DA’s office requests higher court to reverse Judge Rose’s ‘legally erroneous’ verdict for former BRPD officer

BATON ROUGE — District Attorney Hillar Moore has requested the First Circuit Court of Appeal to overturn a verdict issued by a Baton Rouge judge in the trial of a former Baton Rouge police officer accused of abusing his power during a traffic stop, according to court documents obtained by UWK.

In March, Judge Eboni Johnson Rose initially acquitted former police officer Donald Steele, Jr. of second-degree kidnapping but found him guilty of misdemeanor malfeasance in office. However, in Louisiana, malfeasance in office is solely classified as a felony offense, meaning that Judge Rose convicted Steele under a statute that does not exist. Several weeks later, in April, Judge Rose reversed her original decision and declared Steele not guilty of malfeasance and innocent of any crime.

A writ filed on June 5 by Moore’s office requests the Court of Appeal to reverse the judge’s ruling. Moore asserts that Judge Rose’s initial verdict, where Steele was convicted of malfeasance in office, should remain intact, despite the confusion surrounding whether it constitutes a misdemeanor or felony charge.

19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson Rose
19th Judicial District Judge Eboni Johnson Rose

Lawyers for the state argued this was improper because the judge could not change a verdict that was already issued. They claim the next step in the case needs to be sentencing and then defense lawyers could appeal the decision if they decided to do so. 

“For this trial court to render a guilty verdict then later reverse that verdict is a legally erroneous action that must be corrected by this Court,” Allison Rutzen, an assistant district attorney, wrote.

Representatives for Rose’s office did not return a request for comment. 

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

MORE: BRPD officer fired after grand jury indictment for kidnapping & malfeasance

Diana Gibbens, judicial administrator for the 19th Judicial District Court, declined to comment in an email to UWK

“Judges are not permitted to comment publicly on pending matters,” she wrote. “As this matter is still pending, the Judicial Canons prohibit any comment by the Judge or her staff.”

The accusations against Steele

Steele was accused of abusing his power during a traffic stop. Around 2 a.m. on June 23, 2021, 19-year-old Tramiria Pitcher found herself driving down Burbank Dr. when she was 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 to his own phone via AirDrop, and sent her inappropriate text messages.

Former officer Donald Steele Jr. in his Baton Rouge police uniform.

“He misused his authority,” Dana Cummings, an assistant district attorney, said at the trial according to a court transcript. “He used that gun, just by its mere presence. And he enticed and persuaded her with threats of going to jail, of being prosecuted for DUI, and she went.” 

Franz Borghardt, one of Steele’s defense attorneys, wrote before the sentencing reversal that his client should be cleared of the malfeasance charge because the state did not prove Steele sexually assaulted the victim – and the judge agreed. 

“During a status conference with the Court on March 27, 2024, the Court advised that it did not believe that the State had proven that a sexual battery occurred, and it had determined that the complaint was not credible when she testified regarding the alleged sexual conduct with Mr. Steele.”

Proving the assault happened was a core component of the malfeasance charge, according to Borghardt.

Another controversy for Judge Rose

This is the latest chapter in a year of issues for Rose. Key documents in a case recently decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court were “destroyed” and last seen on the desk of the presiding judge, according to documents reviewed by UWK

In April 2024, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned a ruling by Judge Eboni Johnson Rose, where the jury flipped from a “not guilty” to “guilty” verdict after speaking with Rose behind closed doors. The judge ended the trial after the initial “not guilty” verdict but re-opened court for a “guilty” decision. The Supreme Court ruled that was improper procedure and upheld the initial “not guilty” verdict.

MORE: Judge Eboni Johnson Rose accused of ‘destroying’ polling slips in recent trial

MORE: Supreme Court reverses ruling by Judge Eboni Rose | ‘I’m ready to live my life’

Polling slips are utilized in court cases to allow each juror to mark down their decision. They determine if someone is guilty or not guilty on some or all of the charges in a case. Those polling slips were available in March 2023.

The East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court allegedly told defense attorneys that there are not any physical copies of the polling slips. Emily White, minute clerk supervisor, said the judge said not to hold onto them because polling was never completed.

“…the Court had advised that the polling slips were destroyed as no polling was completed in the matter and nothing had been filled out by the jury,” White told defense attorneys in documents reviewed by UWK

Court administrative staff did not return a request for comment.

Article 812 of Louisiana law specifies the method for polling slips. A 2009 version of the law allowed the court to do either oral or written procedure. As of 2023, the practice “shall be done in open court” and each juror should write their decision on paper alongside their signature. They should then be available.

“The clerk shall collect the slips of paper, make them available for inspection by the court and counsel, and record the results,” the law said.

The latest judge to flip a verdict

This is the second judge in Baton Rouge accused of trying to unilaterally flip a previous judgment. 

In an April 2024 hearing designed to determine parole eligibility, 19th JDC Judge Gail Horne Ray overturned a convicted rapist’s sentence completely. In May, Louisiana Supreme Court justices wrote Ray overstepped her purview with that ruling.

“The district court judge’s ill-conceived response to the order was to issue a grossly erroneous ruling that had a retaliatory if not contemptuous tone and, incredibly, resulted in the fashioning of an illegal remedy that even [the] defendant had not requested. At a minimum, the action by the district court judge achieved the opposite of what is required by Canon 2.”

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