In a remarkable conclusion to the hotly contested race for District Attorney of Caddo Parish, retired judge James Stewart (D) last week defeated prosecutor Dhu Thompson (R) to become the first African-American DA in the history of the parish.
Coming only a few weeks after another reform candidate, Scott Colom, defeated Forrest Allgood, a notoriously punitive district attorney in Mississippi, who’d been in office for more than a quarter-century, Stewart’s win over a member of the old guard of Caddo Parish prosecutors is further evidence that even in the deep south, relatively progressive prosecutors can achieve convincing victories over entrenched “law and order” candidates.
The Caddo race had received national coverage following the incendiary comments of Dale Cox, acting DA of the parish, who was profiled in the New Yorker after saying Louisiana needed to “kill more people.” The now infamous Cox, who told 60 Minutes “the system worked” in the Glenn Ford case (despite an innocent man spending thirty years in prison and receiving no compensation) was, by his own admission, forced out of the race for District Attorney by the weight of reporting on his behavior and attitude toward defendants. That reporting had highlighted what an outlier, both nationally and within Louisiana, the Caddo Parish DA’s office had become in the frequency with which it sought and won death sentences, particularly against African-Americans.
In order to run for the position, James Stewart, a former prosecutor himself, decided to step down from the bench. He entered the race as a reform candidate, promising to “return integrity and respect” to the office. He garnered the most votes in the October primary, but fell short of the absolute majority required to avoid a run-off.
Dhu Thompson, his opponent, had defended the behavior of Cox and others like him in the office decrying the “politically timed recent accusations cast on our outstanding prosecutors in recent media coverage,” in an op-ed he wrote for the Shreveport Times.
In a jurisdiction where prosecutors strike black jurors during voir dire at three times the rate they strike white jurors, Thompson himself had a higher rate of striking black jurors than Cox. His election would have clearly signaled a continuance of the prosecutorial culture in Caddo.
Remarkably, however, the race wasn’t particularly close. Stewart won by ten percentage points, receiving 55% of the vote, on the same night that Louisianans sent Democrat John Bel Edwards to the governors mansion in his upset victory over Republican Senator David Vitter.
Over the course of the last year, we’ve begun writing about district attorney elections more often, highlighting their role in the larger project of achieving prosecutorial accountability. In thousands of instances, these races receive little to no attention beyond local media, and even that is often limited given what are frequently extremely long tenures for incumbent chief prosecutors. Stewart, for example, will be only the third district attorney of Caddo Parish in 36 years.
But his victory could not be a more important or useful example of how raising the profile of prosecutorial behavior in specific counties, and then offering citizens the opportunity to vote for an alternative approach can produce substantial change. If this can happen in one of the most notoriously conservative “law and order” jurisdictions in the United States, we now know it can happen virtually anywhere.
While Stewart was clearly perceived as the reform candidate, and, being an African-American, as the overwhelming favorite of black voters in the parish, who have been disproportionately impacted by the “vengence” of prosecutors like Dale Cox, he still advertised himself as an “aggressive prosecutor” who had been “protecting us and our families” for 35 years. This was, after all, a race for chief prosecutor, not public defender.
Nor can one man change the culture of law enforcement and criminal prosecution in Caddo Parish overnight. Dale Cox remains the first deputy in the DA’s office, and only time will tell if he will be shifted out of that position.
We will continue to follow developments in Caddo, and look forward to helping to hold James Stewart accountable himself for fulfilling his promise to restore “integrity and respect” to a public office sorely in need of it.