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Louisiana’s death penalty prosecutor takes aim at his legal opponents

Louisiana House of Representatives
Wikimedia Commons

Louisiana’s death penalty prosecutor takes aim at his legal opponents

The death penalty is costing the cash-strapped state of Louisiana tens of millions of dollars a year. But there’s one state employee who’s massively profiting off its continued existence.

Hugo Holland’s fingerprints are on the bulk of Louisiana’s recent death sentences. He’s been hired by over a dozen district attorneys to prosecute death penalty cases at a rate that pays him more than Governor John Bel Edwards.

Holland spent two decades as an assistant district attorney at the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office, which until recently churned out more death sentences than any other in the state, not to mention most others in the nation. He was effectively fired in 2012 after he and a colleague were caught lying on a federal application to buy M-16 automatic rifles for the DA’s office. The whistleblower claimed in a lawsuit that Holland generally liked to play cop, “outfitting [his] vehicles with lights and sirens, making stops, and wearing SWAT-type clothing during work hours.”

Though he was forced to resign when the scandal went public, the alleged fraud didn’t sink Holland’s career. Instead, his influence has expanded far beyond Caddo Parish. Records show he had lucrative contracts in nine different parishes last year.

Holland has secured ten death sentences in Louisiana over his career, both as a Caddo prosecutor and in his new role. Five were later overturned. Overall, a recent study of Louisiana’s death penalty found that more than 80 percent of death sentences in the state have been overturned since 1976. Prosecutorial misconduct was responsible for 25 such reversals.

And the odds have gotten increasingly tough for capital prosecutors. Fifty of the 52 capital cases that have been resolved since 2000 were reversed, largely thanks to the emergence of dedicated nonprofit offices that handle death penalty trials and appeals for the public defender board.

“Not only have reversals become more common than new death sentences… but in the new century exonerations have outpaced executions,” the study noted. “A better funded capital defense system in Louisiana allows more of these errors to be discovered.”

Holland has started going beyond the courtroom to try to defeat the organizations making it harder for his death sentences to stick. His old office, Caddo Parish, pays him $900 a day to lobby the state legislature to preserve the death penalty and weaken capital defense programs.

Last year, he secured a key victory against the “anti-capital punishment zealots” he claimed control the state’s public defense funds.

“They spend money on experts like a drunk sailor in Thailand goes through hookers,” he complained to the Advocate.

Professing a concern for overextended public defenders, Holland argued at a 2016 committee hearing that the public defense budget was being eaten up by “boutique law firms” that were lavishing a luxury “Cadillac defense” on poor people facing capital punishment.

Hugo Holland (right, pointing) testifying
screenshot, Louisiana House of Representatives

“Local public defenders that I deal with every day across the state who are struggling to represent the indigent and provide them competent representation are overworked because the current board is composed of individuals who can’t repeal capital punishment in front of the legislature and are trying to price it out of existence in the court system,” he testified.

Holland was speaking in support of legislation to divert funding from capital defense to the local public defenders. The bill also reduced the board’s membership from fifteen members to eleven. District attorneys came out in force to support the bill, accusing the public defender board of mismanaging money by dedicating a third of it to capital cases.

It’s true that indigent defense in Louisiana is dismally underfunded. New Orleans’ public defenders infamously started refusing new felony cases last year as a result of the budget shortfall.

But blaming the capital defenders is a red herring. Death penalty cases have far more complex constitutional requirements than a typical criminal case because the stakes are so high. Death row inmates are entitled to a winding path of appeals in state and federal courts that demands years of investigation and litigation. These special circumstances require enormous amounts of money, time, and resources on both sides. In the past, public defenders have struggled to adequately handle these complicated cases on top of the rest of their responsibilities.

“Having carried a caseload myself in the public defender’s office, I could not also defend a capital case,” one death penalty defense attorney testified at the same House committee. “I spend many hours a week, full time, working the capital cases I have now, because they are extremely complicated.”

The Public Defender Board also testified that the bill obscured the real problem: the unreliable and shrinking pool of funds used to fund public defense.. Louisiana is the only state in the nation that funds its courts primarily with fines and fees, such as traffic tickets. This funding scheme is known as a “user pay” system, in which the “users” are predominantly poor defendants of color. The result is an unpredictable budget— and an inherent conflict of interest for the public defenders. If their clients plead guilty, they must pay additional fines and fees that feed into the public defense budget.

“We are paid to lose,” Orleans Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton testified. “That is perverse.”

Still, the legislation passed and was signed into law with little opposition. Two capital defense organizations confirmed to the Advocate that their budgets were subsequently cut in half.

Holland’s concern for the state’s fiscal health might be better focused on his own drain on taxpayers. His lofty commissions for capital prosecutions — a highly expensive process that, unlike legally mandated capital defense, is a choice prosecutors make — have netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. His own misconduct has also fueled some of the appeals he despises; he’s been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in multiple death row cases. One of his most high-profile death sentence pursuits racked up a taxpayer bill of $14 million over 15 years. The gun grab that got him fired also resulted in a legal settlement of $447,000.

According to the Advocate, Holland is not finished with legislative tinkering. His next big priority will be to “unclog” the “bottleneck” of post-conviction relief, thereby speeding up executions before a sentence can be thoroughly challenged.

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