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In Louisiana, a Messenger of Change Disregards His Message

James Stewart, Caddo Parish’s DA, continues to defend controversial death sentences that originated with his predecessors.

Photoillustration of James Stewart
James Stewart.Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Facebook.

Between 2010 and 2014, three people were principally responsible for making Caddo Parish, Louisiana, the death penalty capital of America: District Attorney Charles Scott and two of his assistant DAs, Dale Cox and Hugo Holland.

Holland was forced to resign in 2012 after he and several other employees of the district attorney’s office falsified paperwork in their attempts to qualify for weapons from the federal government’s surplus military gear program meant for police departments. Scott died in 2015 from a heart attack, and Cox chose not to run to be his replacement following the media attention he received after telling the Shreveport Times, “I think we need to kill more people. … I think the death penalty should be used more often.” Nevertheless, the effects of their administration persist.

Caddo Parish accounts for roughly 5 percent of the state’s population, 10 percent of homicides in the state, but nearly half of all death sentences in the past 12 years. The rate of death sentences per homicide was eight times higher than the rest of Louisiana between 2006 and 2015, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. This extreme disparity of death sentences handed down in the parish prompted Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to question the constitutionality of the death penalty.

James Stewart was elected to be Scott’s successor. Electing the former judge, who received financial support from liberal billionaire George Soros, was seen by some as a sign of reform in a system that had become synonymous with corruption and racism. At the same time, there were signs that Stewart would not be the reformer some hoped for. Stewart has said that he believes the death penalty should be reserved for the “worst of the worst.” And in addition to the Soros funding, he was endorsed by Scott’s widow, Alexis Scott.

“The DA has the sole choice to decide which cases to seek the death penalty,” Stewart said during a candidates forum in 2015. “…You have to have somebody who is attuned to the community, who knows which cases are the most serious, [who] undestands which cases should go [to the death penalty] and which cases should not go.”

While it may not have been clear how much of a reformer Stewart would be, he did campaign on a message of change from the prior administration. That’s why it troubles advocates to see him pursue death penalty cases initiated by his predecessors despite evidence that those prosecutors acted in bad faith.

For instance, Stewart continues to seek the death penalty against Grover Cannon, who is accused of killing a Shreveport police officer, Thomas LaValley, in August 2015. If Stewart is successful in securing a death sentence against Cannon, it will the first of his administration and the first in more than four years. But Cannon’s case has been controversial from the start.

In September 2015, Cox opposed the release of an audio recording by Shreveport police that Cannon and his legal team believed would exonerate him. Since then, Cannon’s trial has been delayed multiple times because of problems with the jury selection process. In February, jury selection was moved to East Baton Rouge Parish because the abundance of pretrial media coverage made it impossible to select an impartial jury in Caddo Parish.

The trial was delayed again in March after it was discovered that a computer error excluded all people born after June 2, 1993, from the list of potential jurors. Stewart then attempted to transfer the case back to Caddo Parish, but that decision was overturned on appeal in June.

“James Stewart was elected District Attorney because Caddo Parish voters rejected Dale Cox’s ‘we should kill more people’ view of justice,” Ben Cohen, counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative and Cannon’s attorney, told The Appeal in an email. “Voters in Caddo Parish, like justices on the United States Supreme Court, recognized that Cox was an outlier, a vestigial mixture of racism and vindictiveness.”

This is not the first time Cohen has squared off against Stewart in a case that originated with the prior administration. Cohen also represented Marcus Reed, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2013 for the killing of three brothers outside his home in 2010.

Reed argues the killings were in self-defense. He says at least one of the brothers had broken into his home on Aug. 16, 2010, and returned around 10 p.m. the same day with his brothers to confront Reed.

Witnesses provided conflicting accounts of the confrontation that led to the shooting. One witness said Reed walked out of his home and told the brothers to leave before shots were fired. That witness claimed to have heard a single gunshot, a pause, and then what sounded like multiple shots firing back. Two other witnesses said Reed opened fire as soon as the brothers arrived and the oldest stepped out of the vehicle. A semi-automatic rifle was found under Reed’s porch and a handgun was found near the home.

At trial, prosecutors argued Reed lured the brothers to his home and ambushed them. The jury deliberated for less than two hours before returning a death sentence for Reed. He was denied a new trial and the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana has filed a number of motions for post-conviction relief and public records requests. Stewart’s office is fighting all of the motions to compel discovery, and it issued redacted documents to the defense team. In response to the motions, Stewart’s office even requested financial compensation from Reed’s attorneys for their time.

Stewart did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“DA Stewart should look closely at the death sentences sought and secured by Dale Cox, rather than defend them with Cox’s vigor,” Cohen said. “It’s a true disappointment to see old-guard prosecutors defend these death sentences that were so out of bounds of our current standards of decency.”