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Judge takes a do-over: Former BRPD officer cleared of malfeasance after alleged sexual assault

1 month 1 week 3 days ago Thursday, April 18 2024 Apr 18, 2024 April 18, 2024 11:21 AM April 18, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — A judge acquitted a former Baton Rouge police officer on a malfeasance charge Thursday, a month after finding him guilty.

Donald Steele's lawyer had questioned whether 19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson Rose could find Steele guilty of malfeasance if she didn't find him guilty of any underlying charges, including an allegation that Steele had grabbed the breasts of a female motorist he had pulled over.

In a do-over, Rose said she made an error in her previous verdict and opted to find Steele not guilty of everything.

“The judge’s decision confirms what we always knew and fought for. Donald Steele is innocent. Reports to the contrary were premature and did not take into account the Court's determination that no sexual battery occurred," defense lawyer Franz Borghardt said in a statement.

Prosecutors vowed to appeal, although second criminal trials are not allowed under double-jeopardy prohibitions. Rose gave the state until June 10 to file paperwork noting their objection to how she handled the case, despite Borghardt objections.

"In the event they attempt to, we look forward to maintaining the Court’s declaration of Mr. Steele’s innocence in any and all forums," Borghardt said.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III criticized the acquittal, calling Rose's action unprecedented "and procedurally improper, as a judge cannot modify a verdict in a bench trial."

"For this reason, the state will seek review of this procedurally improper ruling with the First Circuit Court of Appeal," Hillar said. "We will continue to support our victim and fight for justice for her."

Steele was accused of kidnapping and malfeasance. Prosecutors say he made a female motorist follow him from near LSU to an abandoned warehouse off Chippewa Street, where allegedly made sexually explicit remarks, grabbed her breasts and forcibly kissed her. After a trial, Rose acquitted Steele of kidnapping but found him guilty of malfeasance, prompting the lawyers' request for clarity.

In their briefs, prosecutors said they had produced enough evidence to show Steele violated basic tenets of his job — to the point that he engaged in malfeasance. Steele's lawyer said that with an acquittal on the other charge listed, it was improper to find Steele guilty of malfeasance.

The district attorney's office said Steele stopped the woman near LSU on June 23, 2021, then coerced her to follow him to the warehouse. Two LSU officers near the scene said Steele told them that the woman was his sister and that he was giving her directions.

A BRPD sergeant said Steele was working far outside his district and didn't call in the traffic stop despite later describing it as a stop for suspected drunken driving.

Borghardt said Steele and the woman's exchange was consensual.

Rose told lawyers after the trial that she didn't believe a sexual assault occurred, according to Borghardt. He said that without that, the state's case collapsed like a "house of cards."

Moore said his office will continue to support the woman even after the acquittal. 

"We believed in the strength of the state’s case and most importantly the credibility of our victim, who did everything one would ask an individual in this difficult position to do. That is, she immediately came forward, cooperated with authorities, and testified at trial about everything she endured that night," Moore said. "Her testimony was entirely supported by all the evidence uncovered in the investigation."

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