When Derrick Williams pleaded guilty last summer to first-degree murder — a deal cut in return for a life sentence in the slaying of a fruit market security guard — 17 of the more than 80 inmates on Louisiana’s death row had been sent there by East Baton Rouge Parish juries.
A “contract for life” that the 28-year-old Williams signed Aug. 12 guarantees he will spend the rest of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola rather than face execution.
Since March, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III has approved three more contracts for life — taking possible death sentences off the table for two accused killers and removing a convicted and condemned killer from death row.
The contracts require the defendants to agree not to challenge their convictions or sentences. The agreements also state they will not apply for a pardon or for parole.
Moore, who insists he is not opposed to the death penalty, contends contracts for life protect the public, spare victims’ families the pain of a lengthy legal process and save his office money and manpower.
“To me, this is the safest way to go,” he explained. “We just want to have a solid conviction that can never be overturned.”
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, noted that Moore is breaking new ground in Louisiana with the use of contracts for life in capital murder cases. Adams said he believes more prosecutors will come on board once word gets out.
“It seems like it’s a win-win,” Adams said, noting that a contract for life “goes beyond” a normal plea agreement.
Moore said he got the idea from the case of Kevin Scales, who spent 10 years fighting the death sentence he received for killing Baton Rouge restaurant worker Kenny Ray Cooper during a holdup in 1991.
In 2001, prosecutors and the victim’s family agreed to have the court set aside Scales’ first-degree murder conviction. In exchange, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison.
Moore said doesn’t know whether contracts for life are being used in other states.
LSU law professor Cheney Joseph characterized a contract for life as a “once-and-for-all resolution, so that it’s over.”
“Once the death penalty is imposed, that is only the beginning of a long, long litigation trail,” he said. “This sounds like an extremely reasonable approach.”
Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said he had not previously heard of a “contract for life” but sees nothing unconstitutional with such a pact.
Yet he sounded a note of caution, saying prosecutors sometimes “questionably charge” defendants with first-degree murder in order to use the death penalty as leverage.
“They know it’s easier to extract a plea bargain for life,” he said, stressing that he is not suggesting Moore did that in the cases involving contracts for life.
Gary Clements, director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, described a contract for life as a “glorified plea bargain,” but nevertheless applauded Moore.
“You wouldn’t have seen that language a few years ago,” observed Clements, who is handling the post-conviction appeal of condemned south Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee.
“I don’t think Hillar is unmindful of what’s going on. He saved untold amounts of money for the parish,” Clements said. “When the stakes are that high, it gets very expensive and time-consuming.”
Williams’ contract for life was the first by Moore, who took office in 2009.
Williams admitted shooting Alfred Mequet, 71, at Pete’s Farmers Market on Airline Highway in 2007.
The last person an East Baton Rouge Parish jury recommended for execution was Dacarius Holliday, who was formally sentenced to die last July — five weeks before Williams signed a contract for life.
Holliday was convicted in the 2007 beating death of 2-year-old Darian Coon. Moore’s office obtained the death penalty against Holliday after inheriting the capital murder case against him from the prior district attorney.
“There are several other pending death penalty cases awaiting trial,” Moore noted. “If plea offers for contracts for life are made by the defendant, they will be considered only after I and my staff meet to discuss the case in detail to make the appropriate decision.”
Moore said some cases warrant the death penalty. Factors include the circumstances surrounding the killing, a defendant’s background, input from the victim’s family and the continued threat a defendant may present in prison, he said.
The second contract for life was signed in March when 33-year-old Tracy Young pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing 21-year-old Aaron Arnold in 2006. Young admitted shooting Arnold, an LSU pre-med student working at Olive Garden, outside the Siegen Lane restaurant.
Unlike Williams’ contract, which was signed by a daughter of Mequet on behalf of his surviving children, Young’s was not signed by any member of Arnold’s family.
Moore has said Arnold’s father left it up to the District Attorney’s Office to make the decision.
Young pleaded guilty after four days of jury selection in his capital murder trial.
The third and fourth contracts for life were signed last month.
Trendall Lashel Matthews, 25, pleaded guilty June 20 to two counts of first-degree murder in the May 2008 deaths of Jessica Johnson Palmer, 23, and Juan Palmer Jr., 3, at Doyle’s Bayou Park. Matthews, who was scheduled to stand trial July 25, also pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted first-degree murder involving two other children in the same crime.
Prosecutor Darwin Miller said in court that the contract for life was offered at the request of the victims’ family. Jessica Palmer and Matthews are cousins.
Miller said the same offer has been made to Matthews’ boyfriend, Dominique Dantoni Smith, who also is charged with two counts each of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. Smith has yet to accept the offer. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him.
The fourth contract for life was signed June 28 by an accomplice in the Olive Garden murder case. Sanchez Brumfield, who was Young’s getaway driver, was convicted and condemned to die in 2008 even though he was not the triggerman.
Following Young’s guilty plea in March, Moore told reporters he felt justice dictated that the 26-year-old Brumfield be offered the same deal.
Once again, Brumfield’s contract was not signed by any member of the Arnold family.
Arnold’s father, Bobby Arnold, has said his family did not agree with setting aside the jury’s death verdict.
Bobby Arnold said his family wanted Brumfield and Young executed, but added he trusts the decision of the District Attorney’s Office.
In its simplest form, a contract for life spares a capital murder defendant from execution, but means he or she will die in prison.
The contracts for Williams, Young and Brumfield state that each defendant “will remain incarcerated and imprisoned at hard labor for his entire natural life, regardless of his physical or mental health,” whether he should become afflicted with AIDS, cancer or some other terminal illness, and regardless of what other circumstances may develop in his life or his family’s life.
Asked if the contracts could add to prison overcrowding, Angela Whittaker, assistant to the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said in an email that the population of “lifers” at Angola is growing.
She noted, however, that they cannot attribute “this growth to the ‘contract for life’ program and do not foresee that this program alone will have a tremendous impact on an already growing population.”
The contracts contain numerous safeguards for prosecutors, including:
??If a defendant ever succeeds in having the agreement set aside, the admission of guilt in the written “statement of facts” is admissible as evidence against the defendant without objection in any future prosecution for the murder.
“We want to have the benefit of a confession,” Moore said.
??If the agreement is ever invalidated, nothing in it will prevent the state from retrying a defendant for first-degree murder and seeking the death penalty.
??If the defendant ever applies for parole, probation or suspension of sentence, the agreement may be provided to the board reviewing the request. The board should deny any request for parole, probation or suspension of sentence solely on the basis of the agreements made, without the necessity for a hearing or the taking of any additional evidence.
The contracts also require the defendants to acknowledge that their attorneys have provided competent and effective counsel.
Margaret Lagattuta, one of Young’s court-appointed attorneys with the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defenders Office, said the office views a contract for life as “another tool to reach a resolution to a capital case that benefits all parties concerned.”
“Unlike other pleas, a contract for life clarifies for a capital defendant in writing the ramifications of the plea,” she said.
A new tool for the prosecution
The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office has entered into four contracts for life in three capital murder cases since August 2010.
Derrick Williams, 28
Pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and signed a contract for life on Aug. 12 in the shooting death of security guard Alfred Mequet, 71, at Pete’s Farmers Market on Airline Highway on Oct. 24, 2007.
Tracy Young, 33
Pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and signed a contract for life on March 25 in the shooting death of LSU pre-med student and Olive Garden employee Aaron Arnold, 21, outside the Siegen Lane restaurant on Sept. 8, 2006.
Sanchez Brumfield, 26
Pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and signed a contract for life on June 28 in the shooting death of LSU pre-med student and Olive Garden employee Aaron Arnold, 21, outside the Siegen Lane restaurant on Sept. 8, 2006.
Trendall Lashel Matthews, 25
Pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and signed a contract for life on June 20 in the deaths of Jessica Johnson Palmer, 23, and Juan Palmer Jr., 3, near Zachary on May 4, 2008.