Criminal Justice
 

Orleans Parish judge sent misleading ‘DA subpoenas’ when she was a prosecutor

In 2015, prosecutor Sarah Dawkins came to Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman with a request: Issue arrest warrants for two witnesses because they had disobeyed subpoenas.

According to a federal civil rights suit, the subpoenas were false — part of a longstanding ruse in which prosecutors handed out phony documents to pressure witnesses to talk.

The practice wouldn’t have been foreign to the judge — she had issued similar documents herself when she was a prosecutor.

One defense lawyer, who worked on a case involving misleading “DA subpoenas,” as prosecutors called them, said he believes judges who worked as prosecutors should say whether they participated in the practice. If they have, he said, that could present a conflict when they preside over cases in which fake subpoenas were used.

Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin, who never worked as a prosecutor, said that’s unnecessary. Since the practice became public, he said, judges agree that the documents were improper — as DA Leon Cannizzaro has acknowledged.

Under state law, prosecutors can compel witnesses to attend private meetings, but first they must get permission from a judge. In some cases, Orleans Parish prosecutors didn’t do that. They just sent their own documents that looked real.

Cannizzaro halted the practice the day The Lens reported on it.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman told The Lens earlier this year that these notices long predated Cannizzaro. Indeed, a defense attorney provided documents showing they had been used nearly 20 years ago.

In 2001, Quincy Brown was about to go on trial for attempted murder and armed robbery, crimes he allegedly committed in 1999.

His lawyers argued that some of the charges should be dropped, in part because the DA’s office had sent misleading DA subpoenas to his alleged shooting victim. A prosecutor cited those documents when she asked a judge to have the victim arrested for refusing to cooperate.

Brown was acquitted of attempted murder but convicted of armed robbery.

Five years later, Brown’s appellate attorneys revealed that the armed robbery victim also had been summoned with a DA subpoena to speak to prosecutors.

Judge Karen Herman

Herman, who was an Orleans Parish prosecutor from 1991 to 1999, signed those DA subpoenas, as well as several others in the case. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Richard Bourke, who represented Brown after he was convicted, provided The Lens with a number of DA subpoenas used in that case.

The notices back then were different from those used under Cannizzaro. The old forms didn’t say “SUBPOENA,” nor did they threaten jail and fines for failure to obey.

But they were still problematic, Bourke said, because they looked like legally binding documents. What’s more, Herman added a handwritten note referring to the documents as “subpoenas.”

A number of the judges at the courthouse were prosecutors earlier in their careers, including Robin Pittman, Camille Buras and Laurie White.

Bourke said judges who sent misleading subpoenas when they worked for the DA’s office can’t be trusted to treat them seriously. He said they should recuse themselves from any cases in which they come up.

“There needs to be a clear declaration from all sitting judges” about whether they used the misleading documents, he said. “We need to rely on the judges to honestly reflect on their practice as prosecutors.”

Though the DA’s office no longer sends fake subpoenas, they may have been used in cases that are still open.

Just last month, the DA’s office provided two fake subpoenas related to a 2016 attempted murder conviction. The defendant’s lawyers are seeking a new trial, saying the victim was coerced into talking to police.

Bonin said judges who sent the misleading notices can deal with the matter fairly. “I don’t think any judge would touch that form or enforce” it, he said.

According to the lawsuit against Cannizzaro and 10 of his prosecutors, Herman signed off on arrest warrants for two women who had disobeyed fake subpoenas. It happened this spring, right before the practice was made public.

The lawsuit refers to the women, who are not plaintiffs, by their initials. The Lens identified them through court records.

Jeromesha Blanton and Iesha Estem were the alleged victims in an aggravated assault case. They told police that in August 2015, Wayne Kendrick pulled a gun on them during an argument.

A few months later, the women approached Kendrick’s lawyer, public defender Thomas Frampton. “They told me and provided written statements that they had effectively fabricated the entire incident,” said Frampton, who has since left the public defender’s office.

The women wrote in their statements that they never saw Kendrick with a gun. Estem wrote that she had gone to the DA’s office to recant what she had told police, but she wasn’t allowed to fill out an affidavit.

Frampton sent the statements to Dawkins, the prosecutor. Her response, according to Frampton and the civil rights lawsuit: “You know how it goes in our office. Recantations mean someone goes to jail: the defendant or the victim.”

“The context of the statement,” Frampton said, “was me approaching Sarah Dawkins and saying, ‘Why the hell is this case still around?’”

Dawkins wasn’t willing to drop the case, he said, “until they could build a case against someone else.”

The DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the case.

Soon after, according to the lawsuit, Dawkins sent fake subpoenas to the women telling them to come to the DA’s office for questioning. They didn’t, according to the suit.

That’s when she asked Herman to issue the arrest warrants.

Dawkins’ only justification was “service to appear at the office of the district attorney,” meaning they had been summoned to the DA’s office. There’s no record of a real subpoena calling the women in for an interview, plaintiffs lawyers allege in the lawsuit.

According to the suit, Blanton spent six days in jail. It does not say if Estem was arrested.

The DA’s office dropped the charges against Kendrick in February.

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.