NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana woman who was 16 when her boss coerced her to perform a sex act was aghast when a judge let the man walk free on probation — and she blames a prosecutor who she says misled her and the judge prior to the sentencing.
But her efforts to hold the prosecutor accountable have run into a roadblock at the state’s highest court, which says longstanding court doctrine immunizes prosecutors from civil liability.
Gabrielle Jameson, who was sexually assaulted in 2019 and is now 20, says she made clear to Assistant District Attorney Iain Dover in St. Tammany Parish that she wanted Jeremy Schake, 27, to spend a full year in prison as part of a deal in which Schake pleaded guilty to a sex crime involving a juvenile.
But Judge William Burris, who sentenced Schake to probation in 2021 and required him to register as a sex offender, later insisted he never got that message.
“It just hurt, because I’d just wanted to make my parents proud and have a big girl job and make money so I could go to college,” Jameson told The Associated Press in attorney Antonio Le Mon’s office in Covington, her voice breaking. “And instead I got more trauma and pain.”
The AP generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Jameson has done.
The judge and Jameson’s attorney said her victim impact statement was emotional and moving in court when it came time for Schake to be sentenced. She was angered when Burris let Schake walk, especially after having told Dover that Schake should go to prison.
“I said I wanted him to have one year of jail time — not five years, not 10 years,” Jameson said. “Three hundred sixty-five days so he could, hopefully, be rehabilitated in some way, shape or form, so he wouldn’t hurt other people.”
In court documents responding to a lawsuit filed by Jameson and her parents, Dover and District Attorney Warren Montgomery’s office have not directly addressed the issue of whether Dover misled Burris or Jameson prior to Schake’s sentencing. The district attorney’s office did not respond to emailed requests for an interview.
Their lawyers argued that they couldn’t be sued under “prosecutorial immunity” — the concept that a prosecutor cannot be held civilly liable for actions taken in the scope of the job.
Both a state district judge and an appeals court rejected the idea that the doctrine applied in the Jameson suit. But a divided state Supreme Court decided otherwise.
Le Mon says Dover stated in a June 2021 email that the judge was aware of Jameson’s wishes prior to sentencing. Burris said otherwise in a July 2021 ruling denying a motion to reconsider the sentence — filed by Dover amid public criticism of the sentence.
“Again and emphatically stated, the Court specifically directed the District Attorney’s office to inform the Court if the Victim did not agree to the plea,” Burris wrote. “At no time did the State inform the Court that the Victim was not satisfied with the plea agreement that was offered to the Court by the Defendant.”
Le Mon recently asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its own ruling. The court rarely grants such motions. And the vote to reject the lawsuit was 5-2.
“We do not condone improper conduct of a prosecutor, nor disregard the importance of crime victims’ rights,” Supreme Court Justice Jay McCallum wrote for the majority on May 5. But, he wrote, “a prosecutor’s alleged misconduct during plea bargaining and sentencing merit the protection of absolute immunity.”
Three other members of the court joined him. Chief Justice John Weimer provided a fifth vote to dismiss the Jameson lawsuit, not because he believed the prosecutor was entitled to immunity. He held that state law doesn’t provide for civil damages to a crime victim because a judge imposed a sentence the victim didn’t like.
Two justices sided with Le Mon. Justice Jefferson Hughes III wrote the terse one-paragraph dissent. “The assistant district attorney was dishonest with both the victim and the judge,” Hughes wrote. “These intentional dishonest acts were outside the course and scope of his duties as an assistant district attorney.”
Le Mon argues that only the Legislature, not judges, can grant the kind of absolute civil immunity that the high court has given to prosecutors.
Louisiana also has a disciplinary board people can file complaints against attorneys. Such complaints, however, are confidential and Le Mon declined comment on whether Jameson and her parents has considered that route.
Attorneys for Schake and the company he and Jameson worked for did not respond to emailed requests for comment or interviews.
At Le Mon’s Louisiana office last week, Jameson, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree in art and photography from Savannah College of Art and Design, spread an array of haunting photos in front of her. The collection, entitled “Growth from Pain,” includes images of different parts of a woman’s body — bedecked with bandages and wildflowers.
Jameson said she’s received gratifying feedback from those who have seen them on display, including other victims of sexual abuse.
“If my images were able to help them, even a little bit, I know I did something good in my life,” she said. “And that makes me happy.”