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It is rare that an election for a local district attorney has such clear, national implications as the one that will unfold this summer and fall in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.  Encompassing Shreveport and its surrounding towns and villages, Caddo has a population of a little over two hundred and fifty thousand, but an outsized role, both practical and symbolic, in the American justice system.

The history of the racialized, and at times vigilante justice in this part of Louisiana is too long to recite here, but for context’s sake it’s worth noting: (1) that until a concerted effort to have it removed came to fruition in 2011, a confederate flag flew over the courthouse; (2) of those counties that gave four or more death sentences in the last five years, Caddo has the highest number of sentences of any county in America, three quarters of them given to African-Americans; and (3) a recent study showed Caddo prosecutors struck nearly half of all African-American prospective jurors, but only 15% of whites.

Against the backdrop of events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, and the current intensity of the issue of how our justice system treats African-Americans, the election for who will control the prosecutorial function in a place like Caddo takes on special significance.

Caddo in the National Spotlight

The Parish’s most recent appearance in the national news came last month, amidst the continuing fall-out from the exoneration of Glenn Ford.  By now most everyone who follows criminal justice matters has heard of Ford, an African-American man from the Parish who spent thirty years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder he did not commit, before being released last year.

Coverage might have ended there, as one more glimpse of an ongoing tragedy, but for Ford’s efforts to get the state to compensate him for the adulthood they had stolen.  Louisiana’s resistance to this prompted the original prosecutor in the case, Marty Stroud, to publish a letter apologizing to Ford for how “totally wrong” he was in fighting the post-conviction review of Ford’s case, and for failing in his duties as a prosecutor during Ford’s trial.  He concluded by calling for an end to the death penalty, describing it as “an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized.”

This was rare enough coming from a Louisiana prosecutor, but it was immediately followed by an equally rare piece of candor by the then First Assistant Caddo DA, Dale Cox, who rather than demonstrating any humility in the face of Ford’s exoneration insisted the death penalty needed to be used more frequently and administered more swiftly.  Claiming it served the state’s “interest in revenge” he said, “I think we need to kill more people.”

The rawness of Stroud’s letter and Cox’s doubling down quickly drew renewed national attention, from Leon Neyfakh in Slate, Andrew Cohen writing for the Brennan Center, and Emily Bazelon in the New York Times.  The plight of Ford, dying of lung cancer left untreated while he was still in Angola, combined with the stark disagreement between two prosecutors involved in different stages of the case made for a compelling dramatization of the half-life of wrongful convictions–how hard it is to receive compensation, and how vanishingly infrequent an apology from a prosecutor is.

An Unexpected Election

All of this is charged enough, but it is against this backdrop that we learned two weeks ago that, in a totally unrelated event, Charles Scott, the elected District Attorney, had died of a sudden heart attack.  The very next day, Dale Cox had himself sworn in as the new district attorney, a move who’s legality some of have questioned.  While it seems that under Louisiana law, a vacancy in a district attorney’s office is filled by the first assistant on an acting basis, it is Cox’s quick assumption of the title of District Attorney that has caused some to question if he is tipping the scales in his favor by setting himself up as the incumbent in the special election that will now be held in the fall to fill the position on a permanent basis.

Last fall, we highlighted a number of district attorney elections, particularly in competitive races in large, urban jurisdictions that we thought deserved wider attention.  And just a few weeks ago in the Washington Post, Radley Balko laid out the case for why all those interested in criminal justice should start paying careful attention to local DA elections, calling it the “missing piece” of the reform movement.

The Caddo Parish election is another chance to begin the long task of filling in that “missing piece” by trying to inform voters about their choices, and people beyond Louisiana about the stakes involved.

This is not simply a matter of continuing to litigate the Glenn Ford case at the ballot box.  Glenn Ford is one (horrendously treated) defendant.  But as James Gill of the New Orleans Advocate recently pointed out, the death penalty is “a cottage industry” in Caddo Parish, accounting for six of the last eight death sentences from all of Louisiana.

One prosecutor, Cox himself, is responsible for four of those sentences.  The other two were obtained by former Caddo prosecutor Hugo Holland, about whom we have written multiple times for everything from accusations of withholding exculpatory evidence in capital cases to obtaining automatic weapons for his own use as a prosecutor by apparently lying on an application to a federal weapons procurement program–an act that eventually got him fired, though he still works as a prosecutor elsewhere in Louisiana.

For a variety of reasons, then, present and historical, symbolic and practical, who gets elected Caddo Parish DA in the wake of Scott’s untimely death should matter both to Caddo residents and people across the country who care about the administration of criminal justice.

The Choice Ahead

So what are the choices?  Cox, for one, announced his intent to run for a full term the day after Scott died.  As for others, at least one local citizen journalist, John Settle, very much opposed to Cox, has already begun to size up the field.

According to Settle, possible candidates include at least three African-Americans: Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Stewart, District Judge John Mosely, and Leon Emanuel, executive director of the Legal Services of North Louisiana, though Settle writes, “Many observers do not believe that more than one African American will enter the race.”

Former Second Circuit Judge Gay Gaskins is reportedly a serious candidate for the DA’s race. She was the first female judge elected to Shreveport City Court where she served for 5 years before successfully running for the Court of Appeals. She served on that bench for 17 years before retiring; she is now a private mediator.

Also included among those apparently considering a run are the son of a former sheriff, a former assistant United States Attorney, and Scott’s last opponent in 2008, Craig Smith.

Needless to say, the task of covering this race in detail over the coming months will fall chiefly to the local media, citizens like John Settle, and particularly the Shreveport Times.  We hope they give the election the thorough coverage it deserves.

Meanwhile, however, for those of us who don’t live in Caddo Parish but who care about the administration of criminal justice, this is an opportunity to raise awareness and spread the word about a political race that involves neither the White House nor the Senate, but which has some profound implications for how our fellow citizens will be treated in the years ahead.

 

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