In a highly instructive example of the powerful role journalism can and could play in creating a culture of prosecutorial accountability, the acting District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Dale Cox, announced last week he is dropping his bid for a full term, citing national media attention to his comment that the state of Louisiana needed “to kill more people.”
Cox made his now infamous remark about what he considered the under-use of the death penalty in an interview with Maya Lau of the Shreveport Times on March 24th. He was responding to an open letter written by Marty Stroud, the original prosecutor in the Glenn Ford case, apologizing to the by-then-exonerated Ford for how “totally wrong” he had been in fighting Ford’s appeals, and decrying the death penalty as “an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized.”
Drawing National Attention
In the usual course of events, Cox’s endorsement of revenge, and use of racially coded terms like “jungle” to describe Caddo and the world of the mostly black defendants in capital murder cases there would have gone unnoticed. But because of attention already focused on the Ford exoneration his comments drew coverage from Andrew Cohen writing for the Brennan Center, Leon Neyfakh in Slate, and Emily Bazelon in the New York Times.
When Cox’s boss died unexpectedly later in the spring, and Cox announced his intent to run for DA, we highlighted the election as one with national implications because of Caddo Parish’s dark racial history, its disproportionate number of death sentences, and Cox’s comments, particularly given his role in many of those cases.
Then, earlier this month, the New Yorker brought Cox and the Caddo election to widespread attention with a profile by Rachel Aviv, entitled “Revenge Killing.” The article offered a devastating portrait of Cox’s prosecution of Rodricus Crawford, an apparently innocent African-American man now on death row for the “murder” of his son, whom evidence suggests died of pneumonia. In the penalty phase of the trial, Cox berated Crawford’s family members about Crawford being unemployed and smoking marijuana, as if these facts qualified him for a death sentence.
Soon after the New Yorker article went online, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree published an op-ed in the Shreveport Times saying that Cox represented “the Confederacy’s Last Stand in Shreveport,” and said, “It is time for [him] to go.”
Later that same week, drawing on the New Yorker‘s profile, justice reporter Shaun King excoriated Cox in a piece on the Daily Kos, and the next day Campbell Robertson raised his profile further with a piece in the New York Times. The Times article quoted Robert Smith, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, to make the crucial point that, given the significant drop in death sentences nationwide, and the dwindling number of prosecutors who seek it, its application is increasingly “personality-driven.” That is, driven by the personality of men like Dale Cox, who sees the community he was hired to protect as a “jungle” and believes in the “visceral satisfaction” of killing people for the sake of revenge.
Though CBS has yet to air the segment, according to Shreveport’s KTBS.com, Cox also recently received a “grilling” from a reporter for 60 Minutes, which plans to run a piece on Cox this fall.
Taken together this extraordinary amount of media attention–local, state, national, print and online–to a District Attorney’s race in a mid-size city in northern Louisiana led to an extraordinary result. The man best positioned to win the race, both because he had been First Assistant DA, and remains the acting DA, abandoned his candidacy, saying his comments had become a distraction.
Beyond the Case of One Prosecutor
In a trenchant editorial summarizing these developments, and arguing once more for the end of the death penalty, the New York Times quoted Cox as saying,“I have come to believe that my position on the death penalty is a minority position among the members of this community.” It is a telling statement coming from a prosecutor in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.
For decades now the press has treated even the most outrageous conduct of prosecutors as undeserving of serious, if any, coverage. In fact, they have treated it in much the same way they treated the police killings of African-Americans until the events in Ferguson, as existing beneath the bar of the public interest.
As the last year has shown in the case of police killings, this can change. Sufficient media attention, consistently applied, could raise the slumbering conscience of a public that has been trained for a generation to consider prosecutors above reproach no matter how routinely or flagrantly they skirt or break the law, or demonstrate racist behavior toward the men and women they prosecute.
The case of Dale Cox proves this. What it does not do is solve the problem of prosecutorial misconduct and overreach, let alone the racism of the criminal justice system. But it points the way to how a culture of prosecutorial accountability might arise with the help of journalists bringing the kind of sustained focus to district attorneys elections that they do to mayoral and congressional races, or, far more recently, to the closely linked issue of police brutality.
Today, Cox remains a prosecutor in Caddo Parish. There is, at present, no clear reason to believe he won’t remain one after the election he has now withdrawn from. He may well send more men to death row.
That he will not become the District Attorney is a victory for accountability, and for moral decency. But it is only when he and others like him know and believe that their actions and words are being watched, not only by their local legal communities, but by a responsive and engaged media, that this victory can extend beyond one man.