Threatening messages, calls cited
After previously refusing to do so, a St. Charles Parish judge has withdrawn from a case in which she was accused of questioning a 10-year-old girl’s rape claim during a pretrial hearing. The judge cited threatening phone calls and messages she said she has received.
Prosecutors had called for 29th Judicial District Judge Michele Morel to recuse herself because they said she suggested during an Aug. 21 pretrial hearing that the victim’s presence in the same courtroom as her accused attacker cast doubt on the alleged crime.
The case has drawn much local attention in recent days. In withdrawing Friday, Morel wrote that the “events of the last five days have created an environment in which the impartiality of the proceedings might reasonably be questioned.”
During that time, Morel wrote, she and “one of her family members have received several telephone calls and received several messages which this court perceives as threats to herself and her family.”
Patrick Yoes, a spokesman for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, said at midday Friday that the department had not heard from Morel about the threats.
The defendant faces charges of aggravated rape and aggravated incest. The New Orleans Advocate does not name defendants accused of such crimes to protect the identity of victims.
Morel’s decision to step aside came days after prosecutors filed a motion seeking to get her off the case. That motion, filed Sept. 17 by Assistant Attorney General Blair Berthelot, cited several reasons why the trial should be reassigned, including Morel’s self-described “rant and rave” at the pretrial hearing. It also noted that Morel’s father, former District Attorney Harry Morel, turned the case over to the state attorney general’s office due to ties with the defendant’s family.
“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 Berthelot’s motion.
At the hearing, Morel asked a deputy to remove the young girl from the courtroom.
She scolded the child’s mother and a victims’ advocate from the attorney general’s office for bringing the child to court.
Subsequently, in response to the prosecutor’s motion to remove her from the case, Morel said the attorney general’s office showed an “appalling lack of judgment” in allowing the girl “to sit in the front row in close proximity — approximately 15 feet apart — to the defendant who was also in the front row. The very same defendant who is accused of aggravated rape.”
The victims’ advocate contended at the time that it was typical for young victims to attend such hearings to become familiar with the courtroom and ease their concerns about testifying in the case.
Morel made several other comments at the hearing that prosecutors said cast doubt on her willingness to consider the girl’s testimony.
“If this guy is such a bad guy, why is she sitting in the front row looking at him?” Morel asked, according to the official 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, filed Sept. 23, Morel said she was questioning why the child attended the hearing instead of school that day.
The attorney general’s office accused the judge of improperly removing the victim from her courtroom; Morel said prosecutors and the victims’ advocate had “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 her response, which was 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.”
Morel has said her father recused himself from the case because of connections between the defendant and members of his office.