Criminal Justice
 

Jefferson Parish DA’s repeated use of fake subpoenas included one issued to an 11-year-old

A fake subpoena issued by the Jefferson Parish DA\’s office, one of 92 the office provided to The Lens.

Prosecutors under Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick prepared about 90 fake subpoenas in the year-and-a-half before the office abruptly ended the practice last spring, when The Lens exposed a similar practice in Orleans Parish.

The notices were marked “DISTRICT ATTORNEY SUBPOENA” and typically ordered people to come to the DA’s office to speak with prosecutors. In some cases, the notices told witnesses to show up for a trial or court hearing. A few were addressed to police officers involved in the cases rather than civilian witnesses or victims.

These so-called “DA subpoenas” weren’t issued by the clerk of court. And the majority that instructed people to show up for private interviews weren’t authorized by a judge, as required by law.

Many of the notices from Jefferson prosecutors were addressed to crime victims, including victims of domestic abuse, break-ins and armed robberies. At least one was addressed to a juvenile, an 11-year-old witness in a child-desertion case. A statement from the DA’s office pointed out that the subpoena was sent in care of an adult caretaker. In the lead-up to an eventual meeting, the statement said, prosecutors only communicated with the adult, not the child.

Many questions about the documents remain unanswered. Through a spokesman, Connick declined an interview request. The spokesman, Paul Purpura, later requested written questions. Through Purpura, the office responded to some of them in a statement.

According to Purpura, the DA’s office can’t even confirm which documents were delivered to witnesses. The Lens tried to contact dozens of the witnesses by phone or in person; only one confirmed receiving a fake subpoena.

The man, assault victim Alfred Lee, didn’t realize the subpoena was fake until he was told by The Lens. He called the subpoenas a “scare tactic.” He said he was a cooperating witness in the case and didn’t understand why the DA’s office summoned him to the office under false pretenses in the fall of 2016.

“I thought I had to come in. I was glad that I was home so I wouldn’t miss it and get in trouble for not coming in,” Lee said.

Last year, The Lens reported that Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro’s office used phony documents to pressure witnesses to meet with prosecutors in private.

Under state law, prosecutors can compel witnesses to appear for such meetings, but they must ask a judge for permission in writing. Prosecutors in Orleans Parish didn’t do that, opting instead to send their own official-looking documents marked “SUBPOENA” and threatening jail and fines.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro defended the practice, saying they looked official because people would ignore a simple letter asking them to appear. Legal experts and defense attorneys, however, said the subpoenas were unethical, if not illegal. Cannizzaro’s office ended the practice the day The Lens exposed it, in coverage that drew national attention.

The next day, Connick admitted that his prosecutors had engaged in a similar tactic, and it would stop immediately.

The office looked into the matter in response to an inquiry from The Lens. “Our findings revealed that ‘D.A. subpoenas’ have been delivered to reluctant witnesses directly from this office and without going through the court process,” the office said in an April 2017 email forwarded by Purpura.

The notices in Jefferson Parish were similar to those in Orleans, but they didn’t threaten criminal penalties for failing to obey.

Connick has said the practice did not result in “any undue advantage to the state” because he believed a judge would have approved the so-called “DA subpoenas” if prosecutors had bothered to ask.

The Lens filed a public records request for any fake subpoenas issued in 2016 and 2017. Cannizzaro’s office denied a similar request, prompting a successful public-records lawsuit by The Lens. (It’s now on appeal.)

About 90 notices drafted over two years

Connick’s office complied with the request, though it took several months. Last fall, the office handed over 92 documents.

Some told witnesses to appear for trials or hearing dates, rather than private meetings with prosecutors. A few were addressed to police officers involved in the cases rather than members of the public.

The Lens asked only for DA subpoenas issued by the office, but after searching its database, the office returned documents that were prepared by prosecutors, whether they were actually issued or not.

“Otherwise, the office does not know which of these was sent,” Purpura said in a February statement.

The Lens was unable to find court records of criminal cases connected to a number of the subpoenas. The Lens decided not to publish the Jefferson Parish fake subpoenas because we know too little about the cases to determine whether the witnesses whose names appear on them could be endangered. 

Most appear to be connected to domestic abuse cases. The Lens identified eight connected to armed robbery cases and 18 connected to battery or assault cases.

It’s hard to say how the 92 fake subpoenas in Jefferson compare to New Orleans because Cannizzaro’s office has only partly complied with a court order to turn over the office’s fake subpoenas to The Lens. At a hearing on The Lens’ lawsuit last fall, Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney David Pipes said the office rarely used the documents.

The Lens found eight New Orleans cases in which witnesses, attorneys or the DA’s office itself confirmed that they were used. Attorneys for the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps, who filed a civil rights suit against the Orleans Parish DA’s office, identified another nine.

Fake subpoenas used in domestic violence cases

The Lens set out to learn more about the Jefferson cases and the people summoned. We tried to contact dozens of witnesses or their attorneys, calling listed numbers that were often disconnected, sending emails and knocking on doors.

Many fake subpoenas appear to be connected to domestic violence cases. The name of one prosecutor who handles domestic violence cases appears on 25 of the 92 notices, more than any other prosecutor.

At least one fake subpoena was addressed to a juvenile: the 11-year-old daughter of Cassidy Gabriel, who was charged with child desertion.

“If the fake subpoena was indeed delivered to an unrepresented 10-year-old” — meaning she didn’t have a lawyer — “that would be shocking,” said Gabriel’s lawyer, Aubrey Harris. “The DA’s case was to protect the child, and instead they sent her this document under false legal pretenses.”

A statement from the DA’s office, however, characterized the subpoena more as a formality, a confirmation of a meeting the girl’s guardian had agreed to.

Harris couldn’t comment further on the case because she did not have Gabriel’s permission and was unable to reach her.

According to a police report, officers responded to Gabriel’s home in Kenner in July 2015 after her daughter complained she woke from a nap to find that her mother had left her alone with her one-year-old and seven-month-old brothers.

The report says the girl told police that her mother had hit her earlier in the day as punishment for calling the police on her for an earlier incident. Kenner police reported finding marijuana in the house.

Police booked Gabriel on three counts of child desertion, one count of cruelty to a juvenile and one drug possession charge.

By January 2016, the DA’s office had not yet filed formal charges against Gabriel. The DA’s office’s internal file shows that assistant district attorney Brittany Beckner drafted a letter to the girl, addressed to her in care of an adult, asking her to appear the next month to discuss the case.

“Only the guardian appeared in response to the letter,” a statement sent Wednesday from the DA’s office said. “All scheduling communications were handled directly with the guardian and never with the child. The guardian remained cooperative throughout the process.”

The guardian agreed to reschedule the appointment and return with the girl, the statement said. After that, a “DA subpoena was either hand-delivered or mailed to the guardian” in order “to confirm the meeting.” The document ordered them to appear on March 16, 2016.

The girl and her caretaker appeared for the meeting. But the DA’s office said the substance of that meeting is exempt from public disclosure.

Ultimately, the DA’s office decided not to go ahead with the cruelty charge. Gabriel later pleaded guilty to two counts of child desertion and was sentenced to two years probation.

Fake subpoenas drafted before charging deadlines, key hearings

A number of the documents appear to have been drafted right before critical deadlines for prosecutors. The Lens found several cases in which defendants were due to be released from jail or released from their bail commitments because the DA’s office hadn’t filed formal charges.

Under state law, prosecutors must file charges between 45 and 150 days after an arrest, depending on the nature of the charges or whether the defendants are in custody.

Some of the fake subpoenas are dated days before a hearing to consider defense attorneys’ requests to have a client freed.

Others are dated shortly before preliminary hearings — used to determine whether prosecutors have probable cause to proceed with a case  — were scheduled.

Prosecutors often filed charges shortly after the meeting datesthe meetings were scheduled. It’s unclear if any of the off-the-record meetings took place or how they figured into the decisions to file charges. Through Purpura, the DA’s office declined to respond to additional written questions from The Lens about the apparent pattern.

One such case was against Kenner resident Carl Jack, charged with aggravated assault for brandishing a gun at another Kenner man, Alfred Lee.

Lee was not a reluctant witness. He wanted Jack to go to jail.

Jack was the live-in boyfriend of Lee’s aunt, Madeline Brooks, who also lived with Lee. And according to Lee, he was not an ideal housemate.

“He was drunk. He was out of work. He was stressing. And he was just hateful,” Lee said in an interview at his house. And Jack caused trouble with the neighbors, he added, pointing to the houses of people with whom Jack had feuded.

On August 24, 2016, Lee said he came home from work around 4:40 a.m. to an argument between Brooks and Jack.

“Jack was belittling my auntie. I didn’t mind that because I was used to that. She accepted it. It was never a problem,” he said.

But then, according to a police report, he heard heard Brooks yell, “Don’t put your hands on me.”

Lee said Jack, who was chasing Brooks around the house, threatened to kill him when he tried to intervene, according to the police report.

“He has a gun and he brandishes it. He doesn’t point it at me, but he brandishes it,” Lee said.

Lee ran and called the police, who booked Jack with aggravated assault with a firearm. At the time, Jack was also facing an aggravated battery charge for an incident in which he attacked another housemate, Ralph Darrensbourg, with a pair of scissors. (The DA’s office also drafted a fake subpoena addressed to Darrensbourg. He no longer lived at the house, and The Lens was unable to reach him.)

In September, Jack’s public defender moved for a preliminary hearing to determine if the state had probable cause to hold Jack in jail. With the hearing scheduled for October 3, Lee said, an investigator from the DA’s office appeared at his door with a document purporting to be a subpoena. It ordered him to come to the DA’s office in Gretna on September 29.

Lee complied. He said he met with a female prosecutor. The DA subpoena was signed by Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Rosenbach.

“She’s just asking me what went on,’” Lee said. He said she wanted to confirm that his version of events matched the police report; it did, Lee said.

“All she wanted to know, ‘Do you want these charges to go forward and are you willing to testify?’ Yes, yes and yes.”

He said he had not given prosecutors any reason to believe he wouldn’t cooperate with them.

“It’s something I would have wanted to do anyway,” Lee said. “And this wouldn’t have been necessary. The only thing that would have been necessary was a phone call that said, ‘Hey Alfred, could you come over?’ And we could talk about it.”

On Oct. 3, the DA’s office had the preliminary hearing postponed. Two days later, Rosenbach filed aggravated battery and aggravated assault charges against Jack for the two incidents. Early last year, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.

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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.