The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed former Louisiana death row inmate Rogers LaCaze a major victory in his bid for a new trial over the most infamous New Orleans massacre in a generation — the 1995 triple slaying of a New Orleans police officer and two others inside the Kim Anh Restaurant.
In a one-paragraph ruling, the high court vacated a state Supreme Court decision last year that upheld LaCaze's conviction on three counts of first-degree murder.
The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Louisiana with a finding that the state Supreme Court failed to properly review one of LaCaze's main arguments for a new trial: the fact that retired Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo, who presided over the case, failed to reveal that he was central to a police investigation into the release of the possible murder weapon to LaCaze's alleged accomplice, former New Orleans Police Officer Antoinette Frank, prior to the triple killing.
Rogers LaCaze scored a fleeting victory last year when a state judge granted him a new trial…
At the time, it wasn't unusual for judges to sign over weapons from unclaimed police evidence to officers for their personal use.
Marullo's signature appeared on a release order granting the weapon, a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic weapon, to Frank. Police questioned Marullo following the triple murder, and the judge denied he signed the order himself, claiming it was a forgery, though the officer accused of faking the signature was cleared of wrongdoing.
Investigators returned to question Marullo both during and after LaCaze's trial, but he declined to answer questions, citing his role in overseeing the case.
Lacaze's appellate lawyers have long argued that neither Marullo nor the state disclosed any of that information to the attorney who represented Lacaze at his trial, Willie Turk, and that the judge should have recused himself.
Only at Frank's trial months later was it revealed that the Beretta, which Frank had reported stolen before the murders, came from the NOPD's evidence and property room.
But the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed LaCaze's argument about the gun investigation.
It found that even if Marullo had disclosed his possible connection to the murder weapon, "LaCaze has pointed to no evidence that the judge harbored any bias, prejudice or personal interest in the case, let alone to such an extent that it rendered him unable to conduct a fair trial."
That wasn't good enough for the U.S. Supreme Court, which directed the Louisiana Supreme Court to revisit the case in light of a recent ruling in which the high court found that recusal is required when "the risk of bias" on the part of a judge is "too high to be constitutionally tolerable."
A state appeals court panel has reversed a judge’s ruling last summer granting a new trial t…
Amir Ali, an appellate lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center who argued LaCaze's case, said that whether Marullo actually signed the order for the weapon didn't matter. It was his refusal to disclose his role as a witness in a related police investigation while presiding over LaCaze's trial that tainted the case, Ali said.
"We don't want a system where judges are both judge and witness, and the Constitution doesn't tolerate a system where judges have background information about a case that could be important to one of the parties and fail to disclose that information," Ali said.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to reverse the state court outright, but Ali described it as a "strong message" that the high court "thinks there is a serious issue, and a serious constitutional violation here, and this is a way of having the Louisiana Supreme Court get it right."
The decision marks a stunning turn for LaCaze, who won a fleeting victory in January 2016 when an ad hoc state judge, Michael Kirby, granted him a new trial based on a different challenge.
Kirby, a former state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal jurist, was assigned to the case after Marullo recused himself from post-conviction proceedings.
In a lengthy ruling after a prolonged series of hearings, Kirby found the evidence of LaCaze’s guilt was “overwhelming,” and he dismissed a litany of claims filed by LaCaze's attorneys, including the issue involving Marullo and the gun.
Instead, Kirby granted a new trial based on the fact a juror at LaCaze's trial had failed to mention he was a state law enforcement officer. Such commissioned officers were legally barred from serving on juries at the time, though the law has since been changed.
An appeals court panel swiftly reversed Kirby's decision, however, in a terse ruling that offered little explanation.
LaCaze, now 41, appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the appeals court in an 18-page ruling that seemed to deal a fatal blow to his shot at a new trial.
During the appeal process, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office agreed to scrap LaCaze's death sentence. A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office said it would not immediately comment on Monday's ruling.
Frank, meanwhile, remains on Louisiana's death row, the last Orleans Parish murder convict to stay there.
Killed in the massacre were Frank's fellow officer, Ronald "Ronnie" Williams II, and siblings Ha Vu and Cuong Vu.
Both Williams' father, Ron, and the Vus' sister, Chau Vu, have said they fear a new trial and being forced to relive the slayings of their loved ones over days of testimony.
"There's no finality," Ron Williams has said about the appellate battle in the case. "I won't be relieved until it's really over."
Many consider the Kim Anh massacre the low point in image and morale for a New Orleans police force then plagued by endemic corruption and a murder rate that was more than twice as high as it is these days.
Officer Williams had worked a security detail at the restaurant with Frank, then 23, who dined there on the evening of the killings with LaCaze — thought to be her 18-year-old boyfriend.
Frank had brought Chau Vu to the rear of the restaurant when Williams was gunned down, according to trial testimony. Frank then rushed to the front of the restaurant, and Ha Vu and Cuong Vu were also killed.
Chau Vu hid in a walk-in cooler with two others, and Frank joined other NOPD officers as they responded to a 911 call reporting the massacre. She was arrested after survivors identified her as one of the attackers.
LaCaze was accused of using Williams' credit card to buy gas shortly after the slayings. But he maintained that he was at a pool hall during the carnage.
It is not known whether investigators ever found the pistol used in the triple slaying.
But, in the late 1990s, Frank's brother, Adam, was arrested in Rayville in northeastern Louisiana while living there under a pseudonym.
Adam Frank had allegedly bragged that he had killed a New Orleans police officer, and he had a pistol that matched the caliber, make and model of the Kim Anh restaurant murder weapon, according to court filings from LaCaze's attorneys.
The serial number on the gun had been rubbed off, but crime lab personnel recovered a portion of it, which matched the pistol that police believe Antoinette Frank had acquired from the NOPD's evidence room.
However, the recovered gun was destroyed before anyone could test it against bullets and casings found at the restaurant, according to statements at a court hearing years ago.