Criminal Justice
 

Defense attorney wants Orleans Parish DA to say if it used fake subpoenas in home invasion case

The use of fake subpoenas by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office has come up in a home invasion case set to go to trial this week.

Defense lawyer Craig Mordock asked a judge Monday to order Cannizzaro’s office to disclose whether it issued fake subpoenas to witnesses.

Last month, The Lens reported that Cannizzaro’s office issued documents falsely labeled “SUBPOENA” to pressure reluctant witnesses to meet privately with prosecutors. The documents threatened fines or imprisonment if the witnesses didn’t obey.

State law allows DAs to compel witnesses to come in for such meetings, but only after getting permission from a judge and having the clerk’s office issue a subpoena.

In some cases — it’s unclear how many — prosecutors did not go to a judge and sent their own notices instead. The documents had no legal authority; the threats were empty.

Shortly after The Lens told the DA’s office that legal experts said the use of fake subpoenas was unethical, if not illegal, the office said it would immediately stop.

Similar practices have come to light in Jefferson Parish and on the North Shore. Those DAs, too, have stopped.

Under a revised witness contact policy, Orleans Parish prosecutors are instructed to use a gentler form letter to request interviews with witnesses.

Mordock’s client, Dominic Gibson, is charged with home invasion for an incident in eastern New Orleans in 2015. As part of its case, Cannizzaro’s office plans to use his past convictions as evidence.

Mordock said he wants to find out what happened in any meetings that may have occurred between prosecutors and witnesses, so he can find out if they have been coerced to testify in a certain way.

He said the threatening language in the fake subpoenas may have compromised the prosecution’s witnesses. He asked the judge to force the state to hand over records of “any and all contacts the District Attorney’s office has made with witnesses” in the case.

“Essentially, [with] these fake subpoenas, the DA is making a deal with the witness: We’re not going to come after you through fine and imprisonment, if you come in and do what we want you to do,” he said.

Mordock names four witnesses in his motion — Ozonesha James, Kishon Monique James, Mareketa Carmouche and Bianca McManus — who may have received fake subpoenas. The Lens was not immediately able to reach them.

“I heard from a third party — and I’m pretty certain this did happen — that the DA sent one of the witnesses a certified letter,” Mordock said.

He doesn’t know which witness got it or whether it was a fake subpoena, “but it’s my obligation to find out,” he said. “I need to be able to cross-examine these people.”

A spokesman for the district attorney has said the notices, which were called “D.A. subpoenas” in the office, were delivered by investigators.

Online court records show Gibson was convicted of kidnapping in 1998. The victim, according to court records, was Mareketa Carmouche — one of the witnesses Mordock named. Another, Kishon James, was subpoenaed to testify.

The spokesman for the DA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mordock, who worked as a Orleans Parish prosecutor from 2007 to 2009, said he understands the office needs to communicate with reluctant witnesses to build cases.

He’s familiar with the use of “D.A. subpoenas,” though he posted on Twitter in April that he remembers using them only for law enforcement witnesses. Back when he worked there, he told The Lens, the notices did not threaten punishment or falsely purport to be authorized by the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, as the more recent ones did.

Mordock is not aware of any other cases in which defense attorneys have asked prosecutors to disclose their use of fake subpoenas, but he thinks more could be on the way.

“I am hopeful that this is a template for other defense attorneys,” he said, “possibly for post-conviction relief.”

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