Blank nearly gets mistrial

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 7, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / April 7, 2000

EDGARD – A mistrial was nearly called in the murder trial of Daniel Blank, now in progress at the St. John Parish courthouse in Edgard. Objections wereraised by the defense over surprise testimony presented Thursday which closely linked Blank to the Joan Brock murder scene.

Trial is expected to continue through the weekend.

Blank faces the bar of justice almost three years after Joan Brock was brutally stabbed to death in her back yard in the Riverlands subdivision in LaPlace in May 1997.

Blank is also accused of murdering four other residents in St. John, St.James and Ascension Parishes. He has already been convicted and sentencedto death by lethal injection for the murder of a 71-year-old Gonzales woman, Lillian Phillippe.

After 26 grueling days in Marksville, 40th District Judge Sterling Snowdy, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed upon a jury that was not tainted by publicity over Blank’s killing spree.

Before the trial got under way, several pretrial motions were presented by the prosecution and the defense. Snowdy ruled that the jury could only hearthe specific portions of Blank’s video-taped confession that concerned the Brock murder. In order not to prejudice the jury, Snowdy said that no othercrime or murder allegedly committed by Blank could be mentioned in the courtroom.

Also, Snowdy ruled that neither side will be allowed to mention the polygraph test that Blank underwent during his 12-hour confession to police in Onalaska, Texas in 1998.

Wednesday afternoon, the Avoyelles Parish jury, made up of seven women, five men and two female alternates, got to hear opening arguments.

Assistant District Attorney George Ann Graugnard told the court that evidence will show Daniel Blank broke into Brock’s home to steal money and in the process killed the 55-year-old Brock with four blows to the head.

“Evidence will show that the killing was unnecessary and intentional,” said Gaugnard. “And that Blank killed the mother of a new bride.”Blank’s attorney, Glen Cortello appealed to the jury to not only consider the factual evidence but to look at other things.

“There will be factual evidence,” Cortello said, “and circumstantial evidence and lack of evidence. I ask you to consider the lack of evidence.”Cortello pointed to his unemotional and slightly-built client and asked the jury, “How could Daniel Blank lift a 260-pound safe by himself? There is no forensic, DNA, or fingerprint evidence to link Daniel Blank to the crime.

Consider this even if there is other evidence.”The prosecution started its case by calling up several police officers from the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office.Evidence custodian Lt. Harry Trosclair testified that the safe taken fromthe Brock house could easily have been moved. The safe was on wheels, andTrosclair demonstrated to the jury how easily the safe moved by rolling it a couple of feet across the courtroom floor.

On cross-examination, Cortello asked if Trosclair, who weighs 175 pounds could pick up the safe.

“I probably could If I had to,” replied Trosclair.

“Could you put it up on a desk?” asked Cortello “No, but I could put it on a lower platform,” said Trosclair Graugnard also called Officer Fred Babin of the Ascension Sheriff’s Office.

After getting a detailed map from Blank, Babin recovered the safe that had been thrown into a bayou along Airline Highway, about a mile from Sorrento.

Under Cortello’s cross-examination, Babin said that the safe was too heavy for him to lift. He had to drag it out of the bayou with his truck.”But it was full of water and stuck in the mud,” said Babin.

On day two of the trial, Graungnard began by calling Dr. Susan Garcia, thepathologist who did the autopsy on Joan Brock. Garcia described to thecourtroom how Brock suffered four major blows to the head by a sharp instrument like a knife. One of the blows had such force that it nicked thevertebra in her neck.

Cortello’s cross-examination tried to show that the victim was struck by a left-handed assailant. Blank is right-handed, but Dr. Garcia disputed hisassertion.

“It could have been done with either hand,” she said, “It all depends on the positioning of the body.”Several officers of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office testified to identify objects recovered at Blank’s trailer in Sorrento. These objects, includingjewelry boxes, and a watch were all identified as from the Brock house.

The manager of legal and regulatory affairs for the Eatel Telephone Company testified that Blank had a phone at the address on Toucan Street where the objects had been found.

Cortello vehemently objected to the testimony of the phone company employee. He said that he had not been informed of this new evidence. Hemade a motion for a mistrial based on a violation of the discovery rule. Thislaw states that the prosecution must tell the defense all the evidence being used.

Snowdy considered the motion, and then denied a mistrial.

“It was a close call on the discovery issue,” said Snowdy. “The late issue ofthe subpoena is a problem. But if there are any more discovery issues, I willentertain the motion for a mistrial.”Finally, Chief Deputy Frank Nettles of the Polk County, Texas Sheriff’s Office, Detective Mike Toney of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office and Lt.

Todd Hymel of the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office all testified to whathappened when they questioned Blank in Onalaska, Texas in November 1998.

They had gone to Blank’s business, Daniel’s Automotive, and asked him to come down to the courthouse for some questions. According to all threeofficers, Blank came voluntarily and answered questions willingly.

Hymel read the Miranda rights to Blank, and Blank signed a document that said he understood all his rights.

With that testimony, Graugnard then said that the jury would view video of Blank’s confession.

The video, which was transferred to DVD format and played through a computer, appeared to agree with what the detectives had said.

In a stark, white interrogation room, Toney and Hymel read the Miranda rights to a calm and cooperative Blank.

They asked him questions about his life, his schooling and his career.

Blank said he grew up in Lutcher and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He admitted that he can barely read. He has a son and daughter fromhis first marriage, and he never sticks to one job very long.

When asked why he has had so many jobs, he answered, “No particular reason.”He then starts to tell how he got into video poker and how lucky he was at it.

“I was making two to three thousand dollars a week on video poker,” he claimed. “I once won $5,000 in one night,” He admitted that he bought the trailer in Sorrento with video poker money.

Blank said he does not drink, but does smoke.

Hymel asked him if he does drugs.

Cortello objected at that point and Snowdy ordered the video to be stopped and ordered the jury out of the courtroom.

Cortello was upset, because the mention of drugs goes against Snowdy’s ruling about mentioning any other criminal activities.

Graugnard said there is no accusation involved, but Cortello doesn’t believe her.

“This is highly improper and highly prejudicial to my client,” Cortello said. Heslammed a stack of papers on his desk. “This is totally unfair to my client.He is not getting a fair trial.”Judge Snowdy agreed. “Our goal is to not make prejudicial remarks to thejury.”Snowdy called a recess and after consulting the attorneys, Snowdy reconvened court and said the trial would resume Friday after all prejudicial portions of the video were removed.

The trial is expected to last through the weekend.

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