By Associated Press - Monday, October 2, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A Louisiana man connected to a 1995 triple slaying involving a former New Orleans police officer has been given a chance at a new trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday vacated a Louisiana Supreme Court decision that upheld the first-degree murder convictions of Rogers LaCaze.

LaCaze was charged as an accomplice to Officer Antoinette Frank, who is on death row for the killing of three people at a New Orleans restaurant - including a fellow police officer.

The New Orleans Advocate reports that the U.S. Supreme Court found that Louisiana’s high court failed to properly review an argument involving the possibility of bias on the part of the judge who tried the case. The judge was state district Judge Frank Marullo, who has since retired.

Marullo’s signature appeared on a release order granting the release of a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic weapon to Frank from the unclaimed police evidence office. At the time, it wasn’t unusual for judges to sign over weapons from unclaimed police evidence to officers for their personal use.

Police believe the weapon may have been used in the killings. They questioned Marullo after the triple murder, and the judge denied he signed the order himself, claiming it was a forgery, though the officer accused of faking the signature was cleared of wrongdoing.

Lacaze’s appellate lawyers have long argued that neither Marullo nor the state disclosed any of that information to the attorney who represented Lacaze at trial, Willie Turk, and that the judge should have recused himself.

Only at Frank’s trial months later was it revealed that the Beretta, which Frank had reported stolen before the murders, came from the NOPD’s evidence and property room.

The Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed LaCaze’s argument about the gun investigation.

It found that even if Marullo had disclosed his possible connection to the murder weapon, “LaCaze has pointed to no evidence that the judge harbored any bias, prejudice or personal interest in the case, let alone to such an extent that it rendered him unable to conduct a fair trial.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court directed the Louisiana Supreme Court to revisit the case in light of a recent ruling in which the high court found that recusal is required when “the risk of bias” on the part of a judge “was too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”

Amir Ali, an appellate lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center who argued LaCaze’s case, said that whether Marullo actually signed the order for the weapon didn’t matter. It was his refusal to disclose his role as a witness in a related police investigation while presiding over LaCaze’s trial that tainted the case, Ali said.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to reverse the state court outright, but Ali described it as a “strong message” that the high court “thinks there is a serious issue, and a serious constitutional violation here, and this is a way of having the Louisiana Supreme Court get it right.”

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