In a surprise ruling just four days before jury selection was to begin, a federal judge on Thursday postponed former Mayor Ray Nagin’s corruption trial by three months to give the ex-mayor and his attorney more time to prepare.
The trial, which had been set to begin Monday, will get under way Jan. 27, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan decided after a status conference Thursday morning.
Her 11th-hour order came as something of a shock to the lawyers, witnesses and journalists who had been gearing up for perhaps the most high-profile political corruption trial Louisiana has seen since former Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted in 2001.
Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, had requested the postponement last week, saying he needed more time to prepare because of the case’s complexity.
Berrigan’s ruling said the government’s case spans all of Nagin’s two terms as New Orleans mayor and includes six co-conspirators and 59 specific allegations of wrongdoing.
“The considerable number of documents that the government intends to offer against the defendant militate in favor of granting the requested continuance,” she wrote.
Berrigan added that some of the 59 specific acts outlined in the indictment did not even involve Nagin directly, a fact she said “heightens the need for scrupulous investigation into the documentary evidence.”
While the last-minute delay took many courthouse observers by surprise, Berrigan had hinted in an earlier ruling that she was amenable to pushing the trial back.
Jenkins had previously asked for a postponement on the basis of possible prosecutorial misconduct, citing inappropriate online comments posted by former assistant U.S. attorneys about Nagin, Jenkins and a wide range of federal targets. Berrigan shot that request down in a Sept. 27 ruling.
While deploring the “utterly juvenile” posts by former prosecutors Jan Mann and Sal Perricone, she said they were not sufficient reason to delay the trial — or quash the indictment, as Jenkins also requested.
In that same ruling, Berrigan said she would entertain a request for a “brief continuance” if Jenkins could justify it on other grounds.
In a motion filed last week, Jenkins again asked for the indictment to be dismissed. Alternatively, he sought a continuance, saying he has “worked diligently … to prepare properly for trial” but needs more time “because of the vast volume of documents and information” in the case.
Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola Law School, said “continuances should never surprise anybody.”
“Frankly, nobody wants to try a case,” Ciolino said. “Everybody wants to get it resolved.
“If there’s a chance that could happen with a little more time … well, this gives everybody the opportunity to talk one more time.”
Nagin, who now lives in Frisco, Texas, a Dallas suburb, was indicted on 21 bribery and other corruption charges on Jan. 21.
The indictment lays out at least four distinct schemes in which the mayor allegedly bestowed official favors to contractors in exchange for cash bribes or other benefits.
Several contractors and other alleged co-conspirators have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial and are expected to testify against Nagin.