Saturday, March 29, 2014

Officer Desmond Pleads Guilty to Sex Charges

New Orleans police Officer Desmond Pratt, a former homicide detective who investigated a 2009 murder pinned on accused Central City crime boss Telly Hankton, stood up in orange jail scrubs Friday and lightly fist-bumped a courtroom bailiff.

He crossed his chest with a shackled hand, heaved a nervous breath and gestured to a pair of relatives sitting in the gallery. Pratt then turned to the judge and pleaded guilty to three felony sex charges stemming from separate allegations spanning 15 years, back to his days as a rookie cop.

Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich recited the rights Pratt already knew and was giving up with his plea, then handed him a three-year prison sentence.

Pratt pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery and one count of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. He shook his head and frequently glanced back at his weeping family, who sat alongside the dry-eyed mother of the most recent victim.

The deal culminated weeks of plea negotiations between prosecutors and Pratt’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, before a trial scheduled for Tuesday.

Indicted in August, Pratt, 43, faced as much as two decades behind bars if convicted in an aggravated sex crime involving the most recent victim, whose allegation dates from last spring.

The allegation in that case was reduced to sexual battery. Pratt also faced charges of aggravated sexual assault and carnal knowledge of a juvenile from earlier incidents in 1998 and 2001. He pleaded guilty as charged to those counts. All three victims were from 13 to 15 years old at the time of the incidents.

The two older allegations stemmed from complaints made after Pratt was arrested last April.

First, a Texas woman came forward to say Pratt had abused her while she was a student at a New Orleans public school. Police then unearthed an old complaint against Pratt from 2001, when another victim accused him of abuse; NOPD detectives at the time of that complaint determined the evidence to be “inconclusive.”

Prosecutor Jason Napoli acknowledged that the two earlier victims refused to testify in the case and rebuffed prosecutors’ attempts to gain their cooperation. Most recently, Napoli said, the victim from the 1998 incident last week “informed us she was not willing to get on that flight.”

Also, the victim in the most recent incident “does not wish a severe penalty on him,” Napoli told Zibilich.

The girl’s desire, and the lack of cooperation from the others, weighed on the sentence, said Zibilich, who also noted that none of the victims wanted to make a statement in court following Pratt’s plea, as the law allows.

Still, “one can only assume at least some activity occurred,” the judge said of the allegations.

“Whether these victims have actually forgiven you is something I don’t really know,” Zibilich told Pratt. The judge urged Pratt to “address this issue” while in prison and said he would recommend that the state assign him to a special facility for security reasons.

At an earlier hearing, Zibilich had urged Pratt to consider a plea deal, noting that the most serious of the charges in the indictment could have landed him in prison for 20 years if he was convicted. “You’re at risk here,” he said at the March 13 hearing.

Just how Pratt’s conviction could affect pending criminal cases in which he has played a role remains uncertain.

Hankton, who is serving a life prison sentence for a 2008 murder, is among 13 family members and alleged associates charged in a federal racketeering case that wraps together other murders, violent crimes and an alleged drug ring dating back decades.

Among the murders was the slaying of Hankton rival Jessie “TuTu” Reed in 2009. A witness in that case, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, identified Hankton as one of the shooters, according to police, and was gunned down a few weeks later. Pratt played a lead role in the investigation of Reed’s murder, and he requested witness protection for Williams shortly before his killing, according to police documents.

In the meantime, Pratt’s involvement in another case already has caused trouble for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. Last year, Pratt refused to testify about a murder investigation. Through his testimony, prosecutors were trying to introduce witness statements that he took, but they were stymied by his silence on the witness stand.

That prosecution, accusing Terrance Nobles, 22, and Demond Taylor, 29, of gunning down 18-year-old Roderick Sheppard in October 2010, remains pending.

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said he didn’t know how many pending cases may still involve Pratt as a potential witness or what will become of them.

“We’re going to deal with those on a case-by-case basis,” Bowman said.

He also said he didn’t know whether any criminal cases had been scuttled because of the sex allegations against Pratt.

Although Napoli offered no opinion in court Friday about what sentence Zibilich should impose — sexual battery carries a possible sentence of zero to 10 years — Cannizzaro agreed to the plea deal because it locked in prison time for the officer, Bowman said.

“What we got out of the deal was a guarantee for years in prison,” Bowman said. “Also, for the crimes he was convicted of, he will have to register for the rest of his life as a sex offender. We were able to satisfy our public safety objectives as well as the desires of the victims, so this was a good day.”

Pratt will get credit for the 11 months he has spent behind bars, mostly in St. Charles Parish. As he left the courtroom accompanied by an Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputy, Pratt mouthed, “I didn’t do it.” Ambling down the hallway in chains, he stopped to chat with family members and the mother of the most recent victim.

Prosecutors said she had been uncooperative in their investigation — a claim she hotly disputed to the judge.

No comments: