A St. Charles Parish judge accused of questioning a 10-year-old girl’s rape claim during a pretrial hearing has refused to step down from the case, charging that prosecutors who want her replaced “clearly mishandled” the case by allowing the child to sit within 15 feet of her alleged attacker.
While the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, accused 29th Judicial District Judge Michele Morel of casting doubt on the girl’s claims and improperly throwing her out of the courtroom during a hearing, Morel said it was the prosecutors and a victims advocate who “failed in their duties.”
“The court felt it had the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the child was protected from any further emotional distress,” Morel wrote in a response filed with the court Monday. “By removing the child from the courtroom, the court could address those who failed in their duties without placing any added duress on the child.”
Whether Morel will be allowed to remain on the case will be up to another, randomly assigned judge from the 29th Judicial District.
The dispute stems from an Aug. 21 pretrial hearing at which both the girl and the man alleged to have attacked her were present. The man is charged with aggravated rape and an aggravated sex crime.
The New Orleans Advocate does not name defendants accused of sex crimes to protect the identity of victims.
When Morel was alerted to the presence of the girl, she said, she had a deputy remove her from the courtroom while she scolded the child’s mother and the advocate who brought her to court.
“The court’s primary concern in this case was the appalling lack of judgment by the victim-witness coordinator for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office who permitted the young child to sit in the front row in close proximity — approximately fifteen (15) feet apart — to the defendant who was also in the front row. The very same defendant who is accused of aggravated rape ... ,” Morel wrote in her response.
During that hearing, the victims advocate said she regularly brings children to such hearings to get them acclimated to the courtroom and lessen their anxieties about testifying in the case.
That drew a rebuke from Morel during the hearing that prosecutors say cast doubt on her willingness to accept the girl’s testimony, specifically citing comments from the official transcript.
“If this guy is such a bad guy, why is she sitting in the front row looking at him?” Morel asked, according to the transcript.
“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.”
In her written response, Morel said that comment came as she was questioning the decision to bring the child to that particular hearing instead of letting her go to school that day.
She argued the girl could have been brought to see “hundreds or thousands of cases probably in any courtroom anywhere. But you chose to take her out of school, bring her here,” according to the transcript.
She also pointed to a section of the transcript in which the victims advocate said she did not know where the defendant was in the courtroom, characterizing that as “an appalling lack of good judgment.”
“Shouldn’t a victim’s assistance coordinator be cognizant of the whereabouts of the defendant and the victim in a courtroom?” Morel wrote. “Shouldn’t SOMEONE associated with the prosecution of the defendant make an effort to ensure the two are kept well apart? The court has the authority and the duty to require that criminal proceedings are conducted with dignity for everyone involved.”
Morel characterized her comments, which she described as a “rant and rave” in the transcript, as a way to protect the child and abide by a motion to keep her out of the courtroom made by the defendant’s lawyer.
The motion filed by Blair Berthelot, the prosecutor, “twists and embellishes the words of the court,” Morel wrote.
“A review of the entire record, as opposed to just one 10-minute hearing, shows the court has NEVER commented on the veracity of any witnesses, much less the merits of the accusations.”
Prosecutors further erred by suggesting there was a relationship between Morel and the family of the accused, she wrote.
That comment, included in the motion seeking to remove Morel from the case, cited the fact that her father, former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel, had recused his office from the case.
However, the recusal came because of connections between the defendant and members of the District Attorney’s Office, Judge Morel said, adding that none of the documents filed in the case alleged a familiarity between her or her father and the defendant.
She described the suggestion of a relationship as “incorrect allegations at best and blatantly false allegations at worst.”