Judge error cited in teen’s conviction
By Billy Gunn
A Louisiana appellate court has thrown out the 2014 conviction and prison sentence of a Lafayette teenager accused in the armed robbery of another juvenile two years ago.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, in a decision released Wednesday, said the felony case of Dontrelon Thomas will be sent back to Judge Ed Rubin’s court for another 15th Judicial District trial in Lafayette.
The 3rd Circuit said Rubin erred when he allowed the jury to listen to a recording of the victim’s testimony after the jury had begun to deliberate. During the July 2014 trial, Rubin’s decision to let the jury rehear the testimony brought multiple objections from Thomas’ attorney, Thomas Alonzo.
“We felt that this was an obvious miscarriage of justice,” Alonzo said Wednesday. “We knew it was going to be reversed, and we have been waiting for that to occur.”
The 3rd Circuit’s ruling states that Rubin “undoubtedly violated” Louisiana criminal procedure rules by allowing the 12 jurors access to recorded testimony after they had gone to the jury room to debate and decide the verdict.
“Our Louisiana Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that allowing a jury to review evidence or testimony such as audiotapes or transcripts during deliberations is reversible error because of the possibility that jurors might give undue weight to that limited portion of the oral testimony,” Judge Phyllis Keaty wrote in the 3rd Circuit’s ruling.
Thomas was 15 when he was indicted and charged as an adult on one count of armed robbery, which occurred on Oct. 22, 2013.
The victim, a minor identified only by his initials and whose age is not specified in the 3rd Circuit’s ruling, testified he was walking down a Lafayette street and had hidden his phone when he saw Thomas. He said Thomas confronted him and wanted his cellphone.
Thomas “asked him how long he had lived in the area, then pushed him to the ground and hit him repeatedly with a small handgun, demanding that (the victim) ‘give it up,’ ” according to the 3rd Circuit ruling. “(The victim) further stated that, after his phone was taken, he got up and ran home to tell his mother, at which time police were notified.”
The jury had started deliberating when the jury foreman sent a note to Rubin.
“We have polled 4 times (and the) vote continues to be 8-4. Continuing to discuss but can not seem to get 10 votes either way,” the note states. In another note, the foreman also asks for some of the victim’s trial statements.
Thomas was convicted and became a ward of the state Department of Corrections. In sentencing Thomas to 10 years in prison at hard labor, Judge Rubin chose the lightest sentence available: Louisiana law specifies a prison sentencing range of 10 years to 99 years for defendants convicted of armed robbery.
District Attorney Keith Stutes said Wednesday that prosecutors won’t appeal the 3rd Circuit’s ruling.
“We’ll simply prepare for another trial,” he said.
Chad Ikert, who was Thomas’ attorney during the appeal, said the next step will be to request a bail hearing that could free Thomas, now 17, until he is retried.
“Dontrelon deserves a fair trial and that’s what he’ll get now,” Ikert said.
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