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East Baton Rouge DA asks 1st Circuit to overturn an acquittal; it could be a tough mountain to climb

2 weeks 1 day 13 hours ago Thursday, June 06 2024 Jun 6, 2024 June 06, 2024 3:55 PM June 06, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — Prosecutors have filed papers with Louisiana's 1st Circuit Court of Appeal hoping to reverse an acquittal for a Baton Rouge Police officer accused of grabbing the breasts of a female motorist he had pulled over. They say the judge's earlier decision to convict the officer should stand.

On March 26, Judge Eboni Johnson Rose convicted Donald Steele of a misdemeanor malfeasance charge that doesn't exist, finding that he behaved inappropriately after pulling over a driver near the LSU campus three years ago. Three weeks later, after considering post-verdict motions, she pronounced him not guilty but gave prosecutors permission to seek a review.

How it ends could depend on how courts interpret a constitutional prohibition against double-jeopardy.

"I don't believe the state has the right to appeal an acquittal," defense lawyer Franz Borghardt said during an April 18 hearing, according to a transcript filed with the 1st Circuit.

"They do not," Rose replied. "But, guess what, people file lawsuits all the time. So, out of an abundance of caution, the court is going to allow the state (to pursue the appeal). Although I do not see any statutory basis for such, I will allow them the opportunity to do so, if they may wish."

Just weeks ago, the state Supreme Court intervened in a case Rose had handled and wouldn't let a former Broadmoor Elementary teacher be tried again after an acquittal. The teacher had been accused of aggravated assault and Rose pronounced her not guilty after a jury trial.

The judge later met with the panel, which told her it had wanted to convict the teacher of something. Rose called the teacher back into the courtroom and convicted her, but justices said later that double-jeopardy laws prevented Rose from reversing the acquittal.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's office acknowledged in an appeal filed Wednesday that it is in uncharted waters with the Steele case, telling the court "the state has no remedy of appeal from the district court's adverse ruling."

District Attorney Hillar Moore III and Borghardt did not reply to requests for a comment.

In its appeal, the state says Rose had no authority to change the verdict, citing decisions made in other jurisdictions. 

"The question before the court is whether a judge can enter a verdict based on the evidence presented at trial and then change her mind later, vacate the previously imposed verdict, and enter a 'new' verdict," the prosecutors wrote. "Once a trial court's bench verdict has been returned, a defense motion seeking acquittal is no longer a viable option."

But there's still a question of whether Rose made a final order of conviction. Malfeasance in Louisiana is a felony, but Rose said Steele was guilty of a misdemeanor. Her decision left the case without a true resolution until she granted an acquittal three weeks later. 

Prosecutors formally accused Steele of kidnapping and malfeasance and, as his trial started, added a count of misdemeanor sexual battery. They said he forced the woman to follow him from near LSU to an abandoned warehouse off Chippewa Street and, once there, made sexually explicit remarks, grabbed her breasts and forcibly kissed her.

The state said in its appeal that Rose, during an in-chambers hearing, said she was concerned about the victim's credibility, "but expressed that defendant 'absolutely' did not follow protocol with his actions."

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