Judge clears fired BRPD officer of all wrongdoing in kidnapping & malfeasance case | State to appeal

BATON ROUGE — Hours before a disgraced Baton Rouge police officer was set to be sentenced for a malfeasance conviction on April 18, 2024, the judge presiding over the case notified lawyers that Donald Steele Jr. was cleared of all wrongdoing.

It comes after Donald Steele Jr. was found guilty of misdemeanor malfeasance in office but not guilty of second-degree kidnapping or sexual battery on March 26, 2024. Steele opted out of a jury trial and chose a bench trial with 19th JDC Judge Eboni Johnson Rose.

But after the judge’s ruling, there was question as to what is misdemeanor malfeasance since malfeasance in office is only a felony. Both the defense and prosecution had to present their sides as to why Steele should or should not be found guilty of malfeasance.

His sentencing was set for April 18, 2024 based on that. However, today, Judge Eboni Johnson Rose said she did not find him guilty on any of the charges. The malfeasance in office charge was based on kidnapping and sexual battery. After a bench trial, Judge Rose said she did not believe there was a kidnapping or sexual battery took place. Given both of those charges were dropped, there was not enough merit for a malfeasance charge, clearing Steele of any and all wrongdoing.

Lead prosecutor Dana Cummings represented the victim in the case and said the state plans to appeal.

“The judge’s decision confirms what we always knew and fought for. Donald Steele is innocent. Reports to the contrary were premature and did not take into account the Court’s determination that no sexual battery occurred. The State does not have the right to appeal an acquittal. In the event they attempt to, we look forward to maintaining the Court’s declaration of Mr. Steele’s innocence in any and all forums,” said Steele’s lawyer Franz Borghardt.

District Attorney Hillar Moore and his team fought hard to ensure Steele could never return to BRPD or any jurisdiction to become an officer again. However, given his acquittal, there is nothing saying he cannot return to being an officer.

“He has been found not guilty of all charges so there are no probations against Mr. Steele applying to be an officer or possessing a firearm,” said Borghardt.

Donald Steele Jr.’s Trial

Heading into the trail, which began Monday, March 25, 2024, Steele’s attorneys contended that his “…case is akin to a ‘House of Cards.’ Their assertion of malfeasance relies on their ability to prove allegations of sexual battery against a civilian while on duty, as well as the accusation of kidnapping.”

During the proceedings, the state presented eight witnesses, all of whom were law enforcement officials. Their testimonies primarily revolved around establishing Steele’s whereabouts as alleged by the victim. In contrast, the defense opted not to call any witnesses, and Steele exercised his right not to testify.

Steele investigation

Steele has been the subject of numerous UWK investigations, raising questions about why he remained on paid administrative leave for a year following his arrest, all while continuing to receive his salary and a supplemental paycheck.

The case seemed to stall when it reached the district attorney’s office. However, the day after UWK’s report, the case was assigned to Chief of Litigations & Assistant District Attorney Dana Cummings. She brought it before a grand jury, which subsequently indicted Donald Steele on charges of second-degree kidnapping and malfeasance in office. Shortly after the indictment, Steele was dismissed from BRPD.

Around 2 a.m. on June 23, 2021, 19-year-old Tramiria Pitcher found herself driving down Burbank Dr. when she was reportedly pulled over by Steele on suspicion of DWI. However, according to Pitcher’s attorney, Ron Haley, the stop was far from routine.

Allegedly, Steele instructed Pitcher to follow him to a secondary location where he purportedly kissed her without her consent, engaged in inappropriate touching, transferred pictures of her from her phone to his own via AirDrop, and sent her inappropriate text messages.

The fired BRPD officer chose to waive a jury trial and opted to move forward with a bench trial before Judge Eboni Johnson Rose.

District Attorney’s first witness — the victim

After opening statements, Dana Cummings started with Tramiria Pitcher, who is now 22-years-old. While on the stand, Pitcher fought back tears to tell Judge Rose her side of what transpired that June 2021 night.

Pitcher was a student at Southern University at the time. She lived in an apartment near Burbank Dr. Earlier in the day, she said she was at her dad’s home for a party where she had two shots. She then returned to her own apartment and around 2 a.m., was leaving to head to a friend’s house.

“I got pulled over by a police officer,” said Pitcher. She said she knew he was an officer because he had on an “entire uniform with his badge, gun and marked police car.”

“He came to the car and he was like I was drinking and driving. He said you could drink and drive but needed to be cautious. He said he wouldn’t give me a ticket because I was pretty,” said Pitcher.

She testified that he kept her there roughly 20 minutes as he stood outside of her car and she was in the driver’s seat in her car. She added that he took her cell phone and airdropped two pictures of her to himself.

A few minutes later, LSU Police showed up to the same area but she said Steele went up to them, talked to them and then they left. That LSU police officer was also a witness in the trial.

Pitcher said Steele returned to her car and said they needed to move but told her “If you don’t leave, I’m putting you in handcuffs and taking you to jail. His instructions were to follow him.”

BRPD Officer Donald Steele

She said initially, he told her they were headed to the Baton Rouge airport, but then he took her towards an abandoned warehouse near Chippewa St. She was asked numerous times why she followed him to the second location or why she did not ask for help instead of complying with his instructions.

“Because I felt I had to stay safe. Three things were going through my head. I thought I was going to get raped, go to jail or die,” said Pitcher. “I always felt a cop’s word would be trusted over mine. I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do.”

She said at the second location, he kept her there between an hour and a half and two hours. He allegedly kissed her, touched her inappropriately, continued to go through her phone and then “showed me explicit videos of him.” She even said he read text messages between she and her mom where she was discussing wanting to get a boob job. She said he offered to help pay for it and told her she could make some extra money by having sex with people.

When questioned if she consented to any of the touching, she responded with “No” and added she did not flirt with him, as his attorneys said in their opening statements.

She testified that Donald Steele asked if she wanted to get in the backseat of his police car and if he could come over to her apartment. She said no but that he asked several times and she finally said yes to the last time so he would stop asking. She finally got back to her apartment around 4 a.m.

“I locked the door to my apartment, locked the door to my room and just cried. I was scared. He knew where I lived,” said Pitcher.

Once home, he sent inappropriate text messages to Pitcher, some sexual in nature and things he wanted her to do to herself.

Pitcher testified that Donald Steele never asked her for her license and registration. It would also be established that he never called in making a traffic stop. Plus, he was assigned to work District 4 in the Scotlandville area and never should have been in District 2, where he pulled over Pitcher.

“It changed me as a person. I find myself in moods of why did this happen to me? Ready for it all to be over with. Tired of it,” she testified.

On cross examination, co-counsel Kathryn Burke tried to paint a picture that Pitcher was driving recklessly when she pulled onto Burbank. Pitcher said she looked left and right before she turned out and since no vehicles were coming, she turned left.

Burke brought up a protective order that was allowed to expire and insinuated that Pitcher voluntarily dismissed the order. Pitcher said she was not aware the order was no longer active. Burke also said a week after the incident, Pitcher went to Ron Haley for a civil suit where she could get money if she wins that case.

“I want justice,” she replied. Burke questioned her, “Would you be satisfied with justice and no money?” She replied to that, “I would be.”

District Attorney’s second witness — BRPD’s Internal Affairs

Sgt. Derek Moore was the second witness for the state testifying that Pitcher came in to make a complaint about then officer Donald Steele. He was able to track Steele being where she told him. Pitcher would also take Sgt. Moore to the two scenes where Steele allegedly took her.

Sgt. Moore testified that his digging revealed Steele should have been working in District 4 and not District 2, meaning he was miles away from where he was assigned to be policing that night. Sgt. Moore testified that calling in a traffic stop is not required per BRPD policy but it is nice to do so. He also testified that Steele’s dash camera did not come on that night, but when he checked his car to ensure it was working, he said it did.

“Pursuit lights do activate the dash camera. His dash camera should have come on and when I tested the lights to ensure if they come on, the dash camera came on immediately,” said Sgt. Moore.

District Attorney’s third witness — Steele’s supervisor

Sgt. Scott Johnson testified that he was Donald Steele’s supervisor the night this happened. He said an officer can go outside their district for food and gas but permission is required if an officer is going extremely far.

When questioned why Steele was making a traffic stop in another district, “That’s 2nd District and nowhere near Scotlandville. He didn’t ask permission to go to a different district,” said Sgt. Johnson.

On the cross examination, Lead Defense Attorney Franz Borghardt pointed out that Steele lived in the 2nd District area.

On re-direct though, Cummings asked if Steele had permission to go home and the response was, “No.”

District Attorney’s fourth witness — LSU Police Officer

Sgt. Thomas Schiebe testified as the LSU Police officer who interacted with Donald Steele that June 2021 night.

He said he had another officer with him that night who he was training. He said he noticed what appeared to be a BRPD unit.

“We monitor BRPD’s 2nd District and there was no call for a traffic stop,” said Sgt. Schiebe. Second District includes LSU in it’s area that officers patrol.

The sergeant said he went to the traffic stop at which time Donald Steele told them, “He indicated that he was safe and this was his sister.”

On cross examination, Borghardt questioned if the female in the other vehicle ever appeared to be asking for help. The officer testified she did not. Borghardt then said that when Steele referred to her as his sister, he could have been saying it as a colloquial. The officer said that could be possible.

On re-direct, Cummings came back asking what did Steele say after he said it was his sister. “I’m giving her directions,” said Sgt. Schiebe. “And is that colloquial for anything?” Cummings asked. The officer said he didn’t believe so.

The state is expected to present a few more witnesses on Tuesday, March 26 before resting and the defense putting on their case. After closing arguments, Judge Rose will render her verdict.

Second-degree kidnapping carries a sentence between five and forty years if found guilty.

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