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Louisiana mother faces jail time for her children’s alleged crimes

A district attorney wants to solve crime by breaking up families.

Louisiana mother faces jail time for her children’s alleged crimes

A district attorney wants to solve crime by breaking up families.

A prosecutor in the incarceration capital of the world is gearing up to send a mother to jail based on crimes she didn’t commit. According to Caddo Parish District Attorney James E. Stewart Sr. in Louisiana, the mother deserves to be locked up for a spate of criminal offenses that were allegedly committed by her two children.

Latonya L. Dillard, a mother of two, was arrested on August 29 in Shreveport and then charged with improper supervision of a minor. The charge stems from a number of offenses that were allegedly committed by her 10-year-old and 12-year-old sons. Authorities say the two boys have committed 12 criminal offenses this year, at least two of which involved breaking curfew and burglarizing a store two nights in a row. Stewart’s office says the sons’ offenses are indicative of neglect by their mother.

If convicted, Dillard could spend 30 days in jail. She may also be forced to pay thousands of dollars for her sons’ alleged behavior.

“As I promised to the citizens of Caddo Parish, it is time for parents who neglect their duty to supervise their children to be held responsible for the criminal activity of their children,” Stewart said in response to the arrest. The district attorney is reportedly collaborating with the Caddo Parish School System and local police to clamp down on truancy and curfew infractions, while holding parents accountable for the actions of their kids. Stewart’s press statement follows a vow made in March, in which he promised to prosecute parents whose kids are caught in public after hours.

Meanwhile, little information has been provided about Dillard, including where she was when her sons broke into the store in question or what disciplinary actions she may have taken following the crimes they allegedly committed. It is hard to know how involved Dillard is in her children’s lives in general. But research on childhood development and juvenile justice paints a picture of what could happen to her sons if she’s convicted.

Taking parents away from their kids is traumatic for children, and often manifests in acting out and rule-breaking —the kind of behavior that Stewart, with the assistance of law enforcement and school administrators, wants to eliminate. Children with an incarcerated parent or guardian experience shame and stress that impedes their physical and mental development. They are also more likely to fall behind in school. By and large, criminal justice experts agree that juvenile justice is supposed to be rehabilitative and reflective of the fact that kids are constantly developing. To prevent young people from committing crimes, it is important to understand the social and economic factors underlying their behavior.

Stewart may want to straighten kids out, but he’s embracing a misguided policy that could do far more harm than good. Prosecuting parents for their children’s actions is just another way of punishing young people in the long run.

Texas district attorney says system failed in case of man convicted of sexual assault

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick

Texas district attorney says system failed in case of man convicted of sexual assault

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick says the criminal justice system failed in the prosecution of Greg Kelley.

Kelley was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the sexual assault of a 4-year-old child in 2014. But the conviction was thrown into doubt when Kelley’s defense team found that another man, who used to be Kelley’s best friend, might have committed the crime.

The case was reopened earlier this year after evidence emerged that a man named Johnathan McCarty confessed to a friend that he molested the child in question. Pictures of naked children were also discovered on McCarty’s computer.

Kelley, a former high school football star, is now out on bail, and it appears increasingly likely that he will be exonerated. He was 19 at the time of his conviction and is now 22.

Earlier this month, Dick said he would not have tried Kelley if he’d been the elected prosecutor in Williamson County at the time of the trial. He also expressed anger and frustration over what occurred, suggesting that responsibility “lies at the foot of law enforcement, of the prosecutors, of his defense team and of the jury.”

“My commitment is to restore the public’s faith and trust in our criminal justice system,” said Dick, who took office in January. “I can’t do that by defending a prosecution like Mr. Kelley’s.”

“We have to make sure that innocent people, that an innocent person isn’t convicted, and sometimes that is very unsatisfying because it means potentially a guilty person is set free,” Dick said. “But, the goal of our office is to make sure the public can believe in our system and that when jurors go to court, they know that when the state stands up, they’re telling the truth.”

Dick also said the Cedar Park Police Department’s investigation was “wholly deficient.” According to local news reports, the department never investigated or questioned McCarty, despite the fact that his name came up during the initial investigation, he was living in the home where his mother ran an in-home day care center at the time of the alleged assault, and he and McCarty “looked strikingly similar at the time.

Jana Duty was the Williamson County District Attorney at the time Kelley was prosecuted. Dick defeated her in a March 2016 primary and later won the general election, running unopposed.

One of the jurors from Kelley’s trial said he believed Kelly was innocent but voted to convict under pressure from other jurors. That juror now says Kelley should be exonerated and he regrets caving to the pressure to convict.

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A victory for racially inclusive juries in Washington

Washington State Temple of Justice
Wikimedia Commons

A victory for racially inclusive juries in Washington

The transcript calls him Mr. Meyer, or Juror №5. In October 2014, he arrived at Seattle Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanors, for the trial of Matthew Erickson. Mr. Erickson had been charged with unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest.

The judge told the prospective jurors that the lawyers would question them to see if they were “unbiased.” The prosecutor and the defense attorney each got fifteen minutes. Defense counsel’s question about whether any of the jurors had ever argued with a police officer led to this conversation with Mr. Meyer:

[MR. MEYER]: I was walking to Volunteer Park to meet some friends when two police cars pulled up and asked me to come up to the car and put my hands on the car. And I asked them for what reason. They said that somebody had just stole something from a church nearby and that I fit the description. I was kind of upset with that because I didn’t think I fit the description of somebody who just. And I asked [ . . . ] what was the description [ . . . ]. I said, “Was it a guy with long hair?” because I wore my hair long. And they wouldn’t tell me what the description was, so I talked back to a cop.

[MR. MEYER]: They took my ID and ran it and then let me go.

[DEFENSE COUNSEL]: How did it make you feel to be accused by the police of doing something that you hadn’t done?

[MR. MEYER]: Angry, embarrassed, and upset.

Mr. Meyer was asked nothing more on this topic. When the lawyers had finished their questioning, it was time for the challenges “for cause” — in other words, arguments that particular jurors could not be fair. Neither side mentioned Mr. Meyer. Then came peremptory challenges: the ability of either side to remove a potential juror for any non-discriminatory reason. The judge agreed with defense counsel’s suggestion that the jurors remain in the courtroom while these challenges were announced.

For his first peremptory challenge the prosecutor proclaimed: “The City would like to thank and excuse Juror №5.” When all six jurors who had been “struck” learned their fate, the judge thanked them, acknowledging that they had done their civic duty for “very, very small” remuneration. They were led away.

Little did Mr. Meyer know that soon after his departure, court staff went racing out of the courtroom to see if he was still in the building. After the jury had been sworn in, Mr. Erickson’s attorney had raised a Batson challenge, arguing that the prosecutor had struck the only black member of the jury panel (Mr. Meyer) in the trial of a black defendant. But did this claim come too late? The search came up empty; Mr. Meyer and his cohort were gone.

Thus began the three-year journey of a Batson claim that persisted through its initial rejection by the trial judge, through Mr. Erickson’s conviction and sentencing, through procedural intricacies, multiple courts, and three failed requests for relief, and finally, to the Washington Supreme Court, which declared a new trial for Mr. Erickson, and two new — or newly clarified — principles in the state’s law. The first was that it’s not too late to bring a Batson claim in these circumstances (i.e., after the trial jury has been empaneled). The second was that a peremptory strike of the only member of a cognizable racial group constitutes a prima facie showing of racial discrimination (and, thus, requires the side which used the peremptory strike to provide a “race-neutral” explanation for doing so).

This was a victory against the odds. In 2013, I was teaching Mr. Erickson’s appellate lawyers (then students at Seattle University School of Law) about Batson. In 2017, here they are telling me about the feeling of pure elation when they learned that they had changed the state’s law, and describing the moment when one read the decision to the other, and they both started screaming. All three of us had read cases in which Batson courts wring their hands over signs of discrimination, but deny relief to defendants on some procedural ground. Now we were marveling that they avoided this fate.

Batson victories have always been hard-fought. Mr. Batson himself (as this wonderful podcast tells us) had to beg his lawyer to “object anyway” — even in the absence of case law to call on — as one by one every juror of his race was sent home.

Even while moving Batson forward, Mr. Erickson’s case reminds us how much remains to be achieved. One of the beauties — and horrors — of Batson is that it frequently requires those applying it to reveal something about how they think race discrimination works. In one of the more extraordinary moments in Mr. Erickson’s short trial, the trial judge paused in his analysis of the Batsonclaim to inquire into the prosecutor’s “background”:

[COURT]: Mr. Singla, I wanted to make sure you had the opportunity to state your own background on the record as the allegations are being made against you. You don’t have to if you don’t wish to.

[PROSECUTOR]: That’s fine, your Honor. I am an immigrant to this country. I came here from India when I was 12 years old. I grew up here in eastern Washington in a racially mixed community and I attended both Washington State University and the University of Washington.

[COURT]: And you identify as a racial minority or as a nonwhite or white person?

[PROSECUTOR]: I identify myself as an East Indian.

The trial judge also diverted from a focus on the stricken juror’s race — and, specifically, his Blackness — when, as part of his justification for rejecting the Batson claim, he stated that “there was a diverse jury.” The judge noted that even though the only black juror had been removed, three people of color had made it onto the jury. The Washington Supreme Court pounced at oral argument, with one justice noting that the use of a “diverse” jury to rebut a claim of discrimination against black jurors “almost asks us to erase the entire history of how Black people have been seen in this country.”

Further, one concurring justice cautioned not to take the court’s decision as signaling that they’ve “fixed the problem.” After all, Mr. Erickson’s case addresses only the first step of the three-step Batson test: where an attorney objecting to the use of a peremptory strike attempts to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Even if the problems with the first step could be fixed, significant problems remain with both the second step, which requires the side that struck the potential juror to provide a race-neutral reason for the peremptory challenge, and the third, where the judge decides whether purposeful discrimination has been established. Still, this case offers some valuable insights going forward.

The prosecutor’s proffered “race neutral” justification for striking Mr. Meyer was the fact of his prior interaction with the police stop, and the fact that he had been “argumentative” and had felt “embarrassed and angry.” Batsondoctrine typically characterizes a person’s negative experience with law enforcement as a “race-neutral” justification, and this kind of proffered justification is common. Indeed, as the prosecutor said at oral argument, where the prosecution witnesses are police officers, “I don’t know why you wouldn’t excuse that juror.”

Again the Justices pounced, both as regards the logic of the justification (“I’ve had negative experiences with lawyers before, but I still think I can be fair to them.”), and with respect to the implications of insulating it from challenge (“Do you think a prosecutor can peremptorily challenge anyone who has ever had an experience — positive or negative — with the police, and it will always be non-racially motivated?”). There seems to be interest within the Washington Supreme Court to give such justifications a hard look. As one justice said, “We are unlikely to see different outcomes unless courts are willing to more critically evaluate proffered race neutral justifications.”

But the justices don’t overstate what judicial opinions can achieve. One wrote that “there are better avenues,” and indeed Washington is a hotbed of jury-related bias initiatives right now. Pending before the Supreme Court is a proposed court rule, which would expand Batson by removing the requirement of proving purposeful discrimination. It would also create a presumption that certain justifications, such as “expressing a distrust of law enforcement,” are invalid. Additionally, some state courts are borrowing a new juror orientation video from the federal Western District of Washington, which addresses implicit bias. (As suggested here, this is unprecedented.) And the lamentable rates of juror pay are the subject of local litigation, and other efforts are being made to diversify local jury panels.

Two concurring justices offer additional suggestions. First, that “it may be time for us to require that counsel be afforded ample time for thoughtful questioning of prospective jurors.” It’s hard to quibble with that. But, second, they urge “the complete abolishment of peremptory challenges.” I have written elsewhere about my disagreement, and Mr. Erickson’s appellate lawyers also resist this proposal. As one of them says, “the current state of for-cause challenges is so abysmal that getting rid of peremptories would be devastating to the defense bar.” Not only is the time allotted for jury questioning far too short, but the judiciary is reluctant to grant challenges for cause. Thus, the peremptory challenge — so often a vehicle for discrimination — remains essential to their fight for a fair trial.

This irony — that by bringing the appeal Mr. Erickson’s lawyers inspired talk of abolition of a tool that they prize — is not the only ironic part of the case. The more poignant example concerns Mr. Meyer. He did all that was asked of him. He showed up, for pitiful remuneration. He participated. Indeed, he shared a story of humiliation at the hands of law enforcement. The response was his removal by law enforcement in open court. Mr. Erickson has been awarded another trial. Perhaps this time he will have a peer or two on his jury. But for Mr. Meyer, the case is closed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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