Appeals court overturns conviction in 2001 rape

A state appeals court has tossed out the conviction last year of a man who was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison for allegedly dragging a girl into a Mid-City alley in 2001 and raping her.

In its 2-1 decision, the appeals court panel chided Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny for granting a motion by Randolph Armstead to dismiss the case, then changing his mind and moving ahead with a one-day trial after prosecutors said they would appeal the judge’s ruling.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal panel found Wednesday that once prosecutors challenged his initial decision, Derbigny was legally handcuffed until a higher court ruled on the appeal. Therefore, Armstead’s March 2013 trial never really happened, the appeals panel found.

In a split decision, Judges Paul Bonin and Rosemary Ledet sided with Armstead.

In dissent, Chief Judge James McKay III agreed with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office that because Armstead’s motion to quash his indictment was made orally, it legally didn’t count, so there was nothing for the state to appeal.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said prosecutors would ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the ruling.

The case against Armstead, now 34, relied on DNA evidence after the victim refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

The woman was 16 when she told police in 2001 that she had left a party when she was approached by two men she knew from Augustine Middle School. They walked with her, then pushed her into an alley in the 2600 block of Iberville Street and raped her, she said.

She underwent a rape examination but only years later was the evidence tested along with hundreds of other rape exam kits that had languished in the New Orleans Police Department’s evidence room.

A match turned up for Armstead, who was booked in 2008, only to have the supposed victim tell police she didn’t want to press charges.

Faced with a reluctant witness, prosecutors amended the charges on the day of the scheduled trial, dropping counts of aggravated rape and kidnapping and, instead, pressing a charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile.

Roshell Jones, Armstead’s attorney, argued that the statute of limitations had passed on the new charge. Derbigny at first agreed.

Jones said Cannizzaro’s office switched the charge “out of the blue” on the day of trial, prompting her oral motion to quash the indictment. “They didn’t tell me anything,” she said.

She said she planned to put her motion in writing, and she did so soon afterward.

Derbigny apparently found that the charge against Armstead fell within a broader statute of limitations, changed his mind and allowed the trial to proceed. By then, Jones said, Armstead was fed up and just wanted to get past the case.

“He told me, ‘Let’s go ahead and take this to the jury.’ He didn’t expect the jury would still convict him,” Jones said Thursday.

At a sentencing hearing on May 3, 2013, the victim, by then 28, testified that Armstead never had sex with her.

The woman had received a subpoena to appear in court March 26 and 27 to testify at the trial, but she said prosecutors told her she could stay home the first day, which would be taken up with jury selection. The trial lasted only one day, however, and Jones suggested a ploy by prosecutors to keep the victim away.

At the sentencing hearing, the woman claimed prosecutors had threatened to charge her when she denied ever being raped by Armstead.

Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue then reminded her of the 2001 rape allegation and the DNA results that later followed.

“You went to the hospital and they took swabs from your vagina, correct?” Rodrigue asked.

“Yes,” replied the woman, whom The New Orleans Advocate is not naming.

“And Randolph Armstead’s sperm was in your vagina. How did it get there?”

“I don’t know.”

The woman at one point told prosecutors that Armstead later apologized to her for what he had done, though she later denied that. She also admitted that she never intended to appear in court to testify.

During Armstead’s trial, Rodrigue told the six-member jury that the case was about “math and science.”

The appeals court did not rule on Armstead’s other arguments for a new trial, instead finding that Derbigny’s mistake was enough to nullify the conviction and sentence.

On Thursday, Jones praised the appeals court for its ruling, but she added that the court was, “at a minimum, kind for not addressing some of the over-the-top antics by the trial court and District Attorney’s Office.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.