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The Reconstruction era ended in 1877. Seven years earlier (150 years ago), with ratification of the 15th Amendment, black males were granted the right to vote.

Seventeen years before that, The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863 said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

So, by 1880, blacks were not only free, but they had the right to vote. Federal troops had been withdrawn, so the time seemed right to restore the old order of white supremacy in the South.

But how?

Well, the Louisiana legislature had an answer that appeared to solve two problems at once.

Split jury verdicts.

Only one other state, Oregon, had the split jury conviction law on its books, and while still based on race, it had nothing to do with slavery. In that state, the law had been used to convict a Jewish defendant.

LOUISIANA took the lead over its sister Confederate states by passing a law that year which said a person could be convicted of a crime by a jury vote of 9-3. The Louisiana Constitution Convention of 1898 made it official and even went so far as to boast that the stated purpose was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in the state.”

The split verdict law withstood a legal challenge in 1972 when it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court but in 1973, the Louisiana Constitution Convention did scale back the law a bit when it revised the law to require at least a 10-2 vote in favor of conviction—or acquittal. For capital murder cases, the requirement for a unanimous jury verdict has always remained in effect.

The dual effect was not only to discourage blacks from voting (only eight states allow convicted felons to vote—Louisiana is not one of them), but it also helped alleviate the “hardship” imposed on those poor plantation owners who, suddenly deprived of their slave labor, found themselves short-handed for harvesting cotton and sugar cane.

But a literal reading of the 13th AMENDMENT provided the all-important legal loophole:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (emphasis added)

Blessed with rare economic foresight, the legislature saw an opportunity to pioneer what would evolve into lucrative prison work-release programs more than a century ago. (It would be the last time any Louisiana legislature would be accused of possessing the gift of economic foresight—except in cases of individual graft and corruption.)

The more inmates the state could crowd into its prison system, the greater the number of warm bodies available to be leased out to the plantation owners to harvest those crops to be shipped downriver to New Orleans and on to the world market.

Of course, a prison facility large enough to house a sufficient number of slaves prisoners was needed.

So, in 1880 (the same year the split-verdict law came into effect—coincidence?), ANGOLA STATE PRISON was erected on an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish, drawing its name from the African homeland of its former slave population. The prison was run by a private firm until reports of brutality against inmates prompted the state of Louisiana to take control of it in 1901. Today, it covers 18,000 acres, making it the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S.

But in October 2018, a brash, young judge up in Sabine Parish, hard on the Texas border, ruled that the split verdict in Louisiana was unconstitutional.

Judge Stephen Beasley, of the 11th Judicial District that borders Toledo Bend Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, ruled as unconstitutional the case of Melvin Maxie who, by a jury verdict of 11-1, received an automatic life sentence by virtue of an 11-1 conviction of second-degree murder.

Beasley, who had presided over Maxie’s 2017 trial, also ruled that Maxie deserved a new trial on the grounds that prosecutors improperly struck three prospective jurors because of their race. His ruling was challenged by District Attorney Don Burkett.

His ruling came only three weeks before an election on a statewide constitutional amendment which would have struck down the split verdict in favor of unanimous verdicts for non-capital offenses. That proposed was easily approved by 64 percent of the vote.

And though the case decided by the Supreme Court was one out of Orleans Parish where District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro obtained a 10-2 conviction of second-degree murder, the high court opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and supported by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, cited Beasley’s ruling twice in its first three pages. Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are appointees of Donald Trump.

Others siding with the majority were justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

The immediate effect of the decision is to void dozens—perhaps hundreds—of split jury verdicts in Louisiana and Oregon.

And perhaps create a manpower shortage in work-release programs throughout Louisiana.

 

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That investigation into the death of Kimberly Gail Womack 11 years ago has gone from an accidental fall to an unsolved homicide that, because it has morphed into a “pending investigation,” any records pertaining to the investigation, the coroner’s report, the certificate of death, or the autopsy report are off-limits for public release.

So says Ali Zito Meronek, assistant district attorney for the 18th Judicial District.

LouisianaVoice, pursuant to it story of Feb. 19, made the following public records request of DA Ricky Ward, Jr.:

“The complete file on the investigation of the death of Kimberly Gail Womack (August 1, 2008), DOB: 08/0611959, including, but not limited to:

  • The Certificate of Death;
  • The Autopsy Report;
  • A copy of the Coroner’s Permission to Cremate;
  • A copy of the statute governing the cremation of bodies while a homicide investigation is ongoing;
  • The names of all detectives and/or officers actively involved in the investigation.

If any or all of the requested information is not subject to disclosure, please inform me in writing (as per Louisiana’s Public Records Statute) as to the reason for your denial. Also, please provide an update as to the status of this investigation as of Feb. 19, 2020.”

You can read that story by clicking HERE.

On Feb. 27, we received the following response from Meronek:

“As there was no arrest made in conjunction with this investigation, the District Attorney’s office does not have a file in its possession. Furthermore, if we did have an open file in conjunction with this investigation it is our opinion that none of the record is subject to the public records request, as this is an unsolved case that is still under investigation.

“Additionally, it is our position that there is no exception to this rule that records of pending investigations are exempt from public records requests found in LSA R.S. 44:3 which would apply to you or to the office/ entity requesting these records. Furthermore, as there has been no arrest in conjunction with this investigation of any person to date, there is no portion of the file which is public such as would be the case where there had been the arrest of a person (i.e. initial report, excluding narratives, booking information or bills of information or indictment). The case is classified as pending investigation.”

So, what First Assistant DA Tony Clayton blew off by telling Womack’s daughter Kathryn Simpson of Shreveport that she would “never know” the full story of her mother’s death is now a “pending investigation” of more than 11 years with no arrest or resolution in sight.

This case, folks, is beginning to look more and more like one of those cases authorities hope will just fade away so as to protect a married sheriff’s deputy who was having an affair with Womack. Suddenly, the person who might be considered a person of interest is the one being protected as a potential victim while a murdered woman is hopefully quietly forgotten?

Is this how justice is defined in Louisiana? Sadly, it may well be.

With Womack having suffered a side subdural hematoma from a blunt force trauma to the head as well as multiple fractured ribs and “multiple bruises and abrasions on the upper and lower extremities as well as the midfrontal region of the face,” according to the six-page autopsy report, it would seem that the deputy might have at least been questioned as to his whereabouts at the time of Womack’s death.

That’s not to say he would have been tagged as a suspect or even a person of interest. But that would have generated an investigative file, which the DA conveniently does not have.

It would be of some comfort to Simpson to at least know the Pointe Coupee Sheriff’s Office performed a cursory investigation of the scene. Simpson, for example, was initially told there no were fingernail clippings and scrapings taken from her mother’s body—only to learn later that there were. So, what became of those clippings? Were they tested for DNA? Were any neighbors questioned? Did investigators check for area surveillance cameras?

Instead, all we get from the 18th JDC DA’s office is a terse letter informing us that it has no investigative file—and, apparently, no communications from the Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Ms. Simpson would like answers and we believe she’s entitled to receive some.

Eleven years is a long time to wait for the phone to ring.

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Last July I published my book Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption.

Now, it looks as though a book about district attorneys and judges might well be in order.

Somehow, it seems the ones we elect to protect us and to administer justice evenly and fairly are running amok with no regard for the law, ethics, propriety, or for the citizens they are elected to serve.

This is by no means a blanket condemnation of all DAs or judges but the behavior of the few is beginning to take its toll on the public image of the many and there needs to be a cleansing.

DAs have gone to jail, they have initiated frivolous disputes with judges, they bring in hired guns from elsewhere to do jobs they should be doing [if they and their staffs aren’t qualified to perform their jobs, they should get out and leave the work to those who can] and some even are said to use their offices as leverage to obtain property and businesses from defendants in exchange for a dismissal or reduction of pending charges.

Louisiana judges have been accused of:

  • Hiring his GIRLFRIEND to review medical records for his office;
  • Presiding over his girlfriend’s DWI case;
  • Molesting TEENAGE GIRLS;
  • Texting RACIST REMARKS in a jealous dispute with a sheriff’s deputy with whom she was having an affair (the judge submitted her resignation today);
  • Engaging in SEXUAL MISCONDUCT which led to his resignation;
  • Interfering in a female friend’s APPEAL which resulted in his suspension from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal and which has thrown the 2nd Circuit’s overturn of a $20 million award into turmoil.
  • Accepting kickbacks which resulted in the impeachment and REMOVAL from the federal bench.
  • Accepting bribes from bail a bail bondsman which resulted in his conviction, along with 13 others convicted in the FBI’s OPERATION WRINKLED ROBE

There are others, of course. But add to that the unique idea that a Baton Rouge attorney who has been SUSPENDED FROM PRACTICE for a year is a candidate for a vacant city.

Donald Dobbins says the law requires only that he hold a law license to qualify for judicial office but not to be a judge because judges cannot practice law. He qualified exactly three weeks before he was suspended by the State Supreme Court for failure “to provide competent representation to clients” and that he “neglected legal matters, failed to communicate with clients, failed to refund unearned fees and unused costs, failed to properly supervise his non-lawyer start, resulting inf false affidavits being filed in the court record, failed to reduce a contingency fee agreement to writing, forged client signatures on settlement checks and failed to place disputed funds in his trust account.” He says he has no intention to withdraw.

One Supreme Court justice called the one-year suspension “overly lenient,” saying he preferred “no less than a three-year actual suspension, if not disbarment.”

And then there are the judges in Terrebonne and St. Tammany parishes who took it upon themselves to issue warrants that were in direct violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.

In the Terrebonne case, Sheriff Jerry Larpenter prevailed upon an obliging JUDGE RANDAL BETHANCOURT to issue a search warrant so he could raid the home of a blogger who hurt Larpenter’s feelings. That ended up costing the sheriff’s office about $250,000 in a federal lawsuit stemming from the illegal raid.

That was in August 2016. Three years later, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith arrested a former deputy who sent an email to the family of a murdered woman in which he was critical of the sheriff’s office for not making an arrest in the 2017 murder of Nanette Krentel.

The warrant was signed by DISTRICT JUDGE RAYMOND CHILDRESS District Judge Raymond Childress. After the local district attorney recused himself and referred the case to the Louisiana Attorney General’s office, the AG’s office promptly washed its hands of the entire affair after noting that the Louisiana Supreme Court had held that criminal defamation (the justification for the warrant) was unconstitutional insofar as statements made in reference to public figures engaged in public affairs.

No story about law enforcement and the judicial system would be complete without a story from Iberia Parish where Louis Ackel turned the word sheriff into a term of fear and dread.

Bo Duhé, 16th JDC District Attorney, crossed swords with Judge Lori Landry by accusing her of making accusatory remarks to the effect that the DA’s office “deliberately incarcerate African Americans more severely and at a higher rate than others” and that the DAs office knew or should have known about misconduct at the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office that eventually led to the convictions of several deputies in a civil rights case.

Her remarks prompted Duhé to seek her honor’s removal from more than 300 criminal cases throughout out the 16th JDC which includes the parishes of Iberia, St. Martin, and St. Mary.

Duhé, of course, claimed that Judge Landry’s remarks were unfounded. He further argued that Landry, the 16th JDC’s first African-American judge, was “biased and prejudiced” against his office to such an extent that “she cannot be fair or impartial.”

After considerable posturing disguised as testimony in court subsequent hearings, Duhé and Landry kissed and made nice, declaring that they were recommitted to working together and the DA’s office rather unceremoniously dismissed the recusal motions.

Just another day in Louisiana’s hallowed halls of justice.

[You may order Louisiana’s Rogue Sheriffs: A Culture of Corruption ($30) by clicking on the yellow DONATE button in the column to the upper right of this post or by sending a check to Tom Aswell, P.O. Box 922, Denham Springs, LA. 70727.]

 

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There are so many ways a public agency can waste your taxpayer dollars. Some are out there for everyone to see like when contracts are awarded to a favored vendor even though that vendor didn’t have the low bid.

Or when a contractor is paid $175 per 100-square-foot tarps on rooftops in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina only to have the contractor (Shaw Group) subcontract the work to A-1 Construction for $75 a square and to have A-1 hire a second subcontractor, Westcon Construction at $30 per square, who finally pays workers $2 per square.

Other times, the waste is concealed from view and without someone doing a little digging, no one ever knows how thousands or dollars are frittered away by bureaucrats who nothing better to do than to quietly spread the spoils around among the politically-connected.

So it was in March of last year that Southern University’s Grievance Committee held hearings on the appeals of four professors who had been terminated. When the four professors indicated that they wanted the hearing to be in open meeting as opposed to executive session, their request was rejected out of hand.

The state’s open meetings law [R.S. 42:14 (A), (B), and (C)] allows for all personnel matters to be discussed [without any official vote being taken] in executive session unless the employee(s) being discussed requests that discussion be held in open session. Such request by the employee(s) would supersede any move for executive session.

But the Grievance Committee’s chairperson announced—without benefit of a public vote by the committee [also a violation of the open meetings statute] that a private vote had been conducted prior to the convening of the committee meeting at which it was decided to hold the executive session to discuss the professors’ grievance.

I was there to cover the hearing and the four professors and I promptly filed suit against Southern for violation of the open meetings law. The trial was held in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

Southern presented the unique argument that the school’s grievance committee was not a public body—even though every member was an employee of Southern and the committee was acting on behalf of Southern’s administration. Unique indeed.

Even more bizarre, Southern attorney Winston DeCuir, Jr., in his cross-examination of yours truly, tried to question my right to be a party to the suit by asking how many other events I’d covered for LouisianaVoice at Southern. The answer was none—as if that had any legal bearing on the matter at hand. He then asked why I picked that hearing to cover and I replied truthfully that I had been alerted that the hearing might produce an interesting story for LouisianaVoice.

The presiding judge had little problem in ruling for the four professors and yours truly, awarding a total of $5,000 ($1,000 per plaintiff), plus attorney fees and court costs. So, counting the award, court costs and attorney fees, we’re already looking at something approaching $8,000-$10,000 all because DeCuir did not provide proper legal counsel to the committee when it decided to break the law. [He was there and should have advised the committee that it was treading on thin legal ice.]

But Southern wasn’t finished. Rather than cut its losses and pony up the money, DeCuir appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeal. Nothing like throwing good money after bad.

In January, the FIRST CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEAL handed down its decision. The lower court’s decision was upheld without a dissenting opinion. Unanimous, in other words.

Moreover, the First Circuit assessed additional attorney fees of $1,400 and additional court costs of $1,804. And that’s not counting what DeCuir will bill the university for his solid legal advice.

So, Southern learned its lesson, right?

Not quite.

At DeCuir’s advice, the university has now taken writs to the Louisiana State Supreme Court—all to argue that Southern University and its Grievance Committee are not public bodies.

Your tax dollars at work. Not a lot of money in the overall scheme of things, but an example how quixotic legal battles by state agencies make thousands upon thousands of dollars disappear into contract attorneys’ bank accounts.

Which also raises another question: Can defense attorneys always be counted on to give the best advice to clients when that advice might conflict with the attorney’s financial advantage of keeping the meter running?

 

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“It’s a clemency process for the well-connected, and that’s it. Trump is wielding the power the way you would expect the leader of a banana republic who wants to reward his friends and cronies.”

—Rachel Barkow, professor and clemency expert at New York University School of Law, following Trump’s issuing pardons to 11 people, including former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had attempted to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat after he was elected president.

 

“Extortion by a public official is a very serious crime, routinely prosecuted throughout the United States whenever, as here, it can be detected and proven. That has to be the case in America: a justice system must hold public officials accountable for corruption. It would be unfair to their victims and the public to do otherwise. While the president has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich’s sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes.”

—Chicago attorneys Reid J. Schar, Chris Niewoehner and Patrick J. Fitzgerald and Cook County Judge Carrie E. Hamilton, in a statement in response to Trump’s pardon of Blagojevich.

 

“There are plenty of issues that we are concerned about.”

—U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe of Philadelphia, on the emergency meeting called by the Federal Judges Association to address concerns over Trump’s and Justice Department officials’ intervention in politically sensitive court cases.

 

 

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