NEW ORLEANS - After a stop-and-start trial that stretched out over two weeks, a New Orleans police sergeant was acquitted of malfeasance Friday in the death of his police dog. Sgt. Randy Lewis, a veteran K-9 officer, lost his dog Phantom in May 2009 when the animal fell 17 floors down an elevator shaft at the old Charity Hospital.
The district attorney's office charged Lewis with malfeasance, accusing him of falsifying documents for the off-duty detail and then lying about the dog's death afterward.
But Criminal Court Judge Ben Willard didn't see it that way. After a long explanation of the case and his reasoning, Willard declared, “You’re free to go. This case is over.”
Willard’s ruling came after a one-day trial two weeks ago, followed by closing arguments last week. In a packed courtroom Friday, Willard offered a lengthy explanation before delivering his verdict, drawing very different reactions from the two sides assembled in court.
Lewis’ attorney, Eric Hessler, said Phantom’s death was an accident and nobody grieved more than Lewis.
“He has his dog’s ashes on his desk at his house,” Hessler said. “Nobody was more distraught about this accident than Sgt. Lewis.”
“Randy is a very, very good cop,” Hessler added. “He knew he didn't do anything wrong. He recognized the very unfortunate presence of politics and agendas by other persons. And he knew he would have to bear the course and stay with it. And he did and he's been vindicated."
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, who tried the case with prosecutor Bobby Freeman, said he had a difficult time understanding the reasoning behind Willard’s verdict.
"We're disappointed. The district attorney's office is disappointed,” Bowman said. “To some extent, we're speechless, and I'm very rarely speechless as you know. I just can’t understand how you can say we proved the elements of the crime, then come back with a not guilty verdict.”
Lewis's attorney, Eric Hessler, argued that any violations by Lewis were merely administrative, not criminal. Lewis was suspended for five days for departmental violations in the case, but had remained on desk duty pending the outcome of the trial.
Phantom was taking part in the private security sweep of the shuttered hospital in May 2009 when he broke free from Lewis in the darkened high-rise and fell down the elevator shaft.
At trial, Freeman said Lewis falsified an approval form required for the detail, failing to get permission to use a police dog for the job. After the tragic accident, Freeman said Lewis covered up the detail by saying he was engaged in a training exercise. After Phantom’s body was recovered, Freeman and Bowman argued, Lewis destroyed criminal evidence by having the dog’s corpse destroyed before it could be examined.
Hessler countered by saying Lewis had obtained permission from a superior officer to use the canine. After the accident, there could not have been destruction of evidence because there was no crime.
“What crime scene are we talking about here?” Hessler asked. “It’s an accident scene. Since when is a departmental policy a criminal violation?”