Len Davis is on federal death row, while Antoinette Frank awaits execution at the state prison in St. Gabriel.
The similarities are uncanny. Both were New Orleans police officers when they were arrested for unrelated, but equally vicious, murders. Each enlisted a mentally disabled accomplice. Each seems destined to be with us forever. Davis and his sidekick Paul Hardy were convicted in 1994, Frank and Rogers LaCaze a year later.
The latest ruling in the case of LaCaze came only last week from the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, on the federal front, we are waiting with bated breath for document No. 2466 in the Davis saga. No. 2465, filed Feb. 15, was the government's response to a request for an evidentiary hearing about something or other. Defense counsel has to keep the wheels turning in a capital case, but this is a case record to set the eyes spinning in any normal head.
Trial judge Ginger Berrigan sentenced Hardy and Davis to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled that executing the mentally disabled violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.
After a woman called Kim Groves complained to NOPD's Internal Affairs that he had pistol-whipped a teenager on the street, Davis ordered Hardy to kill her. When Hardy shot Groves outside her home and called a jubilant Davis on his cell phone, FBI agents investigating a drug ring picked up their conversation.
That, and other wiretaps adduced at trial, left no room for doubt about guilt, but Berrigan was obliged to resentence Hardy 17 years later because tests showed his IQ was not high enough to qualify for execution. Davis is clearly in no immediate danger either, as the documents pile up, but then a ripe old age is par for the course these days on death row, state or federal.
State judge Frank Marullo sentenced Frank and LaCaze to death for the murders of Cuong Vy and Ha Vu, at their family's restaurant in New Orleans East, along with New Orleans police officer Ronald Williams, who was working a detail there. Police never did recover the gun used in the murder or the $10,000 that was missing.
Frank and LaCaze were convicted largely on the strength of testimony from other members of the restaurant family who had hidden in a cooler. It emerged at Frank's trial, which came after LaCaze's, that Frank had obtained a 9 mm gun — the type used in the murder — from the NOPD evidence room per an order that bore Marullo's signature. Marullo at a meeting with counsel in his chambers during Frank's trial, claimed that was a forgery and said he had given a handwriting sample to an expert to prove it.
When LaCaze challenged his appeal from death row, he cited Marullo's name on the release as evidence of bias. The case was transferred to an ad hoc judge and Marullo, called to testify, denied signing the release but could not remember anything about a handwriting sample.
LaCaze's conviction and sentence were thrown out, but not on account of the gun. It was because one of the jurors at his trial failed to disclose that he had been a cop. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro then asked the appeal court to reinstate the conviction, but not the death sentence, which would almost certainly not have stood in the long run anyway. LaCaze's IQ is about the same as Hardy's. The appeal court duly ruled as Cannizzaro requested, and the state Supreme Court agreed that LaCaze had received a fair trial, whatever was the truth about the gun.
It was, back in the day, standard practice for judges to make confiscated firearms available to law enforcement. Besides, the jury in Frank's case knew that Marullo's name was on order assigning her the gun, and it didn't do her any good.
Then, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a reconsideration of the LaCaze verdict to determine whether the gun order rendered the “probability of actual bias” too high to be “constitutionally tolerable.” The justices of the state Supreme Court responded with a profound and learned analysis last week that concluded they had been absolutely right the first time.
So the LaCaze case seems to be finally closed. Davis and Frank just stay put.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.