts to suppress the confession on different grounds following several days of hearings.
At the Philippe trial, prosecutors were able to show jurors all of Blank’s confessions to six slayings and other armed robberies in which residents were shot. At the time, Blank had not been convicted of any of those charges.
Courts mostly frown on using evidence of other crimes that defendants are not convicted of because it tends to prejudice jurors, though exceptions exist.
Philippe was beaten to death in her home on April 9, 1997, as part of a burglary that prosecutors claimed was done to support Blank’s gambling.
Blank was convicted of first-degree murder in September 1999 and given the death penalty. Project attorneys are seeking to have this death penalty conviction overturned. The state Supreme Court already has upheld it.
Judge Jessie LeBlanc, of the 23rd Judicial District, agreed to hold a weeklong evidentiary hearing at the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse in Houma, where the original trial was held due to pretrial publicity.
Blank, 53, who is originally from St. James Parish and lived in Sorrento at the time of the slayings, became the focus of a multiagency task force investigating the string of robberies and homicides of mostly well-to-do, elderly residents of St. James, St. John the Baptist and Ascension parishes.
The task force relied, in part, on an FBI profile to track him in November 1997 to his auto shop in Onalaska, Texas, where he confessed to the slayings and robberies.
In addition to the Philippe murder, Blank also was convicted in four other slayings and has four life sentences. Blank was never tried in the sixth slaying. Victor Rossi, 41, of St. Amant, was beaten to death with a baseball bat on Oct. 27, 1996.
On Thursday, 23rd Judicial District prosecutor Chuck Long took Cortello through document after document in voluminous pretrial discovery files that prosecutors had turned over to Blank’s defense team.
Time and again, Long had Cortello compare those files with defense exhibits previously introduced this week when Van Dyke testified.
But, unlike Van Dyke on Monday, Cortello agreed with Long that many of those defense exhibits that Van Dyke couldn’t identify did match the pretrial discovery files, showing Blank’s defense attorneys had received the questioned reports years ago.
Cortello also agreed that the content of FBI reports he did not receive restated what local agencies already had uncovered and already were contained in the pretrial discovery in another format.
Long, for instance, had Cortello look at an FBI report that Cortello did not receive that said a friend of Rossi talked to him on the telephone about 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Oct. 27.
That fact potentially contradicted the time of death given for Rossi by the Ascension coroner and Blank’s own statement. Clements has argued Blank’s attorneys could have used facts like this one to get his statement thrown out.
But Long then pointed Cortello to the pretrial discovery files. Cortello agreed they had substantially the same information in them.
“So that’s my point. This was not hidden to you?” Long asked.
“That’s correct,” Cortello responded.
Under questioning by Clements, Cortello insisted he and his investigators followed up on lists of suspects law enforcement had ruled out but identified in pretrial discovery and turned over to defense attorneys.
Cortello told Clements that he kept meticulous notes about that work but burned those records several years ago after they were damaged by weather, animals and bugs.
The hearing is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.