U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear ‘Angola 5’ member David Brown’s effort to overturn death penalty _lowres

Advocate File Photo -- David Brown

Update, 2 p.m. Tuesday 

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton recused himself on Tuesday from the pending appeal of death row inmate David Brown in the "Angola 5" prison-guard murder case. Read the latest here. 

Original story

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton has proven a popular guest on local talk radio in his native Shreveport, frequenting the airwaves with his views on hot-button legal issues since long before he reached the state's highest bench three years ago.

But his on-air defense last month of capital punishment has spurred attorneys for death-row inmate David Brown to call for Crichton to be sidelined for Brown's pending appeal in the "Angola 5" prison-guard murder case.

Crichton, a former Caddo Parish prosecutor and district judge, mentioned the Angola 5 case on the KEEL morning show on Oct. 23 to illustrate his view that the death penalty can be a valuable deterrent. He agreed with a show host that "if you're in for life, you have nothing to lose" without it.

Brown was serving a life sentence for a different murder when Capt. David Knapps was killed inside a bathroom at the state penitentiary.

In a 24-page motion filed late Monday, his attorneys argue that Crichton's mention of the Angola 5 case alone warrants his recusal. Crichton went further, however, and Brown's attorneys argue that his other on-air remarks reveal at least the appearance of bias in Brown's case, and perhaps in any capital case that reaches the court.

On the Oct. 23 show, Crichton first acknowledged that he "can talk about anything other than a pending case before the Louisiana Supreme Court," then mentioned the Angola 5 case. He went on to lament the lengthy appeals process in death-penalty cases and argued for well-publicized executions.

"If it's carried out and the public knows about it, I believe it's truly a deterrent," he said. "What really boggles my mind is the inmate who has committed capital murder who is on death row who is begging for his life. Think about the fact that the victim gets no due process."

Crichton suggested a workaround to problems many states have had in acquiring one of three drugs in a commonly used "cocktail" for state killings -- a shortage he blamed on drug companies being "harassed and stalked" by death-penalty opponents.

Crichton said he favors giving condemned inmates a choice in their death: the cocktail; a new method using a single drug, nitrogen hypoxia; or another, time-tested execution method.

"Firing squad is one," he said.

Brown had joined other prisoners in an escape attempt but claimed he wasn't there when Knapps was killed inside an employee restroom in the prison's Camp D building on Dec. 28, 1999. Brown helped drag Knapps there and got the victim's blood on his prison garb, but said he'd left before other inmates killed Knapp.

The state never accused him of striking Knapps but argued he had joined in a plot with a specific intent to kill. A West Feliciana Parish jury convicted Brown and sentenced him to death in 2011. Jeffrey Clark, the other Angola 5 member sentenced to death, lost his appeal before the Louisiana Supreme Court last year. 

Crichton was among the majority in a Supreme Court decision last year that reinstated the death penalty for Brown. The court upheld an appeals court's reversal of a decision by retired Judge Jerome Winsberg to scrap Brown's death sentence but not his conviction.

Winsberg cited a statement from another inmate that Brown's trial attorneys never received. Inmate Richard Domingue claimed that Barry Edge, who also was accused in the murder, had confessed that he and Clark alone decided to kill the guard.

The withheld statement left a "reasonable probability that the jury's verdict would have been different had the evidence not been suppressed," Winsberg ruled. But the Supreme Court found that Domingue's statement "provides no additional evidence as to who actually killed Capt. Knapps" and "simply does not exculpate Brown."

The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear Brown's case. His direct state appeal, a different legal phase, landed with the Louisiana Supreme Court in May. One of Brown's lawyers, Billy Sothern, wrote that he plans to raise several issues in an appeal brief due next month that Crichton alluded to on the radio. Among them: Whether a death sentence is disproportionate to Brown's role in the killing, and the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Brown's attorneys solicited an affidavit from a Northwestern University law professor, agreeing that Crichton should recuse himself. Professor Steven Lubet, who co-authored a 2013 text called Judicial Conduct and Ethics, said Crichton's "impartiality might reasonably be questioned" over his mention of the Angola 5 case, and when he said about the death penalty, "If we're gonna have it, use it."

The other six justices would rule on the request if Crichton decides not to recuse himself. Crichton could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.