St. Charles Parish District Judge Michele Morel is being asked to step down in a criminal case concerning a local man who is accused of aggravated incest and rape against his minor daughter.
The Attorney General’s Office, who was asked to prosecute the case last April due to a conflict of interest existing within the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office, has accused Morel of violating state law by not allowing the alleged victim to be present during court proceedings as well as identifying the underage victim of a sex crime to the public at large.
The case began in March 2012 when a local man was arrested after his then 8-year-old daughter accused him of sexually abusing her on at least four occasions. According to investigators, the father admitted he had a sexual problem and said if his daughter told police he sexually assaulted her, she was telling the truth even though he had “no memory of it.”
Assistant Attorney General Blair Berthelot, who is serving as lead prosecutor, asked that Morel remove herself from the case following the judge’s outburst during an Aug. 21 status conference.
According to Berthelot, Morel lashed out at the alleged victim’s mother and a victim-witness coordinator for the Attorney General’s Office for allowing the 10-year-old to attend the conference.
Berthelot said that the victim has a right to attend the court hearing, but Morel forced her to leave the courtroom after defense attorney Mark Marino asked that the victim not be present during hearings.
According to the court transcript Morel said, “Okay. Who brought her here? Okay. First of all, the child go outside. Are you the child? Go outside.”
The child was then escorted from the courtroom by a deputy.
There is a law that makes it a crime to name underage victims of a sex crime and Berthelot said Morel did just that by singling the girl out in open court.
“The court publicly identified this ten-year-old victim of a sex crime which is a clear violation of law and the victim’s right to anonymity,” Berthelot wrote.
After forcing the child to leave the room, Morel asked the child’s mother and Kristen Martin, the victim-witness coordinator for the Attorney General’s Office, why the girl was present on a school day. She said that the girl’s presence made her blood boil and had harsh words for Martin.
“For the record, for future reference, right now, and I’m going to state this for the record, my blood is boiling that the 10-year-old victim is here, alleged victim, with the alleged perpetrator in the courtroom... I am just appalled that if this child is such a victim - No ma’am, look at me because right now I’m very mad at you. I am appalled that this child is here today. This is for everybody. Everybody in the courtroom, the victims, if they are 10 years old, of alleged aggravated rape and aggravated incest, if they really had this happen, I find it highly unlikely and I find it really disgusting that you would bring the child in the presence of the alleged perpetrator.”
Due to that statement, Berthelot wrote in her motion of recusal that “Judge Morel explained she finds it highly unlikely that this crime really happened.”
Morel said contrary to Berthelot’s version of the proceedings, the “court NEVER stated that the defendant did not commit the actions alleged.”
Martin, the child’s advocate, says that it is common practice to bring child victims into the courtroom to get them used to the experience before they are subpoenaed and put on the witness stand. However, she did admit that she should have been more cognizant of the proximity of the alleged victim to the accused.
“I didn’t know he was in the front row or we would not have done that,” Martin said.
In previous court orders, the defendant has been required to have no contact with the victim and to stay 300 yards away from any children.
Morel said she supported the victim’s right to be present, but objected to the fact that she was seated 15 feet away from the defendant. She added that she had the child removed from the court to prevent “added duress on the child.”
Berthelot says that the child, who was separated from her mother during the ordeal, was found crying in the hallway following the conference and that she has “continuously expressed her anxiety and distress at the thought of appearing again before this Judge.”
While Morel had the child escorted from the courtroom, she says she did not violate a section of the law that says the victim or a designated family member be allowed in court because the child’s mother remained in the status conference.
In addition, Morel said she was worried about the overall well-being of the child.
“The court was also troubled by the child missing school, a vital and essential component to the victim continuing her education and social development,” Morel said.
In response to Berthelot’s allegation that she had violated state law by publicly identifying an underage victim of a sex crime, Morel wrote that “[A]t no point did the court identify the victim by name. Confidentiality was never violated.”
Berthelot also asked that Morel step aside due to a conflict of interest in the case. Berthelot claims that Morel’s father, former District Attorney Harry Morel, has a “close personal relationship” with the man’s immediate family.However, Morel said there is no evidence her father recused his office from the case last year because of a personal connection to the defendant.
Instead, Morel maintains that the recusal occurred because unnamed individuals working for the D.A.’s office had a connection to the defendant.
Arguments on whether Morel should be allowed to stay on the case are scheduled to be heard by Judge Lauren Lemmon.