Removal of judge sought in rape case

Prosecutors are calling for a St. Charles Parish judge to take herself off an aggravated rape case after she suggested the 10-year-old victim’s willingness to be in the same courtroom as the man she claimed attacked her cast doubt on the alleged crime.

District Judge Michele Morel’s self-described “rant and rave” could further complicate a case that already had required Morel’s father, former District Attorney Harry Morel, to hand the prosecution over to the state Attorney General’s Office because of his connections with the defendant’s family.

The motion seeking Judge Morel’s removal, filed Tuesday, cites both those familial connections and her criticism of the child’s family at an Aug. 21 hearing as reasons the trial should be reassigned.

“The court’s actions and statements have affected the state’s witnesses, specifically the 10-year-old victim, to such an extent that this court will be unable to conduct a fair trial,” according to the motion by Assistant Attorney General Blair Berthelot.

The defendant faces charges of aggravated rape and aggravated incest.

The New Orleans Advocate does not name suspects in incest cases in order to protect the identity of the victim.

The judge’s courtroom tirade was provoked when the defendant’s attorney, Mark Marino, alerted her to the presence of the child during a pretrial hearing at which the defendant was also present, according to a transcript. Marino also asked that the girl to be barred from the courtroom.

Morel immediately ordered a deputy to remove the child and prevented her mother from leaving with her.

Instead, the girl’s mother and her victim advocate, Kristen Martin, were upbraided by Morel for allowing the child to come to the hearing.

“My blood is boiling that the 10-year-old victim is here, alleged victim, with the alleged perpetrator in the courtroom,” Morel said, according to the transcript. “I’m so mad right now I want to leave the bench.”

The judge then went on to criticize the presence of the girl, arguing she should have been in school.

In her motion, Berthelot argued that some of the judge’s criticisms showed she had already made up her mind that the child’s allegations aren’t true.

“If this guy is such a bad guy, why is she sitting in the front row looking at him?” Morel asked.

“I am appalled that this child is here today,” she continued. “This is for everybody. Everybody in the courtroom, the victims, if they are 10 years old, of alleged aggravated rape and aggravated incest, if they really had this happen, I find it highly unlikely and I find it really disgusting that you would bring the child in the presence of the alleged perpetrator.”

Officials from the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the motion or the case itself.

Morel did not return several calls to her office seeking a comment.

According to the transcript, Martin said the girl had asked to go to the proceeding. Attending the hearing would “get her used to coming to court so she would not be, you know, shell-shocked and stuff like that,” Martin said.

Martin later told the judge that ensuring children are used to court is a standard practice.

But the judge and Marino both characterized her presence as unusual.

Morel then barred the girl from attending future hearings until she is specifically called by a subpoena or prosecutors.

The motion argues that this violates the child’s legal right as a victim to be present in court. By having the girl removed from the room, the judge also identified her to a “packed courtroom,” violating her right to anonymity, according to the motion.

State law requires members of the legal system to keep the identity of minors who are victims of sex offenses confidential, according to the motion.

When the girl’s mother was allowed to leave the court, she found the girl crying in the hall, Berthelot wrote.

“The victim expressed to her mother and her advocate that she felt as though the judge did not believe her and that she had done something wrong,” according to the motion.

“The victim has continuously expressed her anxiety and distress at the thought of appearing again before this judge.”