Hearing arguments about one of the most infamous triple murders in New Orleans history, justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court wondered aloud Tuesday what the U.S. Supreme Court meant when it asked them to reconsider the conviction of Rogers LaCaze.

LaCaze, 41, was convicted along with New Orleans Police Officer Antoinette Frank in a 1995 massacre at the Kim Anh restaurant, in New Orleans East, which claimed the life of one of Frank’s fellow officers and came to epitomize the dysfunction of the mid-1990s Police Department.

LaCaze’s lawyers argued at his trial 22 years ago that it was someone else — perhaps Frank’s brother — who took part in the killings with her.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court granted LaCaze a glimmer of hope. The high court ordered Louisiana to reconsider whether the judge who oversaw LaCaze’s trial, retired Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo, should have recused himself because he was questioned during the investigation into the shooting.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on what the federal court’s one-paragraph ruling meant, and ultimately whether LaCaze should get a new trial.

The justices gave no indication as to how or when they will decide, but they did express puzzlement about their guidance from above.

“This recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court provides an objective standard which, in my opinion, is difficult to discern,” Justice Greg Guidry said.

The U.S. Supreme Court said the state Supreme Court should reconsider LaCaze's case in light of a separate 2017 ruling in which the federal justices found that a key question in a judge's recusal was whether "the risk of bias was too high to be constitutionally tolerable." But the U.S. Supreme Court did not explain how to apply that language in this case. 

LaCaze’s lawyers argued that he should get a new trial because detectives questioned Marullo about whether he had signed an order releasing a 9mm Beretta handgun that may have been used later in the killings from the Police Department property room.

Marullo denied that he signed the order and suggested that it was forged. Meanwhile, he never informed LaCaze’s attorneys at the trial that he had been questioned in connection with the case.

“The objective facts in this record demonstrate that Judge Marullo, consciously or unconsciously, had a clear discomfort with public disclosure,” said Amir Ali, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center representing LaCaze.

Ali said that Marullo had taken an “extremely fraught” step by deciding to preside over the case instead of bowing out.

Marullo seemed to acknowledge that there was a potential conflict of interest when he rejected a detective’s request for a follow-up, tape-recorded interview after he was assigned the case, Ali said.

Ali argued that the U.S. Supreme Court set a relatively low bar for when judges should recuse themselves from a case.

“What (LaCaze) must prove is that it’s more probable than not that there was a risk of actual bias,” Ali said.

Several justices asked Ali, however, why the investigation into the gun’s provenance would have created bias on Marullo’s part.

“Why would this make him inclined to be less fair to your client? Why would this direct him in one direction or the other?” asked Guidry.

Ali suggested that the judge himself could have been a witness for the defense, because he had information that could have buttressed LaCaze’s testimony at the trial that Frank told him she was going to get a 9mm handgun from the property room.

Representing the state, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Ponoroff hammered away at the same question raised by Guidry.

“This is not the sort of situation where Judge Marullo had to fear criminal prosecution,” Ponoroff said. “The most likely reason that Judge Marullo didn’t disclose is that he didn’t think to do so.”

Ponoroff said the order with Marullo’s disputed signature releasing the gun was signed in August 1994, six months before the killings. He added that it would have been standard practice for a judge to sign an order releasing a gun to an officer.

Ponoroff said that even if Marullo feared the order would become public knowledge, LaCaze’s lawyers had failed to show why that mattered.

The District Attorney’s Office has argued that under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, LaCaze’s lawyers must overcome a higher bar of “objectively probable” bias to get a new trial.

“Judge Marullo’s actions, his non-disclosure, are supposed to reflect bias on his part. Where does the bias come from?” Ponoroff said.

All seven justices are considering the case. 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432