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Question: How long should it take to complete an investigation of an “in custody death” involving Louisiana State Troopers LSP) and a deputy from the Union Parish Sheriff’s Office?

Well, in the words of one retired state trooper, such investigations are normally carried out “quick, fast, and in a hurry.”

So, why has the death of Ronald Greene at the hands of six troopers and deputy Christopher Harpin of Union Parish taken 16 months and counting?

Because “they’re circling the wagons,” says the retired trooper (I’ll call him Bob, though that’s not his real name. He prefers not to be quoted by name, but he did admit he viewed part of the body cam video of Greene’s take-down and describes it every bit as bad as the GEORGE FLOYD (the man who died as a Minneapolis Officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck) death. The infamous photo that showed Derek Chauvin calmly holding Floyd down with his knee until he died has sparked more than three months of protests.

Bob told LouisianaVoice that he “saw part of the video” and “overheard part of the conversation” of LSP investigators as they reviewed the video. “There were several troopers in the room as I walked past. Any time there’s lethal-force death, it’s pushed up the chain of command. They were talking about something being wrong.

He said he paused at the door and observed officers holding Greene on the ground. “I’ve never recalled holding anybody on the ground once he’s cuffed. We’re not trained to do that. We’re trained to get them cuffed and into our unit (patrol car). I asked if he (Greene) was cuffed and they (the investigators) said yeah.

“That really gets to me,” he said. “It’s no different than it’s ever been. A simple solution is to be honest, but they’re not doing that.”

LouisianaVoice made a public records request for the investigation report, disciplinary records stemming from Green’s death and all text messages between deputy sheriffs in Union and Ouachita parishes and any of the six troopers involved.

The request for text messages was based on reports LouisianaVoice received that such exchanges pertaining to the Greene death did, in fact exist, though the content of the messages is unknown.

We first received the stock answer that records would be reviewed and redacted as necessary and if deemed public, the records would be ready in 45 days – an abnormally long time to respond to a public records request.

I emailed a response from Faye Morrison’s administrative assistant expressing my displeasure at such a long wait:

From: Tom Aswell
Sent: Friday, September 4, 2020 3:40 PM
Subject: RE: PRR – Ronald Greene

Please convey to Ms. Morrison that 45 days in unacceptable. You can redact an entire book in fewer than 45 days. Please have the requested documents prepared and ready for examination by close of business on September 17. That’s 10 working days. This is not negotiable.

LSP attorney Faye Morrison also informed me that an investigative report (and all related documents) “is pending review with the Lincoln/Union District Attorney’s Office (both parishes are in the 3rd Judicial District).”

 

Following is the latest communication LouisianaVoice received from attorney Morrison:

From: Faye Morrison <Faye.Morrison@la.gov>
Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2020 2:05 PM
To: ‘louisianavoice@outlook.com’ <louisianavoice@outlook.com>
Cc: Nick Manale <Nick.Manale@la.gov>; Chavez Cammon <Chavez.Cammon@la.gov>
Subject: PRR to LSP for documents related to the “pursuit, arrest and death of Ronald Greene”

Dear Mr. Aswell:  Please be advised that the information you seek in your public records request for:

All audio and/or video recordings taken during the pursuit, arrest and death of Ronald Greene in Ouachita and Union Parishes on the night of May 09/May 10, 2019;
·           All investigative reports conducted by Louisiana State Police of said incident;
·           All records of disciplinary actions taken against any and/or all Louisiana State Troopers involved in the incident, including but not limited to Trooper Dakota DeMoss, Master Troopers Chris Hollingsworth and Kory York, Sgt. Floyd McElroy, Lt. John Clary and Capt. John Peters;
·           All text messages between any deputy sheriffs from Union or Ouachita Parishes, particularly Union Parish Deputy Christopher Harpin, and any and all of the aforementioned members of LSP, in reference to Ronald Greene
,

is not considered public at this time pursuant to La. R.S. 44:3(A)(1).  LSP conducted a criminal investigation into the incident and that investigative report (and all related documents) is pending review with the Lincoln/Union Parish District Attorney’s Office.  Our administrative investigation into the same is ongoing. (Emphasis mine) As you know, this office does not maintain standing requests due to the volume of requests we receive.  That being said, please feel free to request an update at any time.  fdm

To date, only one trooper, Chris Hollingsworth, was placed on LEAVE – but not until last month, 15 months after Greene’s death.

A lawsuit has been filed by attorneys Ronald Haley of Baton Rouge and Mark Maguire of Philadelphia against the six troopers, Harpin and a “John Doe” corporation that manufactures Electronic Control Weapons (tasers allegedly used on Greene). Troopers’ statements given about the incident are conflicting and inconsistent, giving us sufficient doubt about events leading up to Greene’s death. Text messages, if they exist, could give insight into officers’ attempts get their stories straight. (Haley also represents the family of Trayford Pellerin, who was killed by Lafayette police on Aug. 21. About 100 persons gathered at the State Capitol on Friday to protest that and other police shootings of Black people.)

That possibility, by itself, casts yet another cloud on LSP, which has experienced several negative news stories over the past six years, beginning with attempts by former LSP Superintendent Mike Edmonson and then-Sen. (not State Rep.) Neil Riser to circumvent regulations that, if successful, would have given Edmonson more than $100,000 per year in additional retirement benefits.

Greene initially fled from State Police in Ouachita Parish and did not stop until he sideswiped a tree in Union Parish, doing minor damage to the rear driver’s side of the vehicle. He exited his car under his own power and began apologizing for not stopping initially

Among the discrepancies:

  • Greene’s family was initially told by police that Greene had died after hitting a tree;
  • A call for Emergency Medical Services concealed the face that lethal force had been used;
  • The police report failed to indicate the use of force;
  • Officers claimed that Greene was intoxicated before leaning that a toxicology exam found no alcohol or drugs in Greene’s system;
  • Greene’s body was transported out of state for an autopsy, thereby denying the family’s right to have a representative observe the autopsy;
  • An emergency room physician at Glenwood Hospital in West Monroe said, “Upon obtaining more history from different law enforcement, personnel, history seems to be disjointed and does not add up. Different versions are present…family states they were told by law enforcement that patient died on impact with tree immediately after motor vehicle accident, but law enforcement state(ed) to me that patient far out of the car and running and involved in a fight and struggle where…he was tased three times.”

 

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You have to wonder what the Louisiana Ethics Board is trying to conceal.

Back in March, the neutered ethics board sued the Louisiana Legislative Auditor in an effort to prevent state auditors from peeking at information in its case files that the auditors say is necessary to conduct a proper performance review of the board.

Well, there may be a plausible explanation but on the surface of it all, the ethics board’s action screams of some kind of cover-up. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but then when you examine some of the board’s actions, that too, is understandable.

You may remember one of the first actions taken by Bobby Jindal soon after taking office back in 2008 was to gut the board in what he deemed at the time reform that produced the “gold standard” of ethics.

What it did, instead, was make then-pending ethics investigations of a couple of legislators go away. One of those legislators is now a college president. Go figure.

When Jindal announced his “reforms,” there were 11 members of the ethics board. Soon after that, there were two. Nine of the 11 members, including the board chairman, vice-chairman and board administrator promptly RESIGNED in protest—or disgust, take your pick.

In its lawsuit, filed in state court in Baton Rouge, the board contends that information contained in the files is confidential and privileged. State Auditor Daryl Purpera countered that his office has not only the right but the obligation to see the information—and to keep it confidential.

It’s most likely that auditors are not interested in any particular case, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider some of the board’s fancy footwork in dodging any responsibility in holding public officials’ feet to the proverbial fire.

Take State Police, for example. Back in April 2018, the board CLEARED —in secret, at that—four State Troopers accused of taking a taxpayer-funded vacation in a state vehicle that took them to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas en route to a convention in San Diego.

The troopers, the board determined, did not take the detour to the tourist spots on their own volition, but upon the instructions of higher-ups in the department. There was only one “higher-up” who could give those instructions and that was then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who ultimately resigned under pressure in the wake of that trip.

But then, 16 months later, in August 2019, the board then managed to twist logic beyond recognition when it also CLEARED Edmonson of wrongdoing, according to his attorney, Gray Sexton. Sexton formerly served as (ahem) head of the State Ethics Commission but apparently had no problem representing clients before the board.

Sexton said he had received a letter from the board that cleared Edmonson but he refused to make a copy of the letter available, claiming that it was “confidential.”

That seems to be the way the Ethics Board operates these days: confidentially, in secret, behind closed doors, out of sight from, and with no accountability to the public.

Auditors are seeking full access to board records from 2013-2018, specifically inclusive of investigative case files, files for cases with waivers/suspensions, and ethics board executive meeting minutes.

The board provided some of the records but has withheld the investigative case files and executive board meeting minutes, justifying the refusal by claiming state law “provides that documents obtained or prepared in connection with an investigation are not only confidential but also privileged.”

The board’s refusal and lawsuit appear to be part of a trend of state boards, commissions and agencies trying to prevent auditors from delving into their operations.

In recent years, the State Board of Medical Examiners, the Louisiana Pharmacy Board, and the Department of Economic Development have taken legal action to protect their records from the prying eyes of auditors. Purpera’s office won against the Medical Examiners and Pharmacy boards but lost a court decision against LED.

Purpera said the effort to obtain records for auditing purpoises is an ongoing battle. “We’ve been fighting for records for the last 25 years,” he said.

 

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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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