No new trial based on DNA from ’87 crime
One of the most tangled sagas in recent memory at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court came to an unexpected end Wednesday, when a judge reversed his own order and sent a convicted rapist, once seemingly exonerated, back to prison for the rest of his life.
Booker Diggins, once hours away from walking out of prison a free man, will no longer get a new trial for allegedly robbing and raping a woman in 1987.
Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo changed his mind and scrapped his order overturning Diggins’ 1988 conviction.
He reinstated his original conviction and sentence, sending Diggins back to spend the rest of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
This history of the Diggins case reads like a legal thriller: When he returned to the courthouse last spring, after decades in prison, he was at first greeted as the latest example of prosecutorial misdeeds under former District Attorney Harry Connick.
His attorneys, from the Innocence Project in New York, pointed to a blood-type report that was never shown to the original jury.
Diggins has Type O blood.
The written report from the victim’s rape exam determined the semen found on the victim was from someone with Type A blood.
Before DNA technology arrived in the 1990s, police and prosecutors used such blood-type evidence to help convict rapists.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro agreed to scrap Diggins’ conviction and let him plead guilty to a lesser crime that would have set him free on credit for time served.
Diggins believed he would leave prison that day.
Marullo scoffed at the deal and refused to accept it.
He ordered that Diggins stand trial again.
Just weeks later, an 11th-hour search requested by Cannizzaro turned up the rape kit itself, thought to have been lost for 20 years, on a shelf in a back corner of the courthouse attic. Prosecutors tested the DNA and found that, indeed, it belonged to Booker Diggins.
The Louisiana State Police’s crime lab found that one in 38,000 people might have left that DNA. The Innocence Project had the DNA tested, too, by a California analyst, whose results were even more damning.
That testing indicated Diggins was the only person on Earth who could have left that sample.
The Innocence Project withdrew from the case, essentially conceding Diggins’ guilt.
But Orleans Parish public defender Daniel Engelberg, appointed to take over, continued to push for a new trial.
Engelberg has argued the two types of evidence, the blood test and the DNA test, conflict, with the blood test proving Diggins’ innocence and the DNA proving his guilt.
It should be left up to a jury, he argued, to decide which one to believe.
The original jury never would have convicted Diggins with the evidence then available, Engelberg argued, had the blood-test report not been withheld from them.
Prosecutors resisted, calling a new trial “an injustice” for someone linked to a rape by DNA evidence.
At a hearing in March, Marullo was incensed that the district attorney had not subpoenaed the DNA analyst from California to testify.
He refused to reverse his prior order and scheduled Diggins’ new trial.
Prosecutors appealed, but both the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal and the Louisiana Supreme Court sided with the judge.
Prosecutors filed a motion asking the court to reconsider the “judgment obtained through fraud.”
“In the simplest terms, Diggins has worked — and is continuing to work — a fraud upon this court with negative and absurd consequences,” Assistant District Attorney Andrew Pickett wrote.
He concluded “justice realized through deceit is no justice at all.”
Marullo, in the end, agreed, despite his prior ruling and the two higher courts that upheld it.
On Wednesday, prosecutors flew in the California-based DNA analyst to testify to the veracity of his report, which found that Diggins was the only man on Earth who could have left that DNA.
Marullo changed his mind. He reversed his order and sent Diggins back to prison for life, ending his decades-long crusade for exoneration.
Engelberg told the court that he plans to appeal.