NEW ORLEANS -- There were 119 letters of support submitted on behalf of former St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel prior to his sentencing Wednesday morning on a single count of obstruction of justice.
The thick binder of letters from family, friends and associates didn’t seem to matter much to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt.
Engelhardt sentenced Morel, 73, to the maximum three years in prison, noting that he admitted obstructing a federal grand jury probing years of allegations of his abuse of power as a district attorney. The complaints centered on Morel soliciting sex from vulnerable women in exchange for legal help from his office.
“You repeatedly took advantage over those over whom you held power,” Engelhardt told Morel. “It is difficult to imagine a sentence less than the maximum.”
In contrast to pro-Morel letters, there were only four letters submitted by detractors. But those letters carried the emotional weight of decades-old dark secrets that remained hidden during Morel’s 33 years in office.
One letter was from a woman who was arrested for DWI more than 15 years ago, then said she was solicited by Morel -- out of the blue --to meet her on multiple occasions.
Another was from a victim who said she kept silent for nearly 20 years after Morel sexually assaulted her.
“It's been a long time,” said the woman, who traveled from out-of-state to confront Morel at his sentencing. “I kept this a secret until three years ago when the Justice Department did their job. I just wanted to see him get what he deserves.”
Identifying herself as Ms. Carter, the woman’s two-page letter includes an account of how Morel took advantage of her in 1988 when she sought Morel's help in getting unpaid child support. She wrote that Morel offered her a ride home, but instead found herself being driven to New Orleans “for lunch.”
“He talked about his camp in Mississippi, and how he would like to take me there for some ‘play’ time,” she wrote. “I quickly realized that an inappropriate situation was developing and I was trapped. When we arrived at our destination in New Orleans, he sexually assaulted me in the car.”
Carter said Morel threatened that the only way in which she would get child support would be by granting him “sexual favors.” She said the assault was even more traumatizing because their families knew each other, attending the same church. She said Morel’s wife was her teacher when she was younger.
“I now have many regrets for not speaking up when this first took place,” she wrote. “If I had, maybe other women and especially Danelle, would not have become victims as well.”
Carter is referring to Danelle Keim, who salvaged the legally-floundering federal case against Morel by going undercover after he solicited her for sex in exchange for falsified community service papers for her DWI.
Keim wore a wire for the FBI, but died of a drug overdose in 2013. However, the information she gathered was enough for the obstruction charge.
In his plea bargain, Morel admitted to telling Keim she should destroy a memory card that held photographs of an inappropriate meeting between the two in July 2011.
The culmination of the case marked a bittersweet conclusion for the FBI and law enforcement officials in St. Charles Parish, who publicly denounced Morel as a “sexual predator,” but admitted they would have a difficult time proving those allegations in court.
Morel’s defense attorney, Ralph Capitelli, rejected the government’s characterization of his client and accused the authorities of leading a smear campaign.
“My position is he was not accused or charged with any crime being a sexual predator or sex offense,” Capitelli said after Morel pleaded guilty in April. “He didn't plead guilty to a sex offense. He's not guilty of a sex offense.”
Some of the disappointment that the sex charges were left unprosecuted was expressed in a letter submitted to Engelhardt from St. Charles Sheriff Greg Champagne, stating that Morel “victimized the entire parish to satisfy his libido and his ego.”
“Our former district attorney forced the most vulnerable women in our society to endure his assaults on their dignity, and at other times, endure actual battery upon their bodies,” Champagne wrote. “They suffered his requests to satisfy his base desires so they could avoid prosecutions by his office or to encourage him to enforce laws he was already sworn to uphold.”
Champagne also wrote, “There has never been one word of remorse or contrition from Morel’s mouth since pleading guilty” and that Morel was “extremely fortunate” to face only three years in prison.
When given the chance to speak in court, Morel thanked his family and friends for standing by him, but did not address his victims directly.
“I want to apologize for my actions in this unfortunate matter. I did what I did and I am very sorry,” he said.
Engelhardt also ordered Morel to pay a $20,000 fine. He must report to prison by September 26th.