Defense lawyers questioning BRPD drug squad cases amid corruption investigation
BATON ROUGE - Danita Tate is the face of what a second chance looks like.
In 2011, she was convicted of marijuana possession with the intent to distribute. She maintained her innocence then and maintains it today.
"I am a witness now. And I was a witness then, as I was incarcerated at the women's penitentiary, that innocent people are in jail," Tate said.
Defense lawyer Rodney Messina represented Tate at the time.
"I don't know what the jury found except that they had to agree with the police because of what the testimony was from the officers," Messina said.
Tate was convicted of possessing seven ounces of marijuana based on testimony from two Baton Rouge police officers. Seasoned lawyers said those officers' testimony was not credible at the time.
"There was testimony that was inconsistent with their police report," Messina said. "Their report said one thing, and they testified something totally opposite of what they said in the report. We tried to discredit them. We thought we did."
Tate had remained arrest-free for nearly 10 years prior to her arrest for drug possession. However, when she was sentenced, the state used habitual offender status to enhance her penalties. A number of petty crimes, which she had committed 10 years before, were used to give her 30 years for the marijuana possession that she said she never possessed in the first place.
But, three years into that sentence, prosecutors had a change of heart and petitioned the court to free Tate.
"I've never seen it before," Messina said. "In my 30 years, I've never had it happened. But I'm glad it happened in this case."
Tate recalls the day she was called back to court.
"When they called me up to the podium thing, I had to say my name," Tate said. "The judge told me as long as he had been sitting on that bench, he had never seen that before. All along I knew God was saying I wasn't going to do 30 years."
This year, the two star witnesses in Tate's case were moved out of the narcotics division into uniform patrol amid a widening corruption probe.
That probe came after Jeremiah Ardoin was arrested for possession of stolen things in December. He began cooperating with investigators which led to this arrest of his colleague, Jason Acree. Acree was charged with malfeasance in office for stealing drugs out of the evidence room. This week, Acree was arrested again for obstruction of justice tied to the way he did his job.
As a result of the corruption, 640 drug charges were dismissed against defendants. Messina said his office has received more than a dozen calls to have defendants' cases reviewed again.
"Phone's been ringing," Messina said. "They want to know if they can be brought back into court. Some have pled guilty already and are in jail. We are looking into it."
Messina said with what has occurred so far, restoring trust will not be easy.
"I don't think anyone wants to see an innocent person go to jail," Messina said. "I've heard DA's say I'd rather have 99 guilty people walk out of jail than have one innocent person go to jail. Well-based on what's occurred in the narcotics division-trust, confidence, credibility, that's the issue now that I see at the narcotics division at Baton Rouge Police."
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