NEW ORLEANS — Defense lawyers told Louisiana Supreme Court justices Tuesday that a new trial should be granted for a man convicted of joining a New Orleans police officer in the slayings of three people, including another officer, during a 1995 robbery.
Rogers LaCaze was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, as was Antoinette Frank, a former officer whose role in the grisly murder at a New Orleans restaurant rattled a police department already rocked by scandal in the 1990s.
LaCaze has long denied he took part in the killings.
LaCaze’s attorneys contend that state District Judge Frank Marullo presided over the trial despite an appearance of possible impropriety: Months before the killings, Antoinette Frank had obtained a handgun from the police evidence room, using a release purportedly signed by Marullo, who told an investigator he never signed it and that it was possibly forged. Court records show authorities believe the weapon may have been used in the restaurant killings, although that is not certain.
Attorneys for LaCaze say Marullo should have recused himself and that he failed to disclose that he had been questioned about the weapon.
The state Supreme Court had rejected that defense argument in 2016. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in October, said the case should be reviewed in light of its recent ruling in a separate case that recusal is required when “the risk of bias” on the part of a judge “was too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, justices James Genovese and Greg Guidry questioned how high a level of risk was too high.
“Is it 50 percent plus one? More probable than not?” Genovese asked attorney Amir Ali, arguing LaCaze’s case for the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center.
Ali contended any risk of bias raises questions about “whether the trial judge was approaching the trial with an open mind.”
Arguing for New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, Christopher Ponoroff said Marullo had no need to recuse himself because he did nothing wrong. The weapon in question was released to Frank months before the murders. He added whether that gun was used in the murders has never been determined. Marullo was under no obligation to disclose that he had been questioned about the release of the weapon, Ponoroff argued.
The justices gave no indication when they would rule.
Frank is on death row in Louisiana for the killings. LaCaze is serving a life sentence.