Records: Judge pulled off case after series of mistakes

AP News
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Posted: Dec 02, 2016 4:57 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge in Louisiana was pulled off a criminal case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures and after she apparently delegated some of her judicial duties to a prosecutor, according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

The documents, including a transcript that the AP petitioned to have unsealed this week, detail U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi's unusual behavior in February as she presided over a trial for a man charged with fraud. The Feb. 3 transcript of a telephone call offers a possible explanation for Minaldi's removal from the case — one of several that she has been taken off this year.

February's case in Lake Charles ended in a mistrial because even basic requirements — like telling jurors the burden of proof lies with prosecutors, not the defense — weren't followed, the transcript unsealed Thursday reveals.

Defense attorney Cristie Gautreaux Gibbens initially raised the possibility of a mistrial with Minaldi after they picked a jury without giving them routine instructions or reading the indictment aloud in court.

"They don't (know) my client's presumed innocent. They don't know that I don't have to prove anything," Gibbens said a day before the mistrial.

The trial abruptly ended after Minaldi interrupted and admonished a prosecutor questioning a witness.

"Get your act together. Okay. I have no idea what's going on here. Get your act together," Minaldi said, according to a transcript that already was publicly accessible.

Minaldi called a lunch break, but the trial never resumed.

The case immediately was reassigned to another judge, who declared a mistrial at the request of a defense attorney and prosecutor. The court didn't explain Minaldi's "inability" to continue handling the case, and it sealed a transcript of the Feb. 3 telephone call in which the attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Donald Walter for a mistrial.

Among the reasons for a mistrial disclosed during the call: A prosecutor said he was told to assume the judge's role of questioning and instructing jurors.

"And essentially I became — at least in appearance sake, I was acting as if I were the judge, and I recognize that's something I can't do," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Luke Walker said.

Walker and Gibbens, the defense attorney, told Minaldi they took responsibility for the mistakes that ultimately led to a mistrial. Minaldi said she sometimes forgot procedure because she presided over so few trials, but told the attorneys: "I forget, but I rely on you to remember."

Minaldi told them to simply give the jurors new instructions, but the attorneys later told the judge re-assigned to the case that the mistakes couldn't be rectified.

"Thank you both very much, and I'm sorry that y'all had to go through all of that," Judge Walter said after declaring the mistrial.

Minaldi's mid-trial removal from that case wasn't the only mysterious end to one of her assignments this year. On March 7, the chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana took her off the criminal cases against a south Louisiana sheriff and several subordinates.

An explanation was never given, but the order came four days after Minaldi abruptly adjourned a hearing to accept guilty pleas by two sheriff's deputies; the two deputies wound up pleading guilty later that same day in front of a different judge.

An attorney for that sheriff argued Minaldi's removal violated court rules and was done without her consent, but a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to transfer the case back to Minaldi.