By Danny Monteverde | WWL | September 30, 2019
NEW ORLEANS — Chief public defender Derwyn Bunton left the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse on Monday with one order from Criminal District Judge Paul Bonin: come back another day.
Bunton is looking to have public defenders Beth Sgro and James Brockway recused from a case they were handling. A jury on Sept. 20 convicted their client, Regan Preatto, of third-degree rape.
But what should have been an otherwise routine sentencing last week took a bizarre twist after Bonin asked the public defenders where they found the victim, years after prosecutors lost track of her.
The public defenders invoked the 5th Amendment — in other words, refusing to answer the judge’s question.
“I’ve never seen a rape case proceed without a cooperating victim,” said Rafael Goyeneche with the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “I’ve never seen anything like this happen before. It’s extremely unusual.”
The victim refused to testify about the 2017 rape, and prosecutors could not find her. But the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office went ahead with the case, using her taped statement to police and DNA evidence.
Prosecutors also played a tape in court of a jailhouse phone call Preatto made to the victim’s family.
That was done, Goyeneche said, “to convince the victim not to go forward with this case and to recant the story. No victim, no case.”
But when the victim made a surprise appearance at court, she took the stand — and changed her story.
Now, Bonin wants to know if the public defenders knew where the victim was and when they began to speak to her.
“And the defense takes the 5th and 6th amendments,” Bonin said. “They don’t want to answer questions of the judge.”
During the brief hearing Monday, Sgro said she was “confident we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Based on the advice of counsel, we do believe we have a conflict,” she told Bonin.
“I need a whole lot more briefing on lawyers taking the 5th Amendment in front of me when the proceeding is not directed at them,” Bonin said before ordering the public defenders to file a motion regarding the requested recusal.
After the hearing, Bunton argued that his attorneys did nothing other than their jobs.
“It is a victim’s right to show up. It is not their responsibility,” he said. “There was no inappropriate relationship at all between our lawyers and the complaining witness in this case. We simply never stopped looking, even as trial started.”
But Goyeneche said there are now broader questions to answer since the victim recanted her story after telling police one thing and evidence backed up her claims.
“There may be ethical considerations and, of course, there could also be some criminal implications,” he said. “As an officer of the court, you don’t put somebody on the stand you know is committing perjury.”
“Our ability to find the witness followed every ethical rule and followed all the laws of the state,” Bunton said.
Bonin also subpoenaed the victim to court on Oct. 9, something her attorney sought to fight.
“I am respectfully requesting the court to not subpoena my client, because I don’t see any relevance in her being present,” attorney Tony Tran said. “She doesn’t want to make a statement.”