Stephanie Grace: Legal reasoning getting ridiculous

I think everyone can agree that the U.S. Attorney commenting scandal revealed an alarming “gotcha” attitude held by several of the Eastern District of Louisiana’s now-disgraced former top prosecutors.

But can we also, finally, agree that two wrongs don’t make a right? That appalling, unprofessional and utterly undignified behavior on the part of federal officials does not cancel out appalling, unprofessional and utterly undignified behavior on the part of all those former local officials the office has prosecuted?

Because this is getting ridiculous.

Sal Perricone and Jan Mann got what they deserved for leaving a trail of insulting and even incriminatory comments, under various pseudonyms, on online stories about some of the people their office was investigating. Their boss, the once-revered U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, lost his job over the revelations. Again, entirely appropriate.

But nothing Perricone, Mann or anyone else anonymously said — and nothing any juror or potential juror may or may not have read — leads to the conclusion that people like former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, ex-Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, former New Orleans City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt and others deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Yet three years into the scandal, those poisonous comments posted on nola.com are still with us.

Nagin, easily convicted earlier this year of accepting bribes and basically selling out the citizens of New Orleans for his family’s personal gain, is appealing the verdict, presumably on the grounds that the comments revealed vast prosecutorial misconduct. Never mind that the trial didn’t start until well after Perricone and Mann were discredited, and that jurors were carefully screened for any sign they’d been unduly influenced.

Gill Pratt was convicted of public corruption in 2011. But Judge Ivan Lemelle recently delayed her report-to-prison date while he questions two nola.com readers from the jury over whether they may have been exposed to Perricone’s inflammatory musings. Pity the jurors who have to come in and answer written questions about what they read, and where, three years ago. Does Lemelle really expect them to remember?

And after the most fanciful attempt of all to capitalize on the scandal, Judge Hayden Head rejected Broussard’s attempt to withdraw his guilty plea in light of comments under stories about him.

Face it: Once you’ve admitted under oath that you’re guilty, it’s pretty hard to make the case that you were wrongfully convicted. Just ask poor, pathetic Henry Mouton, the onetime Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner who admitted taking bribes from an unnamed landfill mogul that was clearly Fred Heebe or his partner Jim Ward, only to watch Heebe’s well-paid legal team unmask the federal prosecutors and see the Justice Department publicly end the investigation. Judge Martin Feldman let Mouton off with probation, in part due to what he called the “oddness of the case,” but the criminal conviction stands.

At Mouton’s sentencing, Feldman didn’t hold back his anger over prosecutors’ behavior, and he’s obviously not alone.

The parade of federal targets seeking lenience was led by the New Orleans cops convicted of the post-Katrina mass shooting of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge, so far the only defendants who’ve convinced a judge that a case was so tainted that it couldn’t stand. Judge Kurt Engelhardt didn’t find evidence that jurors had been influenced or that any of them had even seen the comments in question. Yet he still ordered a new trial, which is pending.

In deciding to quiz the two Gill Pratt jurors, Lemelle read extensively from Engelhardt’s Danziger ruling. The fact that Lemelle is among the bench’s most liberal jurists and Engelhardt and Feldman the most conservative points to the extent of the indignation over the prosecutors’ behavior.

Still, it’s simply not plausible that jurors who read comment sections typically loaded with unsubstantiated rumors and brimming with invective decided to give certain comments submitted under false names more weight than all the other comments submitted under false names. Not without evidence that they did.

Nagin and Gill Pratt were convicted by people who listened to the actual evidence, and Broussard decided to plead based on what he thought the feds had on him. Can we at least agree that this is what really counts?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.