Louisiana judge off another case, after trial abruptly ends

AP News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2016 2:45 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A federal judge who has been pulled off a string of criminal cases this year was removed from another one this week following the abrupt end to a trial in her Louisiana courtroom.

Court records don't explain why the trial was cut short Tuesday or why U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was removed from the case against a man charged with producing child pornography and crossing state lines to have sex with a minor.

A docket entry indicates the man's trial was adjourned less than an hour after it began, before a jury was chosen. There is no reference to a mistrial being declared.

Chief Judge Dee Drell said in a one-page order that he was "exercising (his) prerogative" in cancelling the trial and reassigning the case to himself. The trial is set to resume Jan. 3 in Alexandria, about 100 miles from Minaldi's Lake Charles courtroom.

Defense attorney Randal McCann declined to comment on the end to the trial for his client, Frankie Maldonado, who pleaded not guilty to the charges. A prosecutor assigned to Maldonado's case didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

An Associated Press reporter requested a copy of the transcript for Tuesday's proceedings, but a court reporter said she couldn't release any transcripts of jury selection unless a judge ordered it redacted and unsealed.

"It's always a sealed part of the proceedings to protect the prospective jurors," the court reporter, DD Juranka, said in an email. "As for the rest of the trial, it may very well be sealed because it involves a juvenile victim."

Other routine assignments for Minaldi also ended under mysterious circumstances earlier this year.

In February, Minaldi was taken off a man's fraud case following a series of mistakes in routine trial procedures. Court documents, including a transcript that the AP petitioned to have unsealed last week, showed that even basic requirements — like telling jurors the burden of proof lies with prosecutors, not the defense — weren't followed during trial.

The judge who inherited that case from Minaldi declared a mistrial at the request of a defense attorney and a prosecutor, who said he was told to assume Minaldi's role of questioning and instructing jurors. The court didn't explain Minaldi's "inability" to continue handling the case.

In March, Judge Drell removed Minaldi from the Justice Department's high-profile criminal cases against a south Louisiana sheriff and several subordinates. No explanation was given, though 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 before another judge.

An attorney for that sheriff argued Minaldi's removal violated court rules and was done without her consent, but an appeals court panel refused to transfer the case back to Minaldi.

Minaldi has served as a judge in the Western District of Louisiana since her nomination in 2003 by then-President George W. Bush.

Minaldi pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in February 2014 and was sentenced to one year of probation, according to Tim Leger, Lake Charles City Court's judicial administrator. Dashcam video obtained by local news organizations showed her arguing with an officer and refusing to get out of her car before police arrested her outside her Lake Charles home.

A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals committee reviews judicial misconduct complaints. Disciplinary actions against federal judges are rare, and there is no record of any such case involving Minaldi on the 5th Circuit's website.

Minaldi previously served as an assistant district attorney in New Orleans and then in Calcasieu Parish before being elected a state judge in the Lake Charles-based 14th Judicial District Court in 1996.

Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney who represented dozens of death-row inmates in Louisiana in the 1990s, said Minaldi was the trial prosecutor for a few cases that he handled in Lake Charles. Stafford Smith described her as a talented attorney and a "dangerous adversary" who seemed to enjoy prosecuting death penalty cases.

"She was dangerous because she was good. She's a very smart lawyer," he said.

Lake Charles attorney J. Michael Veron wrote a book about a civil case that he tried before Minaldi when she was a judge in state court. Veron's book, "Shell Game," details a string of contentious exchanges that he had with Minaldi during the 2000 jury trial for his lawsuit against Shell Oil Co.

"She was fiercely conservative and proud of it, which wasn't surprising for someone who had spent her career prosecuting criminals before she was elected to the bench," Veron wrote.

Minaldi hasn't responded to several requests for comment in recent months.