In Louisiana, Harsh Prosecutors Are Moving From Parish to Parish
When Caddo voters booted their infamous district attorney, some of his toughest prosecutors found a home in Calcasieu.
In 1983, Isadore Rozeman, a jeweler in Shreveport, Louisiana, was shot once in the back of the head in a robbery gone wrong. In 1984, Glenn Ford was convicted of his murder. Ford continually proclaimed his innocence, but luck was not on his side. Two lawyers were appointed to represent Ford in his death penalty trial, both chosen simply because they were next on an alphabetical list of area attorneys. One worked in oil and gas, the other in insurance defense. Neither had ever tried a jury trial before. All the evidence tying Ford to the murder was circumstantial, there was no murder weapon and no eye witness, but it didn’t matter. Ford, who is Black, was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electrocution.
Finally, almost 30 years later, Ford was exonerated in 2014. His attorneys discovered that the state had withheld evidence that implicated other people as the killers. The sheer injustice of Ford’s conviction led the prosecutor who tried the case, Marty Stroud, to write a public apology to Ford, admitting that he had been “arrogant, narcissistic, caught up in the culture of winning.”
But then-District Attorney Dale Cox in Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, believed Ford was owed no apology. “I don’t know what it is [Stroud’s] apologizing for. I think he’s wrong. [T]he system did not fail Mr. Ford. … Because he’s not on death row.”
“Getting out of prison after 30 years is justice?” asked the interviewer.
“Well, it’s better than dying there,” Cox said, “and it’s better than being executed.”
After he was exonerated, Cox fought all efforts to compensate Ford for the state’s misconduct. In 2015, one year after he was released from prison, Ford died from lung cancer.
Most people didn’t know it, but Cox was already one of the most influential prosecutors in America. Between 2010 and 2014, Caddo, home to about a quarter million people, sentenced more people to death per capita than any other county in America. Between 2011 and 2015, Cox himself secured a third of the death sentences in the state. But it still wasn’t enough for him. “I think we need to kill more people,” he said in 2015. “I think the death penalty should be used more often.”
Cox’s comments made national news, and he decided not to run for re-election. Instead, in 2015, James Stewart, a former appellate judge, became the first Black district attorney of Caddo Parish. Stewart wasn’t radical by any means. But he also wasn’t bloodthirsty. Simply by operating somewhere in the middle of the road, Stewart was a vast improvement on his predecessor.
In the initial days of his tenure, Stewart recognized that any chance at reform faced a major obstacle—the remaining staff. Cox was out, but the Assistant DAs from his era and the era of his predecessor remained. For Stewart to effectively implement a new approach to prosecution, he would need a new staff. Within a few weeks of being sworn in, 11 assistant district attorneys left Stewart’s office. It was a major change in an office that currently employs around 35 prosecutors.
These 11 represent the most notable exodus from the Caddo Parish office in recent history. Some of them went into private practice, becoming personal injury lawyers. Others decided to go into criminal defense. And at least two of them ended up in the office of Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier. All told, in the past few years DeRosier has employed at least six former Caddo Parish prosecutors. And, while they don’t all have politics like Cox, there has been a disturbing pattern of DeRosier taking in some of the more controversial former Caddo prosecutors. “Hiring disgraced lawyers from across the state sends a clear message to prosecutors in Louisiana,” says Ben Cohen, counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans. “Get caught lying or cheating, there will be a job for you in Calcasieu.”
Why Calcasieu? The parish is a four-hour drive from Caddo, all the way in the far south part of the state, so it’s not for convenience’s sake. Perhaps it’s because DeRosier’s office still reflects an antiquated outlook, where being tough on crime and winning to win is the driving ethos. Until this year, Louisiana incarcerated more people than any other state in the nation. But DeRosier rejected the possibility that prosecutors and law enforcement may be responsible for the crisis. “The proponents of change in the current system will tell you that Louisiana is incarcerating too many people so your sentences must be too harsh, your judges must be too harsh, your prosecutors must be too harsh,” he said. “They will not even consider the suggestion that people simply don’t want to follow the rules and will not follow the rules no matter what.”
DeRosier uses many well-worn tropes to prevent reform in Louisiana. An old campaign ad shows him drumming up fear about immigrants and crime. And, while DeRosier has stated publicly that the death penalty is expensive, tedious, and unpleasant—”Taxpayers are paying a tremendous amount of money for death penalty cases,” he lamented in 2012—he still unfailingly supports it. “We cannot allow the pricing of capital punishment cases out of the market as a way to get rid of it,” DeRosier said in 2015.
DeRosier’s influence goes beyond the parish limits. Local advocates say that he has an outsized presence at the legislature, where he regularly testifies against progressive legislation and has been resistant to many of the reforms that have gained traction in Louisiana and across the country more broadly.
It was in the legislature that DeRosier made headlines in April when he opposed a constitutional amendment that would require a unanimous jury to convict someone of a crime. (Every state besides Louisiana and Oregon requires unanimity.) According to Senator J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill, the current laws stem from the late 1800s, when legislators were trying desperately to preserve white supremacy.
The bill got support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, and even from at least one former prosecutor. “In our lifetime, we will never have as good an opportunity to repeal a 138-year-old law that dates back to Jim Crow days,” said former Grant Parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley. But unanimous jury requirements make it harder for prosecutors to get convictions, and DeRosier was determined to prevent that from happening.
“You hear a lot about this being a vestige of slavery,” he said. “No doubt that is true, but it is what it is, and that was 138 years ago. …The issue here is not about the way something started. Should we not have driven Volkswagens in the ‘60s, if we held to concept that they were ordered, designed, and manufactured by Adolf Hitler? I don’t think so.”
His comments were met with immediate outrage. “I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say, ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is,’” said Representative Ted James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge. “You are elected to represent everybody, and I hope the people that elected you are listening because if they aren’t, I’m going to make sure that they know what you said today.”
DeRosier boasts that Lake Charles is one of the safest places in the country, but it hasn’t stopped him from pushing for more police presence as a way to raise money. Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint against Calcasieu and other Parish prosecutor offices, alleging that their traffic ticketing practices violated the state’s Code of Governmental Ethics. DeRosier brought the program at issue, called LACE, or local agency compensated enforcement, to Calcasieu Parish. In theory, it’s a diversion program for people who receive traffic tickets and are given the option to just pay a fine. But in reality, it’s a money-making scheme for the district attorney’s office. “These fines do not go through the court system, which divides revenue among several agencies,” according to the Lens, a local news nonprofit. “Instead, the money goes straight to the district attorney.”
The program depends on overtime officers. Their time and their salaries, as well as the use of their vehicles, are paid for through the tickets they issue, DeRosier said. He has repeatedly made the program sound like a policy response to a safety concern. “We have some bad traffic areas and we need to send a message to the drivers they will be stopped and will pay the price,” he said. What he doesn’t mention, though, is that the program is netting him millions, and residents are paying.
As officers have begun writing LACE tickets, they have drastically reduced the number of traditional traffic tickets they issue. From 2011 to 2012, the number of tickets dropped by 42 percent, according to Louisiana Supreme Court reports. Meanwhile, in just two years, the number of LACE tickets issued in the parish tripled.
That has a major impact on indigent defense funding, which comes from traffic ticket revenue in Louisiana. According to the Lens, Calcasieu Parish began issuing more LACE tickets soon after public defenders were allotted ten more dollars from each traffic ticket, going from $35 to $45.As a result, “public defenders expected to see a 30 percent increase in local revenue. Instead, the number of tickets filed statewide dropped 30 percent over the next few years.” Meanwhile, in 2017 alone, the district attorney’s office made $4.4 million in revenue.
DeRosier is sharp, cunning, and ambitious, qualities that seem reflected in his staff. Take Jason Brown, the very first person Stewart fired. This wasn’t a surprise—Brown had been a vocal supporter of Stewart’s opponent, Dhu Thompson, and had donated $1500 to his campaign. Brown was known for being the epitome of a tough-on-crime prosecutor, and once made national news when he prosecuted a man who was sentenced to life without parole for buying $20 worth of weed. Brown charged him under Louisiana’s Habitual offender laws, which are a significant contributor to Louisiana’s incarceration rate, currently the second-highest in the nation. He later told The Daily Beast he considered the case a successful example of what he calls “pro-active law enforcement.” “It’s a system, he says, that revolves around using lesser crimes to lock up people he suspects to be guilty of other, more violent ones,” the article stated. A 2015 report concluded that Brown struck black jurors from potential jury service at almost five times the rate as white jurors in Caddo Parish. According to John Settle, a Shreveport blogger, Brown had been on the “criminal defense bar hit list.” DeRosier, however, hired him. Brown made $75,000 last year in Calcasieu, even though he only had a single case.
DeRosier also hired Hugo Holland, one of the most infamous prosecutors in Louisiana. Holland’s infamy in the state’s criminal justice community comes from his influence and his regressive politics. He had a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and alleged leader of the Ku Klux Klan, on the wall of his Caddo Parish office. He also named his cat after Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he calls “the most maligned man in U.S. history.”
Holland is a Cox-style prosecutor especially when it comes to the death penalty. “If it weren’t for Caddo Parish, capital punishment would have been largely phased out in Louisiana by now,” a columnist wrote in the Advocate. “And Caddo largely owes its pre-eminence to just two prosecutors, Dale Cox and Hugo Holland.” In fact, over one five-year period, Holland and Cox were responsible for half of the death sentences in the state .
Like Cox, Holland does not wrestle with the implications of the death penalty. “[I]t would not faze me in the least to watch a man executed, and that would include hanging or firing squad,” he told the Advocate. He has secured 10 death sentences during his career, half of which have been overturned for misconduct. Just last month, Corey Williams was released from prison, after it became clear that Holland had withheld evidence indicating he was innocent. Williams had been sentenced to death in 2000, and then resentenced to life without parole after the Supreme Court ruled that people with intellectual disabilities could not be put to death. Williams has an IQ of 68.
His problems go beyond his fixation on the death penalty. In 2011, he and a close colleague, Lea Hall, were fired from the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office for lying. (These days, Hall also works in Calcasieu Parish.) Holland and Hall requested eight M-16s from a federal program that bestowed military equipment to local law enforcement. In their application for the weapons, Hall and Holland said the automatic rifles were for the office’s Special Investigations Section, which they claimed “routinely participate[s] in high-risk surveillance and arrests activities with the Shreveport Police and Caddo Sheriff” and “handle[s] predominantly high profile and dangerous drug offenders.” But this was news to Sheriff Steve Prator, who denied that prosecutors were working with them in any capacity that would necessitate automatic weapons. Prator stated publicly that he believed the request had been made unlawfully.
Holland, Hall, and Brown were all part of what they called the “Zombie Response Team.” At first, it was a tongue-in-cheek name for a group of prosecutors who hung out, often at the firing range. But eventually it became what Radley Balko, a Washington Post opinion writer, calls “quasi-official.” The “team” designed a logo used to make special patches and license plates, and the group even started “wearing SWAT-type clothing during work hours.” But then it went even further: The prosecutors, “equipped their vehicles with emergency lights and sirens, pulled motorists over, conducted surveillance work and accompanied police officers when warrants were served.” Other staff found it silly and a bit concerning. “I went to law school,” one former prosecutor said later. “I’m supposed to go stand in court. I’m not supposed to be at crime scenes. … I’m thinking about how stupid it is that they want to go out and play cop.”
Holland and Hall encapsulated the sense of untouchability in Caddo Parish law enforcement. But after a whistleblower made public that they had lied to obtain automatic weapons, both men were forced to resign. Holland didn’t stay away from the DA’s office for long, though. He said he was unemployed “for about two days” after he was asked to leave Caddo Parish. Almost immediately, he was contracting with DA’s offices around the state to bring death penalty cases. Holland has worked with as many as 10 parishes at a time. Last year, he netted over $200,000 in salary, more than the governor and the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. He supposedly works full-time in two parishes, including Calcasieu, where DeRosier pays him over $50,000. Part of the reason prosecutors pay him is because of his influence at the legislature, where he has fought against reform bills and pushed back against efforts to increase public defense and capital defense funding. “Do the math,” said Stroud, the regretful prosecutor in the Ford case. “He’s constantly fighting to cut the budgets of the indigent defender’s capital defense and here he is holding down [multiple] positions around the state at taxpayer expense.”
Holland isn’t the only Calcasieu prosecutor who regularly goes to the legislature to testify, and other local advocates confirmed that DeRosier is extremely focused on having influence at the legislative level. According to Cohen, the Promise of Justice Initiative counsel, “DeRosier is trying to drive the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association by having his first assistant Loren Lambert become the lobbyist for the DA’s association.”DeRosier and his staff continue to build a legislative presence, the potential for outsize influence is significant.
Stewart’s election as district attorney in Caddo proved that it was possible to imagine a different kind of district attorney’s office—one concerned less with wins and more with justice. But prosecutors’ moves from Caddo to Calcasieu means that many of the problems that existed in Caddo risk being repeated elsewhere. DeRosier’s decision to hire prosecutors that so explicitly embody an anti-reform ethos demonstrates just how easily justice reform can be thwarted. “It’s not just that DeRosier has given jobs to prosecutors who disgraced themselves elsewhere,” says Cohen. “But he is trying to retain and elevate their brand of politics in an effort to prevent true criminal justice reform.” Ultimately, this transition from one office to another is emblematic of a major barrier in criminal justice reform. How much can actually change as long as the troublesome prosecutors just move around?