Dollar Store Fight Ends With Felony Charge

For nearly two years, Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Laurie White demanded that an Alabama lawyer face stiff charges for attacking her husband in the courtyard of the couple's French Quarter home one early morning in 2015.

A slap on the wrist would not do, White angrily told news media after New Orleans police booked Joshua Stemle on a pair of municipal misdemeanor counts.

White, who witnessed the scuffle, wanted a felony conviction for Stemle. And until last summer, she and her husband, Thomas Wilson III, told authorities they would accept nothing less.

But in August, they suddenly accepted much less -- forsaking the prosecution altogether -- after Stemle agreed to cut a check.

Emails between Stemle's attorney, Pat Fanning, and a state prosecutor show that Attorney General Jeff Landry's office agreed to drop the felony charge against Stemle, ending the case, thanks to the payout settlement.

Landry's office turned over the emails in response to a public-records request from The Advocate. The AG has refused to disclose the settlement document itself, which presumably shows the amount that Stemle, 34, agreed to pay.

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The emails confirm a previously undisclosed agreement, rumors of which have been buzzing through court circles since the abrupt end to a case that had generated enough courthouse spectacle to prompt an admonishment from a Louisiana Supreme Court justice.

But the fact that such a high-profile spat ended with a cash settlement, rather than a trial or plea agreement, is not unusual in such cases, according to legal experts. 

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Traylor filed a motion to dismiss the case against Stemle on Aug. 23, three weeks after an email exchange with Fanning, sealing the arrangement. 

"Is Mr. Wilson OK with this or do we need to make any changes?" Fanning wrote to Traylor, under the subject line "Stemle Agreement."

"We are all good to move forward as planned," Traylor responded.

Until that point, Traylor had told Fanning that Landry's office was sticking with a felony charge against Stemle, largely because White was so vehement, the e-mails show.

Both White and Wilson declined to specify the dollar figure, which they described as restitution for broken fingers and a hyperextended elbow that Wilson said he suffered in the scuffle. Stemle, who also agreed to undergo alcohol treatment, refused to discuss the agreement. He referred questions to Fanning, who declined to comment.

White insisted that the agreement was between Stemle and Wilson, not her, and that it was Wilson's call to seek dismissal of the criminal case.

"This was done through the AG's office. This was not a payoff," she said. "This was a restitution amount done with all of the parties' agreement and knowledge: The attorney general, the defense lawyer, the victim and the defendant."

Legal experts said these types of agreements pass legal and ethical muster as long as they do not explicitly call for the victims involved to refuse cooperation with prosecutors in exchange for a payment; nor can prosecutors negotiate for a payment by threatening to go ahead with a case. 

The former might amount to "compounding of a felony," a crime punishable by up to two years in prison, legal experts said. The latter would be an ethical no-no for prosecutors, Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said. 

"You can't use prosecution for leverage," Goyeneche said. "You can't come out and say, 'Unless you settle with the victim I'm going to go forward with the prosecution.' The civil aspects of it, the prosecutor's going to be totally out of. That's just a prosecutorial taboo. You don't go there."

But Goyeneche said it's not uncommon to see civil settlements reached and criminal cases dismissed as a result, with the blessing of the victim or even at the victim's request. Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino, general counsel for the city's Ethics Review Board, also said such arrangements aren't unusual.

"Prosecutors give a lot of weight to victims' opinions," Ciolino said. "They have tremendous discretion." 

In denying The Advocate's request for the settlement document, Landry's office argued it had nothing to do with the deal, describing it as a "settlement agreement entered into by two private parties, Thomas Wilson and Joshua Stemle."

Assistant Attorney General Luke Donovan added: "Once our office was apprised of the fact that a settlement had been reached and that the victim had been made whole, the state’s interest in this matter was satisfied."

Stemle's arrest stemmed from an incident about 6 a.m. on a Sunday in September 2015 after he wandered inside the gate of the couple's home in the 700 block of Gov. Nicholls Street.

Surveillance video shows Wilson confronting Stemle and trying to shove him back to the street when the Alabama lawyer turns and starts swinging at him. Wilson said the brief fight broke fingers on both hands and injured his elbow. He said none of the injuries required surgery.

When the charges were dismissed in August, Wilson described the decision as "the right thing to do." He didn't mention the payment.

Reached Monday, Wilson declined to say how much Stemle paid -- "I don't believe that's any of your business," he said. But acknowledged he understood the agreement to mean Landry's office would drop the criminal case.

The e-mails describing the settlement and the planned dismissal of the case came less than two months after another exchange in which Traylor said Landry's office would amend the charge to a lesser felony, unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling, "and go forward with that charge to trial if necessary."

That charges carries a maximum 6-year sentence; a conviction would also have likely cost Stemle his law license.

In response, Fanning tried diplomacy.

"Do you have any objection to me going to see Judge White to discuss her position on a reduction to a misdemeanor?" Fanning asked Traylor in a June 7 email. "If nothing else, I may get the opportunity to be a victim myself when she busts my ass for asking."

Traylor gave Fanning the go-ahead to speak with White, saying her input was a "driving" factor in the charging decision.

"Best of luck Pat. Maybe you can make a deeper impression on her than I did," the prosecutor responded.

White, 58, a former Orleans prosecutor and defense attorney, is known as much for her sharp tongue as she is for a sparing approach to non-violent offenders. With Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter, she launched the state's first "re-entry" court in 2010.

The e-mails show that Fanning swung and missed when he first approached White about the case.

"This is an update to let you know I met with the judge/victim this morning and it did not go well," he wrote in a June 20 e-mail. "She is adamant that he plead to a felony but she says she doesn't care about him going to jail."

White described the encounter differently, saying she wasn't happy that Fanning approached her on a private matter in court.

Her pursuit of a felony charge against Stemle dated to shortly after the scrap. She complained at the time to WVUE-TV that police had downplayed the severity of the incident.

“I literally thought this guy had a gun and was going to kill us,” White told the TV station. "This is clearly not just my issue. It's the entire city's issue."

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro upped the ante on Stemle, however, charging him with home invasion, a felony that carries a sentence of one to 30 years upon a conviction.

But White, who has publicly sparred with Cannizzaro, joined Fanning in seeking to boot the DA's office from prosecuting the case, even testifying about her animosity for the DA. The Louisiana Supreme Court ultimately agreed to leave the case in the hands of the Attorney General's Office. An ad hoc judge, Walter Rothschild, was tapped to oversee the case.

-Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.

Source : http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/courts/article_16b769a8-f4c4-11e7-8f22-c7d23cf2a068.html

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