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Taplin v. U.S. Department of Justice

United States District Court, District Circuit

September 10, 2013

BLYTHE TAPLIN, on Behalf of Rogers Lacaze, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE et al., Defendants. Re Document No. 17

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge

Granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff, an attorney representing a Louisiana death row inmate convicted of first-degree murder, filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking federal law enforcement records relating to the third party whom the plaintiff asserts actually perpetrated the crime for which her client was convicted. The defendants seek summary judgment under Exemption 7(C) on the basis that the public interest in production of the requested documents-or even an acknowledgement that such documents exist-is outweighed by the third party’s privacy interest. Because the plaintiff has not met her evidentiary burden of showing that a reasonable person would believe that the government is withholding information that could corroborate her theory that the third party committed the crime, the Court will grant the defendants’ motion.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 1995, Rogers Lacaze was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in connection with the brutal shootings that occurred at the Kim Anh Vietnamese Restaurant in New Orleans East. See generally State v. Lacaze, 824 So.2d 1063 (La. 2002). During the early morning hours of March 4, 1995, New Orleans Police Officer Antoinette Frank, who often worked an off-duty security detail at the family-owned Kim Anh, entered the restaurant with a man she had earlier introduced as her nephew. The assailants shot and killed 25-year-old New Orleans Police Officer Ronald Williams, who was on detail at the restaurant that night, along with siblings 24-year-old Ha Vu and 17-year-old Cuong Vu, employees and members of the family that owned the restaurant. See Id . at 1066, 1069. Officer Williams’s wallet was also taken after he was killed. See Id . at 1069. Quoc Vu and Chau Vu, siblings of Ha and Cuong, sought refuge in a room-sized cooler and survived the attack. See Id . at 1067. According to the prosecution’s theory of the case, Ms. Frank “was becoming increasingly angry over being cut out of what she considered an equitable share of the paid details at the Kim Anh Restaurant.” Id. at 1070. The murder weapon was not found before trial, and the New Orleans Police Firearms Examiner was unable to conclude that all casings, bullets, and fragments recovered from the crime scene were fired from the same weapon. See Id . at 1069 & n.6.

Mr. Lacaze and Ms. Frank were both charged with the Kim Anh murders, but the cases were severed. See Id . at 1066. Quoc Vu had positively identified Mr. Lacaze as Ms. Frank’s accomplice in a photo line-up the morning after the murders and identified him again at trial. See Id . at 1068. Chau Vu also identified Mr. Lacaze as the accomplice at trial, but had been unable to make an identification from the photo line-up. See Id . The prosecution also connected Mr. Lacaze to the Kim Anh murders by presenting evidence that (1) phone records showed a series of calls from Mr. Lacaze to Ms. Frank around the time of the murders; (2) on March 3, a uniformed Ms. Frank and a young African-American male with gold teeth[1] were seen in a Wal-Mart store inquiring about 9 mm cartridges; and (3) the night manager of a Chevron gas station near the home of Mr. Lacaze’s brother told police that Mr. Lacaze used Officer Williams’s credit card to purchase gasoline at around 2:30 a.m. one morning in early March. See Id . at 1069–70 & n.7. In his initial statements to police the morning after the murders, Mr. Lacaze admitted that he was in the restaurant at the time of the shootings but insisted that he did not kill anyone or fire any weapon. See Id . at 1068. He told detectives that “Frank told him not to worry, that she would return and take care of things[.] She would go to the [station] and report that several black masked men broke through the back door and started shooting.” Id. at 1068 n.5.

At trial, Mr. Lacaze repudiated his statements to police and insisted that those statements were products of police threats and coercion. See Id . at 1070. He testified that, instead, he initially went to Kim Anh with Ms. Frank to eat, but Ms. Frank dropped him off at his girlfriend’s apartment at around 12:20 a.m., before the shootings occurred. See Id . He also testified that his brother picked him up at 12:30 a.m. to shoot pool at Mr. C’s Pool Hall, where they played until about 2:00 a.m. and then returned to his brother’s apartment. See Id . Mr. Lacaze’s brother, Michael Lacaze, supported this alibi at trial, but “the manager of Mr. C’s Pool Hall testified unequivocally that Michael played pool late that Friday night without his brother.” Id. at 1070–71. The defense posited that Adam Frank, Antoinette’s brother, was the true accomplice, but the evidence in support of this theory presented at trial, if any, is unclear from the record. See Id . at 1071.

After 79 minutes of deliberation, the jury unanimously found Mr. Lacaze guilty of all three counts of first-degree murder. See Id . at 1072. In a separate sentencing phase in which both sides presented evidence relating to aggravating and mitigating factors, the jury recommended-and the court adopted-a sentence of death. See Id . In a separate trial after Mr. Lacaze’s conviction, Antoinette Frank was also convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. See generally State v. Frank, 803 So.2d 1 (La. 2001).

After 18 years on death row, Mr. Lacaze maintains that he is innocent. According to the attorneys now representing Mr. Lacaze in post-conviction proceedings, evidence that has come to light after trial supports the defense’s argument that Antoinette’s brother, Adam, was the actual accomplice. See Compl. ¶¶ 18–30, ECF No. 1. The attorneys assert that (1) reports from Mr. Frank’s arrest related to a separate crime reveal that witnesses had heard him bragging about killing a New Orleans Police officer; (2) Mr. Frank was later found in possession of a 9 mm Beretta, model 92G-the same caliber, make, and model as the weapon believed to have been used to commit the Kim Anh murders;[2] and (3) sometime before the murders occurred, Officer Williams ejected Adam Frank from the Kim Anh restaurant, prompting Antoinette to threaten Officer Williams’s life. See Id . ¶¶ 25, 27–28; Hardy Decl. Ex. A n.1, ECF No. 17-3.

The plaintiff, Blythe Taplin, is an attorney for the Capital Appeals Project-an organization that provides representation to indigent individuals on Louisiana’s death row, including Mr. Lacaze. On February 24, 2012, Ms. Taplin submitted a request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2012), seeking the production of documents relating to any investigation the agency had done regarding Adam Frank, Jr. See generally Hardy Decl. Ex. A, ECF No. 17-3. Ms. Taplin asserts that the FBI has responsive documents based on (1) an Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Department notice specifying that Mr. Frank was “wanted by . . . the FBI in New Orleans”; and (2) an entry in an Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office privilege log described as “Adam Frank, Jr.’s FBI rap sheet.” See Compl. ¶¶ 26, 28, ECF No. 1. On March 14, 2012, the agency issued a Glomar response, [3] invoking FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(C) and refusing to either confirm or deny that it has any documents concerning Mr. Frank. See Hardy Decl. Ex. B, ECF No. 17-3. Ms. Taplin promptly appealed the FBI’s response to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (“OIP”), and the OIP affirmed the agency’s Glomar response. See Id . Exs. C, E.

On November 8, 2012, Ms. Taplin filed a complaint in this Court against both the FBI and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) (collectively, “Defendants” or the “Government”).[4] In her prayer for relief, Ms. Taplin seeks an order directing the Government to process and produce the requested documents in an expedited manner or, in the alternative, to produce an index of the requested documents and submit them to the Court for in camera review. See Compl. ¶¶ 10–11, ECF No. 1. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on the FBI’s Glomar response. See generally Defs.’ Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 17. Ms. Taplin has taken the position that the case was not ripe for dispositive briefing. See Joint Status Rep. 2, ECF No. 16.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Legal Standard


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