Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New Trial Order Affirmed; Court Condemns Prosecutor Online Campaign

Legal Ethics Forum has posted a story on the Fifth Circuit's affirmance of the grant of a new trial to the Danziger Bridge defendants.

The court majority

That three supervisory-level prosecutors committed misconduct in connection with the Danziger Bridge prosecution is beyond dispute. Perricone’s comments spanned the entire prosecution and went directly to the guilt of the defendants, the collective guilt of NOPD, and the relative competence and integrity of defense counsel versus the USAO. Dobinski’s comments stirred the pot by encouraging commenters who were plainly familiar with the trial proceedings, one of whom was Perricone, to keep doing a “public service” with their biased reports. Mann’s comments, posted during post-trial sentencing proceedings, displayed partiality toward the prosecution and denigrated the district court and defense counsel in another Danziger Bridge case...

Most pernicious, these attorneys’ online comments knowingly contributed to the mob mentality potentially inherent in instantaneous, unbridled, passionate online discourse. These prosecutors created an air of bullying against the defendants whose rights they, especially Dobinski, were sworn to respect. That they were several among dozens of commenters, some of whom may have disagreed with their views, does not dissipate the effect of this online cyberbullying. Just as a mob protesting outside the courthouse has the potential to intimidate parties and witnesses, so do streams of adverse online comments. The impact is felt not only by the defendants but by codefendants pressed to plead guilty or defense witnesses dissuaded from testifying. Preventing mob justice is precisely the goal of prosecutorial ethical constraints. The government here should not be able to shelter under a banner of “no prejudice proved” while the prosecutors acted no better than, and indeed tried to inflame, the public. For all these reasons, we conclude that the district court did not err in finding that the defendants were prejudiced by the government’s misconduct. On this basis, too, the defendants are entitled to a new trial.

There is a dissent from Judge Prado that condemns the conduct but would deny the relief

The majority opinion, the district court’s order, and the defendant’s own briefing all stray far from Rule 33(b)(1)’s narrow standard. Perhaps this is because the defendants advance no credible argument that the newly discovered evidence in this case—the identity of the commenters on—would likely produce an acquittal. The defendants devote only six pages of their 105-page brief to arguing they were actually prejudiced by the government’s conduct; almost none of the contentions in those pages relate to newly discovered evidence. The defendants advance a “theory of government media manipulation,” leading to an “overriding tenor of guilt in the community long before trial” and a “prejudicial, poisonous atmosphere.” Although they assert that “[t]his ‘poisonous atmosphere’ and concerted government misconduct had a substantial deleterious effect on the fairness of appellees’ trial,” they fail to point to any indication of actual prejudice resulting from newly discovered evidence, citing instead to a student note for the proposition that “damaging media spin can . . . be used to manipulate negotiation before trial—potentially driving individuals to settle or accept a plea where they otherwise would pursue trial on the merits.” Fatally to the defendants’ claim, these arguments are not grounded in newly discovered evidence—i.e., the identities of the commenters. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this evidence could possibly have changed the outcome of the proceedings. The district court conducted an extensive voir dire: prospective jurors completed a lengthy questionnaire, and the district court questioned both the venire panel as a whole and individual jurors in chambers. Then, counsel for both parties questioned the jurors based on their answers to the questionnaires...

Most importantly, the truth about Perricone’s postings came to light long after judgment was entered in this case. Therefore, even if the jurors had disregarded the court’s instructions and read articles on during the trial (we must presume the contrary); even if they had bothered to read the user-generated comments on this public website; and even if they had paid particular attention to the comments posted under Perricone’s or Mann’s aliases, they still would not have known they were receiving impermissible information from a source within the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The post-verdict discovery of the posters’ identities does not change this conclusion, which proves fatal to the defendants’ claim...

It is a fundamental tenet of our legal system that neutral rules must be applied evenly to all. We do not—and indeed we cannot—interpret the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure differently based on the character of the defendant or the circumstances surrounding his trial. The government attorneys acted deplorably in this case, and their punishment has been unconscionably mild. But a new trial is not the proper remedy on the record before us. I respectfully dissent.

The District Court's order is linked here. 

The Times-Picayune had a story on the bar discipline imposed  on two of the named attorneys.

A search of the D.C. Bar "find a member" function reveals that the third attorney was admitted in the District of Columbia in 1985.

The district court opinion lays out a rather compelling disciplinary case against that attorney starting at page 56.

So far as I am aware, no action has been taken with respect to her D.C. license.  

Perhaps the D.C. Bar Counsel is awaiting the outcome of the DOJ internal probe  reported by the Times- Picayune.

If so, my experience is that deferring the investigation of prosecutorial misconduct cases never serves the public interest.

Having had a number of such cases, I rarely found the work of the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility sufficiently  helpful to justify the delay. (Mike Frisch)

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