Todd Juluke’s eyes light up in amazement at how far he’s come, eager for the chance to crash the glass ceiling he created for himself. The chance begins Tuesday.
A self-described New Orleans thug of the old school, Juluke came by his felony drug record honestly. Now he’s hoping to get rid of it the same way, at a longshot hearing Tuesday morning before the state Board of Pardons and Parole.
Juluke, 51, is one of hundreds who try each year to win pardons - a more thorough cleansing of their criminal records than the more common route of expungement. Decision on such clemency petitions ultimately rest with the governor. On average, you can count how many succeed each year on two hands.
But unlike some others, Juluke has found a surprising and influential advocate: Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who has sent a letter to the board on Juluke’s behalf.
As a Criminal District Court judge, Cannizzaro sent Juluke away on a 10-year prison sentence. More than a decade later, as DA, he hired Juluke to help steer a younger crop of street criminals toward a different path.
In his job as a diversion mentor, Juluke carries a badge, a Southern University degree in substance abuse counseling that he earned last year and a fair amount of street cred.
He said he aims to open up an aftercare program for returning convicts — something he can’t do with his criminal history hanging over him.
Juluke carries five drug convictions dating back to the 1980s, when the St. Augustine High School graduate landed at Florida Memorial University in Miami during the high-flying days of abundant cocaine at local clubs and on campus.
“I thought it was legal!” Juluke said of the free-flowing white powder that launched him on a New Orleans drug-running and -using career that landed him behind bars in stretches for a total of 15 years.
“If I wouldn’t have been using, I’d probably be dead or a multimillionaire,” he said. “Even with smoking rocks and all the way down, people could say whatever weight (of crack), and I could get it. I could be in the gutter, my face in the dirty, sloppy water. I was still able to make things happen.”
His criminal history includes no violent crimes, although he admits shooting and being shot at, though never getting hit in his dealing days.
His younger brother Corey Juluke has faced his own time behind federal prison bars on drug charges.
“A lot of people in the streets, they got drug charges, they know of us,” Juluke said. “I walked this street all night, all day, every day.”
Juluke’s prison days ended in early 2008, state records show, and he went back to using drugs on familiar streets in the 6th and 7th wards before seeking help. A final relapse during Hurricane Isaac in 2012 marked the end, he said.
At the suggestion of his Buddhist girlfriend, he turned to chanting. Each morning before dawn, he repeats “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo” for 45 minutes, then again at night, he said.
He made a call to Cannizzaro not long after he started chanting. As a judge, Cannizzaro in 2000 handed Juluke, a repeat offender, a stiff sentence on a charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
After he was fired from a job sweeping up at Harrah’s Casino during his relapse in 2012, Juluke said, he called Cannizzaro’s office about expunging his record.
“I needed to be working. I knew everybody could see the convictions, and they frown up,” he said.
Cannizzaro called back and later offered Juluke a surprise job in his office as a diversion mentor, a $15,000-a-year post in which he tries to steer offenders on the right path.
“He’s a shining story, a nugget,” said New Orleans community activist Brother Al Mims, who sat on the parole board for several years and plans to speak on Juluke’s behalf Tuesday in Baton Rouge.
“We need to have the best troops to combat this foolishness in the community,” Mims said. “We gotta have soldiers who ain’t afraid. You don’t have to explain to them what’s going on. He’s special forces. He knows what it’s like to be in the ’hood. He’s not afraid to stand on the corner and talk to drug dealers. We’re not superheroes. We’re just comfortable.”
Expungement of his record would help keep his criminal record sealed unless he commits another crime.
But state agencies can still see it, and that’s not enough, Juluke said, to make it “like it never happened.”
A gubernatorial pardon, on the other hand, restores a person to a “status of innocence of crime.”
With a written endorsement from Cannizzaro, who declined an interview request for this story, Juluke is set to make his pitch for the board to recommend clemency to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Statistically, it’s a tall order.
Last year, the board screened nearly 1,000 applications and agreed to hear just 205 of them, according to an annual report. It conducted 133 hearings, including 92 requesting an executive pardon and 41 from prisoners asking for their sentences to be commuted.
The board sent just 59 cases to the governor with a favorable recommendation for clemency. Over six years, Jindal has granted clemency to 62 convicts, including eight candidates in 2014, according to his office.
More than 600 recommendations for clemency sit on the governor’s desk, reviewed but with no action taken, spokesman Mike Reed said.
“We review clemency recommendations on a case-by-case basis to see how it would impact not just the individual seeking clemency but also the victims and law enforcement officials who are involved in the case and the communities where these folks reside,” Reed said in a statement.
Juluke filed his application for clemency in July 2014, and the board granted him a hearing two months later. Bob Hennessey, co-owner of Morning Call Coffee Stand in City Park, where Juluke works weekends as a server, chipped in money for the required newspaper notices.
“To me, it’s kind of crazy. He’s paid his debt to society, but he’s got this stigma hanging over him for the rest of his life,” Hennessey said.
Juluke’s partner, Mikhala Iversen, a recording artist from Copenhagen who owns a New Orleans tour business, said she met Juluke while he worked at Harrah’s.
“Seeing a king like him pushing trash around, you know he’s been in trouble,” Iversen said. “It was just really bad fortune to be shipped off to Miami when the big coke invasion came. It was the hottest gangsta cocaine madness. Todd is a miracle, that he’s alive.”
Iversen credits Buddhist chanting for opening doors for Juluke. The job from Cannizzaro was proof, she said, of “the cause and effect of the mystical law.”
Whether he wins a pardon or not, Juluke said, he’s already got some relief.
“I don’t gotta worry about people riding up with AK’s,” he said. “That street worry, I don’t have.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Sept. 15 to properly characterize the relief that Todd Juluke is seeking; Juluke has applied for a pardon.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.