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Archive for the ‘Prison’ Category

If Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter feels as if he is being squeezed these days, it is for good reason.

He is.

On the one hand, state district judges of the 32nd Judicial District are requiring that Larpenter perform the duties of his job.

On the other hand, federal investigators reportedly are looking into the manner in which Larpenter performs the duties of his job. Reports are the FBI recently completed two days interviewing one of Larpenter’s deputies. The nature of those interviews was not immediately known.

Meanwhile, two private security guards and a Houma police officer have taken over security at the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse following the high sheriff’s refusal to do so even though state statutes clearly say:

  • “Court criers are to be provided by the sheriff of each parish to each district judge.”
  • “The crier of a court (notice this is not restricted to Orleans) shall attend all sessions thereof, under the direction of the judge shall open and close court at each session, and maintain order and decorum in the court room, and shall perform such other duties as are assigned to him by law, the court, or the sheriff.” (emphasis added)
  • “Each sheriff or deputy shall attend every court that is held in his parish…”
  • “Security in the courthouse is the responsibility of governing authority (Gordon Dove), but an agreement may be made between the parish officers and the building to share the expenses.”
  • “The principal functions of the criminal sheriff are that of being keeper of parish jail and executive officer of the Criminal District Court.”

Larpenter tried to pull rank on the judges by refusing a request by Judge Randal BETHANCOURT to provide more security details assigned to the courthouse. Larpenter demanded more pay for doing so and the judges said no dice. That standoff more or less backed the judges into a corner by forcing them to retain private security and municipal police officers.

Following the dispute over additional security vs. additional pay, Larpenter took photographs of inmates being transported to court and being held in holding cells until being called for their hearings and arraignments.

Armed with the photographs, Larpenter called the State Fire Marshal down on the court, apparently for the overcrowded conditions in the cells.

A little background is in order here. The State Fire Marshal, like the State Superintendent of Police is a position filled by appointment of the governor but no governor in his right mind would do so independently, i.e. without the blessings of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. Make no mistake, the sheriffs’ association dictates to every governor who shall fill the positions of Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, State Fire Marshal and State Superintendent of Police. Ergo, Larpenter felt sufficiently confident to call in the big boys on the judges—big boys that his association props up.

Down and dirty politics at the local level? Damned right and normally that would be a lethal weapon given the formidable alliance of the sheriffs’ association, Secretary of Public Safety, State Superintendent of Police and State Fire Marshal. In case no one has been paying attention, those are the preeminent law enforcement agencies of the state. You generally don’t cross swords with that kind of power.

Larpenter then goes to the local press with his brainstorm for a great cost-cutting measure: video arraignments.

But that was only a temporary setback as the judges came back with their own “gotcha.”

First, they issue an order banning all video arraignments, thereby forcing Larpenter to bear the costs of transporting more than 150 prisoners for hearings two weeks ago.

Then, Judge David Arceneaux signed an order in which he struck through language requiring the warden of Dixon Correctional Institute in East Feliciana Parish, 120 north of Houma, to transport a prisoner from the facility to Houma and back. Judge Arceneaux then wrote in longhand, “Terrebonne Parish Sheriff to transport from Dixon Correctional Institute,” adding that Larpenter was to deposit $1500 for the cost of transporting the prisoner.

Needless to say, all this has set off a minor war in the 32nd JDC. Larpenter sputtered and fumed but Bethancourt replied it was all Larpenter’s fault, supposedly for balking at providing more security for the courthouse.

Regardless whose fault it is for the situation to have deteriorated so badly, it has morphed into a very interesting little turf war that isn’t like to end soon—or well. And it promises to be a fight worthy of the sordid reputation of Louisiana politics.

The number two spectator sport behind football.

In other words, fun.

 

 

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To little surprise to anyone paying attention, Louisiana is one of the most violent states in the nation, according to 24/7 Wall Street, a digital business news service that releases articles on studies of economic, industry, marketing political, and crime statistics.

Of even more concern than Louisiana’s ranking as the 5th most violent state, was the city of Monroe’s ranking as the most violent metropolitan area in the nation with 1,187 violent crimes for every 100,000 people. That was more than double the state rate of 566 violent crimes per 100,000 population.

While the precise cause of the increase in violent crime was not clear, poverty was given as a possible explanation. While 14 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, seven of the 10 states with the highest violent crime rate have higher poverty rates than the nation as a whole.

Alaska, with 804 violent crimes per 100,000, was the most violent state, according to the news release but that ranking can be misleading because of Alaska’s relatively small population. For example, the 52 murders statewide in 2016 was 12th fewest in the nation but because of the sparse population, the impact on the murder rate was greater than for a heavily populated area. The state’s imprisonment rate of 409 adults per 100,000 was 16th lowest and the state’s poverty rate of 9.9 percent was 6th lowest.

By contrast, Louisiana had 554 murders during 2016, which was 11th highest in the nation and more than 10 times as many as Alaska. Likewise, the state’s imprisonment rate of 1,019 adults per 100,000 was the highest in the nation (the only state whose imprisonment rate exceeds 1,000—a rating the state has held for a number of years. Oklahoma is close behind with 948 per 100,000. Louisiana’s poverty rate of 20.2 percent is 2nd highest in the nation.

Other states that had higher violent crime rates than Louisiana, in order, were:

  • New Mexico: 703 violent crimes per 100,000; 139 murders (22nd fewest), imprisonment rate of 440 adults per 100,000 (20th lowest), and a poverty rate of 19.8 percent (3rd highest).
  • Nevada: 678 violent crimes per 100,000; 224 murders (25th most); imprisonment rate of 577 adults per 100,000 (15th highest), and a poverty rate of 13.8 percent (23rd highest).
  • Tennessee: 633 violent crimes per 100,000; 486 murders (13th highest), imprisonment rate of 549 adults per 100,000 (18th highest), and a poverty rate of 15.8 percent (11th highest).

Right behind Louisiana were:

  • Arkansas, with 551 violent crimes per 100,000 (6th most violent), 216 murders (25th fewest), an imprisonment rate of 774 per 100,000 (6th highest), and a poverty rate of 17.2 percent (also 6th highest).
  • Alabama, with 532 violent crimes per 100,000 (7th most violent), 407 murders (17th most), imprisonment rate of 790 per 100,000 (4th highest), and a poverty rate of 17.1 percent (7th highest).

Mississippi, which is almost always clustered with Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas in such polls, defied the odds on this one, coming in with only 281 violent crimes per 100,000, which was 24th lowest. Its 238 murders, however, were 23rd most. Mississippi’s imprisonment rate of 803 per 100,000 was 3rd highest, and its poverty rate of 20.8 percent was highest in the nation.

Typically, such poll results are met with the “oh, well, this is Louisiana” reaction.

While such comments are, unfortunately, accurate, it is far past the time when we should simply yawn, laugh, and move on to LSU football, crawfish boils or some other distraction.

The only ones who are impacted by these types of results are all of us.

And the only ones who can change these studies are us.

Until we call a screeching halt to allowing LABI, the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies and banks to dictate the agenda for compliant legislators, things are never going to change. We are going to have to hold our elected officials accountable.

As things are now—and as it has been for decades—legislators are outnumbered by lobbyists by more than 10-1. It’s pretty overwhelming when you have more than 1500 lobbyists swarming around the House and Senate and the various committee rooms.

What’s more disheartening is the lobbyists are paid well to do thorough research and can regurgitate impressive sounding statistical data to legislators while members of the public who will be affected by a particular bill—and who do not have the advantage of a paid research staff—generally fall back on emotional arguments that legislators are unable to hear because of campaign cash stuffed in their ears. This creates an uneven playing field.

It is incumbent, therefore, that the citizenry educate itself on the legislative process. In today’s age of the Internet, it’s so very easy to track bills through committee and to even monitor committee meetings in real time through the legislature’s web page.

So, bottom line, we have no one to blame but ourselves for our state’s pathetic standings in areas that affect our quality of life—from income to crime to education to employment to our overall health.

To sit back and trust elected officials is to make a tragic mistake, as history has clearly shown. Many of these officials are power brokers who serve as important committee chairs and as Senate President and House Speaker. We simply cannot trust them as they long ago established a tradition of ignoring the wishes of the people and acting  not in our best interests but in the interests of campaign contributors—and far too often, to their own financial gain.

To continue to ignore the problem is to continue to settle for the status quo. LouisianaVoice has shown through the years that many of these elected officials are there only to build their own political base, to enrich themselves, to award family members with state jobs with little responsibility, and, or course, to collect campaign contributions to perpetuate their own tenure in office. Those were not among the reasons we sent them to Baton Rouge.

Until that mental approach on the part of our citizens is changed, nothing else will. We will always be at the bottom of those lists and we will continue voice our frustration only when LSU loses to Alabama.

 

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It’s funny how a change in bosses can bring about an almost seamless change in philosophy on the part of subordinates who harbor a desire to keep their jobs.

Take Jimmy LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said in May of this year that he didn’t believe it would be worth it in terms of any cost savings to privatize five state PRISONS.

Yet, only five years earlier, on May 8, 2012, LeBlanc was quoted in New Orleans’ GAMBIT magazine as saying he hoped the $8 million per year in savings from the privatization of just a single state prison—Avoyelles Correctional Center (AVC) in Cottonport—could be reinvested into rehabilitative programs. He even said AVC was an ideal candidate for the plan because it was similar to the privately-run facilities in Winn and Allen parishes.

What’s the reason behind LeBlanc’s position change?

Well, for openers, in 2012, he was serving as head of corrections as an appointee of then-Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Today, he is serving in the administration of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who reappointed him in January 2016.

The contrasting positions appear to be classic examples of political hacks swaying with the prevailing winds. Jindal wanted to privatize prisons so he could get an infusion of quick cash to smooth over annual gaping holes in his budget. Edwards, not so much. In fact, Edwards is downright opposed to the idea of privatization, leaning instead toward reducing the state’s prison population by freeing non-violent offenders. Jindal preferred keeping the prison beds full in order to keep a continuous flow of cash to private prison operators who are paid on the basis of head counts.

But the contrast doesn’t end there.

As pointed out in the 2012 Gambit article, LeBlanc said AVC was an ideal candidate for privatization because it was so similar to those private facilities in Winn and Allen. At that time, they had been downgraded to “jail” status, thereby allowing state officials to eliminate education and rehabilitation programs.

Well, guess what?

Last May, LeBlanc was singing a different tune about the attributes of those facilities, saying that he was in favor of restoring the Winn and Allen facilities to “prison” status, a move that would necessarily bring the state back into the picture. Apparently, what was “ideal” under the Jindal administration didn’t quite measure up under Edwards. But LeBlanc is nothing if not flexible.

It’s probably that flexibility that has allowed LeBlanc and others in the Department of Public Safety to survive when appointees in other agencies were shown the door with the ushering in of a new administration.

Survival. It’s a great motivator.

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Vincent Simmons has been imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for 40 years for a crime that he almost certainly did not commit and our vaunted system of justice is largely responsible for his inability to get a fair hearing.

The timeline of events alone should be reason enough to have granted him a new trial decades ago. Yet, he continues to languish at “the farm,” the name bestowed upon Angola in a 1998 documentary about Louisiana’s notorious maximum-security prison.

For openers, the time between public defender Harold Brouillette’s filing of a motion for preliminary hearing and Simmons’s conviction was an astonishingly short interval of only 27 days, hardly sufficient time to put on any semblance of a defense.

Normally, it takes much longer between an accused’s arrest and his trial. This is so defense attorneys can compile a list of witnesses, engage expert testimony, and obtain all evidence possessed by prosecutors. Sexual assault cases typically take SIX MONTHS between indictment and trial, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

It took half that long for the supposed victims to come forward and report that they’d been raped.

Here is the TIMELINE of events:

Monday, May 7, 1977—Twin 14-year-old sisters are riding around with their 18-yeaar-old cousin, Keith Laborde when they allegedly encountered an unknown black man at a 7-Eleven convenience store who asked them to give him a ride to his home. En route, he pulls a gun and forces Laborde to drive down a remote country road to a spot near a lake and there rapes the two girls.

Sunday, May 22, 1977—The two girls report—for the first time—to Sheriff “Potch” Didier, Maj. Fablus Didier, Capt. Floyd Juneau and Deputy Barbara DeCuir at the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office that a “black man” raped them on May 9, 1977.

7 a.m., Monday, May 23, 1977—Shift begins for Juneau and Lt. Robert Laborde (Laborde is a cousin of Keith Laborde).

8 a.m., Monday May 23, 1977—Juneau and Laborde make the decision to arrest Vincent Simmons.

9 a.m., Monday May 23, 1977—Simmons is walking down Waddil Street in Marksville when Juneau and Laborde, passing by on patrol, arrest him—without a warrant—on two counts of aggravated rape. Sheriff Didier orders a lineup. The lineup consists of seven blacks and one white. Of the eight men in the lineup, Simmons is the only one in handcuffs. Keith Laborde and the two girls observe the lineup from behind a mirror and pick out Simmons even though the girls had said all black men looked alike to them. Simmons is taken upstairs but is never interrogated. When Simmons refuses to sign a confession that had already been prepared by Laborde, he is shot in his left chest by Laborde. Laborde and Capt. Melvin Villemarette claim that Simmons took Villemarette’s gun and tried to shoot them, though he is never charged with that offense. Simmons is transferred to Huey P. Long Hospital in Pineville. Judge Earl Edwards now issues the warrant for the arrest of Simmons for the rape of the girls.

Tuesday, May 24, 1977—Coroner F.P. Bordelon, MD, examines both girls and discovers that one of the girl’s hymen is still intact, indicating she is still a virgin. The other girl admits to having had consensual sexual intercourse nine months earlier.

Friday, May 27, 1977—Simmons is released from the hospital and he is transferred back to the Avoyelles Parish jail.

Friday June 30, 1977—An Avoyelles Parish grand jury indicts Simmons on two counts of aggravated rape and two counts of attempted murder. Dr. Bordelon formulates his findings about his medical examination of the two girls and sends report to District Attorney Eddie Knoll. During trial of Simmons, jurors never learn of the existence of this report.

Thursday, June 23, 1977—Public defender Harold Brouillette, later to be elected a state district court judge, files a motion for a preliminary hearing. Judge Edwards orders that a preliminary hearing be held in the case of State of Louisiana vs. Vincent Simmons on the two counts of aggravated rape at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 7, 1977.

Wednesday, June 29, 1977—U.S. Supreme Court rules in Coker v. Georgia that the death penalty is unconstitutional for the crime of rape. This means that pursuant to the decision, the penalty for aggravated rape is only 20 years per count as opposed to attempted aggravated rape, for which no penalties had been set.

Thursday, July 7, 1977—At the 1 p.m. preliminary hearing, Judge Edwards schedules Simmons’s trial for July 18, 1977, giving Brouillette only 11 days to prepare for trial. This is known as a court’s “rocket docket,” whereby certain cases are moved to the top of the court’s list of scheduled cases.

Thursday, July 14, 1977—Assistant District Attorney Jeanette Knoll, wife of District Attorney Eddie Knoll, files a motion to amend the indictment to two counts of attempted aggravated rape. Judge Edwards signs the motion behind closed doors—without a second grand jury hearing. This opens the way for prosecutors to seek penalties of 50 years imprisonment for each count of attempted aggravated rape. Jeanette Knoll would later be elected to the Louisiana State Supreme Court.

Monday, July 18, 1977—Jury selection begins in the trial of Vincent Simmons.

Tuesday, July 19, 1977, and Wednesday, July 20, 1977—Two-day trial of Vincent Simmons is held, concluding in a guilty verdict on each count of attempted aggravated rape.

Thursday, July 28, 1977—Judge Earl Edwards imposes a 100-year sentence (50 years for each count, to run consecutively) on Simmons.

So, there you have it: a delayed report of rape to the suspiciously quick arrest, an equally quick trial that made it impossible for a public defender with no funds to retain expert witnesses or to conduct extensive investigations, to the manipulation of charges so as to obtain the maximum punishment for a crime that Simmons most likely never committed. The fast track his case was put on—with such an obvious lack of supporting evidence—makes it appear that authorities were almost desperate in their haste to run him through the system and get a conviction. To think those charged with protecting our rights and freedoms would stoop to such tactics should send a chill down all our spines for who’s to say we might not be the next to undergo such treatment at the hands of the law and order advocates?

Someone coined the phrase “Justice delayed is justice denied.” This rings especially true in the case of Vincent Simmons. Justice for him has been delayed for 40 years—and counting. His story and sadly, as is true of so many others like him, is the type justice that a defendant might expect to encounter when he doesn’t have:

  • Money;
  • Connections;
  • A name that screams influence;
  • Highly-paid attorneys;
  • The right color skin.

For an example of all the above, see LOUIS ACKEL.

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So, just why didn’t the officials at the Department of Corrections transport Vincent Simmons to Marksville for Wednesday’s hearing?

Or better yet, what do prosecutors of the 12th Judicial District have to fear? Are they trying to cover for Eddie Knoll’s mistake? A mistake that has cost Vincent Simmons 40 years of his life?

Most probably, it’s just a matter of someone at Angola State Penitentiary dropping the ball, says New Orleans attorney Robert Hjortsberg.

A hearing was scheduled to be held on Wednesday on a motion by Hjortsberg to recuse Judge Kerry Spruill for a hearing on Simmons’s application for post-conviction relief. Hjortsberg wants Judge Spruill recused because of his association with Knoll, who originally prosecuted Simmons in 1977.

But officials at Angola inexplicably failed to transport Simmons to Marksville even though they “assured us he was going to be here,” Hjortsberg said on Wednesday after the Angola no-show. “In fact, my office also called to make sure he was going to be here because there is a lot of people, including myself, who have come from all over the place in order to be here to support him.”

Vincent was convicted for attempted aggravated rape of twin 14-year-old white girls in 1977 on the basis of what Hjortsberg says was “flawed and contradictory testimony” and in spite of there being no physical evidence of any description against Simmons.

Among the discrepancies that cast doubt on Simmons’s guilt:

  • The girls waited two weeks to report the incident;
  • There was never any physical evidence that the rapes occurred;
  • No forensic tests were carried out on the clothing of the alleged victims, Simmons’s clothing, or the interior of the car in which they said the rapes occurred;
  • The doctor who examined the girls reported that he found no signs of injury on either girl and that one of the girls was still a virgin two weeks after the supposed rapes;
  • Simmons was convicted on July 24, 1977. Yet, on June 10, some six weeks earlier, Dr. F.P. Bordelon, Jr. wrote of his examination of one of the girls, “There was (sic) no bruises on her body. The vaginal examination showed that the hymen was intact.” Contents of Dr. Bordelon’s letter were never admitted into testimony during the trial. That’s exculpatory evidence and grounds for a new trial;
  • The girls initially said they did not know their attacker’s name but testified in court that he had told them his name before assaulting them;
  • The girls said they would not be able to pick out their assailant “because all black men looked the same” to them;
  • Yet, they later picked Simmons out of a police lineup in which he was the only one handcuffed;
  • The police investigation reports did not include a single lead pointing to Simmons, yet he was picked off the street and charged with the crime;
  • Two reports by the same police officer written 24 hours apart gave two completely different locations of the place of arrest;
  • There is no indication that police, at any point, had an official interview with Simmons or that he gave any statement. Yet, when he was arrested and taken into custody, a police officer who was related to Keith Laborde, the supposed victims’ cousin, shot Simmons in the chest, nearly killing him;
  • Police claimed that Simmons disarmed one of the officers and attempted to shoot him but his gun misfired. Yet, this was not mentioned at trial, nor was he ever charged with resisting arrest any other crime related to that claim;
  • The arresting police officers never testified at trial;
  • No pre-trial or investigations by Simmons’s court-appointed legal counsel were ever made;

Simmons has been attempting to win an evidentiary hearing for several decades but the state has never afforded him one.

Simmons’s application for post-conviction relief has offered another piece of exculpatory evidence that was in the prosecution’s possession but never revealed to the jury.

“Recently, Vincent Simmons became aware of an affidavit signed by Pamela Jones, a witness present at the J&J Snack Bar the night of the alleged rapes,” Hjortsberg says in the application. “The withheld information given by Pamela Jones was known by the state because they and/or their agents are the ones that initially acquired the information.”

The rapes allegedly occurred when the girls said they were abducted at a 7-Eleven convenience store by Simmons who then forced Laborde, their 18-year-old cousin, to drive down a remote dirt road where they said they were raped near a lake.

Hjortsberg said that after Jones heard about Simmons’s arrest, she called the District Attorney’s office, gave her name and number, and explained that she knew that Simmons could not have committed the crime. “She was told that someone from the state would contact her, which never happened,” he wrote in his motion.

“After the phone call, Pamela followed up by going to the District Attorney’s office to tell them her side of the story,” he said. When she arrived, she was met by a white male who identified himself as an investigator. “He told Pamela that someone would get in touch with her in a few days to get her statement because there was no one present in the office to take it at the time. No one from the District Attorney’s office ever contacted her again.

“…At least one other individual that described himself as an investigator had knowledge of this information and never turned it over to defense counsel or notified them that the statement had been made.

“This favorable evidence related to Pamela Jones’s statement clearly shows that the Avoyelles Parish District Attorney’s office was aware of the evidence because they are the ones that heard the statements initially. Furthermore,” Hjortsberg says, “the prosecutor in this matter, Edward Knoll, was responsible for disclosing this favorable evidence even if he was unaware of it.”

The trial transcript and official court records shows “that the jury heard nothing about Pamela Jones and the fact that she saw Vincent at the J&J Snack Bar,” the motion says. “Pamela was never subpoenaed nor called as a witness. She also states in her signed affidavit that she never testified at trial nor did she speak to Vincent’s defense counsel. It would be inexplicable for the defense not to have used this evidence if they in fact had it in their possession at the time of the trial.”

Hjortsberg says, “A series of unorthodox and unexplained actions by the Avoyelles Parish District Attorney’s office prevented any reasonable possibility that Vincent Simmons’s trial attorney could have learned of the favorable evidence. Despite the fact that the office was called and physically approached by Pamela Jones—yet never documented her testimony nor made any mention of it to defense counsel—shows that they not only were aware of this favorable evidence but willfully withheld it from the defense.

“The state of Pamela Jones gives a detailed account of what time and day she arrived at the J&J Snack Bar, when Vincent arrived at the snack bar, what time Vincent arrived, what Vincent was doing when he arrived, and finally, what time Vincent left the bar, the motion says.

“The evidence withheld by the state would have been favorable to Vincent because it could have been used at trial to exculpate him—by demonstrating that Vincent could not have been in two places at once.”

Hjortsberg says that in Simmons’s case, the suppressed evidence “discredits the caliber and reliability of the state’s investigation and prosecution of Vincent, because it shows that the state zeroed in on one suspect with little to no investigation despite the weakness of the evidence against him. The suppressed evidence shows that investigators were aware that a credible alibi witness had come forward on Vincent’s behalf and (they) did nothing. It further shows that they had no interest in finding who actually committed these acts but rather focused solely on closing the case as quickly as possible.”

He said that while he is disappointed at the failure of prison officials to follow through on transporting Simmons to his hearing, “The hearing will be held and I’m confident that Vincent will be granted a new trial based on this new information and I don’t think he will be convicted again.”

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