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Louisiana Supreme Court clears Broadmoor teacher who was both acquitted and convicted at trial

1 month 3 weeks 16 hours ago Tuesday, April 30 2024 Apr 30, 2024 April 30, 2024 10:56 AM April 30, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously cleared a former Broadmoor Elementary School teacher whose conviction on an aggravated assault charge was initially pronounced as an acquittal because of a disconnect between the trial judge and the jury hearing the case.

Judge Eboni Johnson Rose committed a "blatant violation" of judicial guidelines that "shocks the conscience," Justice Scott Crichton wrote. Louisiana's chief justice, however, found this to be a teachable moment for a judge with limited experience. 

Rose, the daughter and niece of two 19th Judicial District judges, has had problems on the bench before. Just weeks ago, she found a former Baton Rouge police officer guilty of a crime that doesn't exist, then acquitted him three weeks later. 

Bridgette Digerolamo, 42, was fired by the East Baton Rouge Parish School District after video showed her waving a weapon at a car traveling on a flooded street in her Shenandoah neighborhood in 2020. Prosecutors say Digerolamo also hit the car with a baseball bat.

Rose initially set the woman free after her felony assault trial last year, but minutes later Rose summoned the teacher to the courtroom. Rose said that, after she pronounced the acquittal, she had met with jurors and they had told her they wanted to convict Digerolamo of a lesser charge.

With Digerolamo now back in the courtroom, Rose pronounced her guilty of three misdemeanors. After defense lawyers objected, a separate judge reviewed the case and, after determining that jury verdict forms were "confusing at best," declared a mistrial because of the dueling verdicts.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal this year agreed that holding a new trial would be the best way to settle the matter, but the state Supreme Court said Tuesday that Rose cannot put Digerolamo on trial again.

"Once final, a verdict of acquittal gives rise to the prohibition against double jeopardy," the justices said in an unsigned order. 

District Attorney Hillar Moore III, in a statement, said the state would have to abide by the justices' ruling.

"We believe the evidence presented proved the charges of aggravated assault in all three counts. However, we respect the judicial process and recognize that the jury's verdicts of not guilty were valid verdicts," he said. "We plan to fully honor the constitutional protections against double jeopardy."

The teacher was arrested after a video circulated online showing a woman confronting a motorist with a baseball bat, then pointing a handgun at the car. Sources told WBRZ at the time that Digerolamo's family had recently completed repairs after an earlier flood and she was worried cars would push water onto her property.

Demetra Turner-Louis, who was in the car, said at the time the situation could have escalated.

"If we had a gun it could have been a different outcome," she said. "To witness my child screaming and seeing this … I don't know her state of mind. She could have shot me."

In their two-page order, the justices said Rose made several mistakes as the trial wrapped up.

"Here, after receiving a final verdict and retiring the jury, the trial court erred by allowing the jury to continue to deliberate and change its verdict, particularly after the court violated the sanctity of any further deliberations by meeting privately with the jury," the court wrote.

Crichton's concurrence delivered a harsher blow.

"A judge must 'be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it,'" Crichton wrote, citing the state's judicial canons. "The law providing for the manner in which to accept and record criminal verdicts is both fundamental and clear, as is the law barring judges from meeting privately with the jury during deliberations.

"Here, the trial judge's blatant violation of these laws shocks the conscience," he wrote.

Chief Justice John Weimer, in his concurring opinion, called Rose "a relatively new judge" and said Tuesday's order was intended to be a teachable moment so she and others wouldn't make the same mistake again.

"To castigate this judge in this case is simply not the proper forum because of the need to evaluate and consider far too many facts, which are simply not in evidence in this matter," he wrote.

Moore, the prosecutor, was hopeful.

"We appreciate the guidance offered by Justice Weimer in his concurring opinion and hope that the courts will find it helpful in all matters going forward," Moore wrote.

Rose was elected in 2020 and has had several controversial moments. In 2021, she ordered a man's ankle monitor removed while he was out on bond for killing his girlfriend; he later was accused of attacking another woman and their kids.

A homicide suspect was released on bond, by Rose, in 2022 and was later picked up for a drive-by shooting, and last year she set a third bond for a drug suspect. 

There is no recall process to remove a judge. A judicial discipline commission can address misconduct, but not errors like those Rose has been making. Her term ends in 2026.

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