SHREVEPORT — When he's not flying his four-seat RV-10 around the state, seeking the death penalty for yet another accused killer or lobbying the Louisiana Legislature to keep the practice of execution alive, Hugo Holland finds refuge in a cozy man-cave here that serves as both an office and an arsenal.
Less than two miles from downtown Shreveport, the bunker-like work space resembles a war room in more than one way. An array of World War II memorabilia complements a collection of two dozen long guns and a high-tech radio terminal Holland uses to chat with people around the world while his wife and neighbors are still sleeping.
On the opposite wall, a photo of prisoners laboring at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola hangs next to an ultrasound image of the child Holland and his wife are expecting. He sips coffee here in the company of his cats, one of whom he named Oswald after the presidential assassin he considers "the most maligned man in U.S. history."
Hefty file folders clutter the floor, the work product of a prolific freelancer who handles some of the most high-stakes prosecutions in the state. Many involve capital punishment, a specialty Holland honed before a scandal forced him to resign from the Caddo Parish District Attorney's Office.
In the five years since then, so-called circuit riding — he holds commissions from 18 Louisiana district attorneys — has made Holland one of the most influential and best-paid prosecutors in the state.
Indeed, understaffed district attorneys don't solicit Holland's services only when a defendant's life is on the line. One folder on the floor of his office, lying feet from a six-pack of Southern Drawl beer, relates to a public corruption case in Alexandria. Others involve a cold-case murder and racketeering prosecutions in Lake Charles.
Still, Holland is best known for his expertise in capital cases, having sent 10 people to Louisiana's death row — a "macabre" statistic he swears he isn't tracking. Much to his chagrin, half of those death sentences have been overturned, and none has been carried out.
"If a stray kitten was hit in the street, I'd pick it up and take it to the vet, pay the bill and then try to adopt it out," Holland said in an interview last week. "But it would not faze me in the least to watch a man executed, and that would include hanging or firing squad. I've seen enough videos. I've seen people killed violently."
Holland routinely fields calls from district attorneys who have never hired him, seeking advice on how to respond to defense motions or adverse court rulings. Particularly in rural parishes, he is called upon to prosecute first-degree murder cases, among the most complex and contentious proceedings in criminal law.
Bridget Dinvaut, the St. John the Baptist Parish district attorney, tapped Holland to seek the death penalty against two avowed "sovereign citizens" charged with killing two sheriff's deputies in 2012.
"The only thing that we can do with animals that do stuff like that is put them down," Holland said, referring to an earlier death penalty case he prosecuted against a group of inmates, known as the "Angola 5," who were convicted of savagely beating a prison guard to death. "They've got no place in society, even prison society."
Seventy-three people sit on Louisiana death row — convicted of crimes so horrific that a jur…
Blunt and bellicose
Bald, blunt and bellicose, Holland has emerged as an outspoken champion of the death penalty at a time when capital punishment remains on life support in Louisiana, hobbled in recent years by a dearth of lethal injection drugs.
The Caddo Parish DA's Office pays him thousands of dollars a year not to prosecute cases but to lobby lawmakers in Baton Rouge, where he's shined a harsh light on funding for defense lawyers in capital case — "They spend money on experts like a drunk sailor in Thailand goes through hookers" — and, as recently as last month, helped defeat a bill that would have abolished the death penalty in Louisiana for future murder cases.
Holland, 53, says he does not want to live in a society without capital punishment. While he has a financial incentive in keeping it on the books, he insists his "passion" stems from his unwavering belief in "lex talionis," the law of retaliation. The death penalty has failed to deter murderers, he acknowledges, but it offers an avenue for state-sanctioned retribution — so victims don't have to exact it themselves.
"It's the Old Testament thing: an eye for eye," Holland added. "I can't imagine how it's fair for you to take another human being's life and yours not be forfeited."
Holland's efforts — his next legislative undertaking will involve unclogging the "bottleneck" of post-conviction relief, he said — have not escaped the notice of the state's capital defenders, who have accused him of flouting state law by working full time in multiple judicial districts.
Public records compiled by these attorneys show Holland earned more than $200,000 last year from nine Louisiana parishes, a figure Holland said isn't entirely accurate because he farms some of his assignments out to other prosecutors.
"Hugo Holland is the face of Louisiana's broken death penalty," said G. Ben Cohen, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans nonprofit that opposes capital punishment. "I don't think there is a prosecutor in Louisiana who would look at Hugo to see whether (his multiple billings are) a crime. But, at the very least, the legislative auditor needs to look at Hugo Holland's setup for fraud, waste and abuse of public funds."
Holland, Cohen added, has "a perverse incentive to push for the death penalty, where he gets paid a premium hourly rate to pursue capital punishment. At the same time, he is getting paid $900 a day to lobby the Legislature to reduce the funding for poor people facing the death penalty."
State law prohibits dual-office holding, including the contemporaneous holding of two "full-time appointive" positions or "full-time employment" in state government.
Holland receives a state salary known as a "warrant" in Calcasieu Parish, where last year he won an improbable conviction in a 1962 murder, the oldest prosecution in U.S. history of a suspected serial killer.
At the same time, he earns $50,000 a year to run the Webster Parish division of the 26th Judicial District Attorney's Office, where he screens every felony case and is expected to be in court twice a week. He also regularly prosecutes cases in several other parishes.
"Give him a death penalty case, walk out of the room and he'll handle it competently," J. Schuyler Marvin, the Webster Parish district attorney, told The Advocate last year. "If you want to talk about the history of the death penalty, he knows as much about that as anybody in Louisiana."
Holland insists none of his myriad gigs amounts to full-time employment. "By law, these are part-time, appointed positions," he said.
"I'm not ashamed of the fact that I worked my way through college and law school, and I've developed a skill set that people are willing to pay for," he added. "I can take a case that would take a five-year assistant district attorney two hours to review, and I can review it in 10 minutes."
The death penalty lives on in Louisiana.
Missing 'the whole truth'
Unlike many of his colleagues, Holland did not grow up in a family of law enforcement. He was raised in Shreveport, the son of a school teacher and insurance agent.
When he was about 7, a man broke into his great-grandmother's home and severely beat the 97-year-old, sending her to the hospital, and raped another family member. The assailant was never caught.
It was Holland's first exposure to injustice, and it made a lasting impression.
"I realized only later that the people who make this system run, who are in charge of making decisions on who gets prosecuted, are the district attorneys, and that's why I went to law school," he said. "I wanted to be on the side of taking care of these a**holes who do this sort of thing to people."
For all the zeal Holland brings to the courtroom, he is equally drawn to the gun-toting, badge-wearing part of law enforcement. While attending LSU in the early 1980s, he was a reserve deputy for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, where he received training in corrections and patrol work. Today, he is a reserve police officer in Bossier City.
He passed on a job as an investigator with the state Attorney General's Office and went to law school. After graduating, he clerked with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association before getting hired as a prosecutor in rural Grant Parish, north of Alexandria.
The man who soon succeeded his boss as district attorney of the 35th Judicial District — he declined to name him — "basically told me that I was not Christian enough and said, 'Get out,' " Holland said. "This guy was a fundamentalist, evangelical, and if you weren't evangelical he really didn't want you working for him."
In 1991, Holland was hired as a misdemeanor-cases assistant under Paul Carmouche, the Caddo Parish district attorney at the time. He quickly moved up to felony cases and, by 1992, found himself seeking — and obtaining — a death sentence against an accused armed robber and murderer named Percy Davis. "I was thrown into the deep end," Holland recalled. "I didn't know what I was doing or how to do it, but I figured it out."
As he spoke, Holland called up several gruesome crime-scene photographs on his computer, offering them as arguments in support of the death penalty. "This is the way we found Charlie," he said, motioning to his screen, which displayed the remains of an elderly Korean War veteran. "That was his head that we found in the dumpster. He'd been cut up — legs and torso were found someplace else."
Over the years, attorneys and other visitors to Holland's office at the Caddo Parish DA's Office often asked about his portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who was an early member and reputed leader of the Ku Klux Klan. While some visitors took offense or inferred a racist motivation behind the portrait, Holland insisted he merely admired Forrest as a cavalry commander.
He complained to The Advocate that people never inquired about any of the other portraits he had, including Thomas Jefferson, the French military officer Marquis de Lafayette, the German general Erwin Rommel and Winston Churchill.
It's not the truth but "the whole truth" that's frequently omitted by his courtroom adversaries, Holland said, be it in a discussion about his personal track record or a broader debate on the death penalty.
"I don't think that Hugo is as bats**t crazy as Dale was," said Richard C. Goorley, a longtime capital defender in Shreveport, referring to Dale Cox, the former acting district attorney in Caddo Parish who made national headlines in 2015 when he told The Shreveport Times that "we need to kill more people."
"He's a good prosecutor and a good trial lawyer," Goorley added of Holland. "If he was bad, nobody would care."
A 'controversial' prosecutor
Gary Evans, the DeSoto Parish district attorney, described Holland as "a big gun," saying he hired him shortly after he took office to handle a host of felony cases. In an interview last year, Evans said Holland had earned a 100 percent conviction rate in cases he took to trial.
"They're a little bit controversial, and that's the reason you called me," Evans told a reporter, referring to Holland and Lea Hall, another former Caddo Parish prosecutor who has freelanced in DeSoto Parish and other jurisdictions. "What's happened now?"
Holland eschews reading fiction in his free time, saying he has no time for it. A history buff, he is equally likely to invoke Hitler and Scripture in the courtroom.
"The guilty man flees when none pursueth, but the bold stand like a lion," he told a Webster Parish jury last month, persuading the panel to convict a man of unlawfully carrying a weapon.
Holland long has been accused of playing dirty and even hiding evidence to secure death sentences — an allegation that causes him to bristle. In a 2000 murder trial, defense attorneys argued that Holland withheld witness statements that exculpated Corey Williams, a 16-year-old found to have an intellectual disability when the crime occurred.
"I don't know how he manages to avoid discipline," said Letty DiGiulio, a longtime capital-case defender who opposed Holland in several cases and filed a bar complaint against him five years ago. "What stands out mostly is that he's always willing to lie, cheat and steal. He will say exactly the opposite of what is established by the record, and he'll do it over and over."
Holland said he has never considered running for public office, though in 2001 his name was on President George W. Bush's desk as a finalist for U.S. attorney of the Western District of Louisiana. Bush eventually tapped Donald W. Washington for the post.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Holland's career is how quickly he recovered from a 2012 scandal that cost him his job in Caddo Parish.
Charles Scott, the district attorney at the time, asked Holland and Hall to resign after the state inspector general determined they falsified paperwork to obtain eight fully automatic M-16 rifles from a military surplus program. The prosecutors said they needed the weapons for their special investigations section.
The inspector general, Stephen Street, said the applications for the weapons did not violate state law. But he recommended that Scott, who died in 2015, "consider appropriate measures to ensure the truthfulness and accuracy of all documents" leaving the District Attorney's Office.
Holland vehemently disputed Street's findings. He said he was unemployed for only "about two days" following his resignation, given his extensive contacts and willingness to travel the state prosecuting cases on a freelance basis. Within months of his departure, he said, he had been rehired in Caddo Parish to lobby state lawmakers.
"Hugo was in my section when I was a district court judge, so I know how to control Hugo," said James E. Stewart Jr., the current Caddo Parish district attorney.
At the Legislature last month, Holland pounced on a proposal to get rid of the death penalty like a hungry dog. Railing against the "abolitionists," he insisted the criminal justice system had "a 99.5 percent success rate in getting the right person." Exonerations of longtime inmates, he said, are merely indications "that our system works."
"Life in prison just sometimes doesn’t do it," he told lawmakers, referring to the case of David Knapps, an Angola prison guard beaten to death in 1999 during an inmate takeover. "Our system is designed to keep people from seeking their own retribution, which is why we have the death penalty."
Staff writer Maya Lau contributed to this report.
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