A state law that took effect in 2009 making it easier to subject serial killers to the death penalty could have a profound impact on Kenneth James Gleason, the Baton Rouge man who was booked Tuesday on first-degree murder counts in a pair of unrelated fatal shootings last week.
East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors sought the change to the first-degree murder statute after reputed Baton Rouge serial killer Sean Vincent Gillis was convicted in 2008 of first-degree murder. The jury deadlocked on the death penalty, and Gillis was sentenced to life in prison.
First-degree murder, which is punishable by death in capital cases, requires an aggravating circumstance, such as murdering someone while committing another crime like armed robbery or killing someone under the age of 12.
Prosecutors complained to state lawmakers after the Gillis trial that serial killers often murder without committing another aggravating crime.
Senate Bill 132, pushed by East Baton Rouge prosecutors and signed into law in 2009 by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, added another element that allows the state to seek capital murder charges "when the offender has a specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm and the offender has previously acted with a specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm that resulted in the killing or one or more persons."
Authorities say Gillis confessed to killing eight south Louisiana women between 1994 and 2004. He was booked in seven of those deaths.
"After Gillis we wanted to make sure that multiple killings in a sequential fashion would be an aggravating factor," East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who took office in 2009, said Tuesday.
Former East Baton Rouge Parish First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns, who prosecuted Gillis and helped push the change in state law, said Tuesday it was sorely needed so serial killers would not be rewarded for not committing an aggravating crime in addition to each individual murder.
"We needed a serial killer statute," she said. "A serial killer in and of itself needs to be a first-degree murder. This was so badly needed. I'm glad we have it."
Burns described the change in the law as a "new tool for victims and prosecutors."
Moore and Louisiana District Attorneys Association executive director Pete Adams said they are not aware of another case to date of the law being applied. But Moore said his office at this point intends to use it against Gleason, 23, if he is indicted on first-degree murder charges.
Gleason, who is white, is booked with first-degree murder in the killings of Donald Smart, 49, and Bruce Cofield, 59, both black men. Authorities have said the shootings may have been racially motivated.
Smart was shot Thursday night while walking on Alaska Street to work his overnight shift at Louie's Cafe, just off LSU's campus. Cofield was apparently homeless and frequently panhandled at the intersection where he was shot Sept. 12 on Florida Street.
In the Gillis case, the aggravating crimes — armed robbery and second-degree kidnapping — accused him of taking, among other things, a black belt and earring backing from Donna Bennett Johnston, who was strangled and mutilated in 2004. The belt was found in a broken-down van in Gillis' driveway, and the earring piece was discovered in the trunk of his car.
Even though Gillis was found guilty of first-degree murder in Johnston's slaying, his attorneys had argued that no one in their "right mind would kill somebody to get this belt." Prosecutor Prem Burns argued Gillis kept the belt with silver loops as a "trophy" and "souvenir."
Gillis' attorneys also argued that Johnston, a prostitute, likely willingly got into Gillis' car.
Burns said Tuesday that, even though the jury found Gillis guilty of first-degree murder, the hoops she had to jump through to prove his guilt may have left some on the jury wondering whether the crime was actually a first-degree murder.
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"That was half the battle," she said of having to prove an aggravating factor.
Burns said former East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Doug Moreau and the late Cheney Joseph, a former prosecutor and LSU law professor, also were instrumental in securing the change to the first-degree murder statute.
Jeffery Lee Guillory, another Baton Rouge serial killer accused of committing murders in 1999, 2001 and 2002, was convicted in 2011 of second-degree murder in one of those killings and sentenced to life in prison. He could not be prosecuted for first-degree murder because there were no aggravating circumstances, and because the crimes predated the 2009 law change.
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East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Dana Cummings, who prosecuted Guillory, said he definitely would have been prosecuted for first-degree murder and subjected to a possible death penalty if his crimes had occurred after the 2009 legislation was signed into law.
Guillory was found guilty in the 2002 strangulation of Renee Newman in Baton Rouge.
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