Federal judge pulled off Ackal case without explanation

by Michael Kunzelman, Associated Press

Earlier this year, an unusual interruption abruptly ended a routine court hearing in the Justice Department's high-profile investigation of Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal's troubled department.

U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi was in the middle of accepting the first of two guilty pleas by a pair of former sheriff’s deputies when a federal prosecutor cut her off mid-sentence.

“Your Honor, I think we’re going to ask to stop this proceeding. And I need to speak to counsel for the defendant,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Van Hook said, according to a transcript.

Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal

After a short break and a private discussion with attorneys, Minaldi adjourned the hearing without giving a reason on the record. Then the attorneys and the two defendants traveled more than 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Lake Charles to Lafayette, where the two men pleaded guilty that evening in front of a different judge, court records show.

The mysterious interruption in Minaldi’s courtroom also marked the end of her assignment to preside over the cases against Ackal and 11 of his subordinates in the alleged beatings of jail inmates. Four days after the aborted March 7 hearing, the chief judge for the Western District of Louisiana took the cases from Minaldi and transferred them to a different judge — more than 200 miles away in Shreveport.

Once again, no reason was publicly disclosed.

Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said it’s “highly unusual” for a judge to halt a guilty plea in the middle of the proceeding and for a case to be reassigned to a different judge without explanation.

“I haven’t seen anything like that,” Ciolino said.

The switch also perplexed the sheriff’s attorney, who unsuccessfully challenged the move last week.

Ackal’s lawyer, John McLindon, says the case was reassigned without Minaldi’s consent and that the move violated court rules.

“It seems like we should just follow the rules,” McLindon said in an interview Friday. “From what I can tell from the record, this case was not properly reassigned.”

Chief Judge Dee Drell denied McLindon’s request last Friday in a two-sentence order that simply said it was “without merit.”

The transcript for the March 7 hearing where the two men were scheduled to plead guilty offers few clues for why the prosecutor asked to prematurely end it.

Van Hook, the prosecutor, initially interrupted Minaldi to point out that she hadn’t sworn in former Iberia Parish narcotics agent David Hines before she began questioning him.

“And, your honor, if you would just indulge me. If you could ask those first few questions you asked him again, if it would please the court,” Van Hook said.

“No. Thanks,” Minaldi responded.

Minaldi was reading aloud a factual description of the case against one of the defendants when Van Hook interrupted again and asked to stop the hearing.

Court records indicate Minaldi’s role in the case quickly became a question mark. Lawrence Billeaud, an attorney for one of the men, mentioned the possibility that “another judge is saddled with the case” after they reconvened in Lafayette later that day, according to a transcript.

Attorneys for the two men and a Justice Department prosecutor have declined to comment. Drell and Minaldi didn’t respond to messages left with their offices Friday.

This wasn’t the only instance this year in which a case was abruptly transferred from Minaldi to another judge. During the first week of February, Minaldi was presiding over a criminal trial in Lake Charles when a mistrial was declared after two days of testimony.

Drell appointed U.S. District Judge Donald Walter to take over the case “considering the inability of the presiding judge to be present at the ongoing trial of this matter.” Drell’s order didn’t explain why Minaldi couldn’t continue with the case against Adley Leo Dyson Jr., who was charged with fraudulently obtaining federal funds after Hurricane Rita in 2005.

There is no record of a written or oral request for a mistrial publicly available in the docket, but a transcript in Dyson’s case remains under seal.