Steps down from hearing rape case
Although a St. Charles Parish judge said she took herself off an aggravated rape case following threats to her and her family, she has been uncooperative with a Sheriff’s Office attempt to investigate the alleged threats, a sheriff’s spokesman said Monday.
Judge Michele Morel, of the 29th Judicial District Court, recused herself from the rape case Friday after the state Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, accused her of questioning the 10-year-old girl’s claim that she was raped by a relative.
Prosecutors had also noted the defendant was a family friend, as Morel’s father, former parish District Attorney Harry Morel, declined to handle the case because of that relationship.
Michele Morel has disputed that connection, saying her father recused himself due to ties between the defendant and members of his office.
Capt. Patrick Yoes, a spokesman for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, said supervisors with the department’s criminal investigations bureau tried to contact the judge Friday to begin an investigation into the threats that she cited in her decision to leave the case.
Yoes said in a statement Monday that the Sheriff’s Office heard back Monday from a staff member in Michele Morel’s office, who told law enforcement officials that “Judge Morel appreciates our concern, but there was nothing the sheriff’s office could do.”
The office was prepared to investigate the threats, and remains “hopeful that Judge Morel will provide information necessary to initiate an investigation,” Yoes’ statement said.
“We take very seriously any threats made to members of the judiciary.”
In withdrawing from the case Friday, Morel reported 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.”
At issue are comments Morel made during a pretrial hearing in August, when she asked a deputy to remove the young girl from the courtroom and berated the child’s mother and a victims’ advocate for bringing the child to court.
The victims’ advocate, who works with the Attorney General’s Office, said it was typical for young victims to attend such hearings to become familiar with the courtroom and alleviate their concerns about testifying.
The defendant faces charges of aggravated rape and an aggravated sex crime.
The New Orleans Advocate does not name defendants accused of such crimes to protect the identity of victims.
Assistant Attorney General Blair Berthelot filed a motion Sept. 17 contending the trial should be reassigned because of Morel’s self-described “rant and rave.”
“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,” Berthelot wrote in his motion.
By most accounts, the judge’s family has had a strained relationship with Sheriff Greg Champagne’s office.
For much of the past year, sheriff’s deputies have assisted in a federal investigation into allegations that Harry Morel offered legal breaks to one or more women in exchange for sexual favors.
His attorney has denied any wrongdoing.