For all the killing that plagues New Orleans, the death penalty has essentially been phased out of the city’s criminal justice system during the past two decades.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has sought capital punishment sparingly since taking office in 2008, and Orleans Parish juries have become decidedly wary of sending even the most depraved criminals to death row. They’re rarely even asked to do it.
In the coming months, however, Cannizzaro could face more pressure than he has in years to pursue the death penalty in the case of Travis Boys, the 33-year-old accused of fatally shooting New Orleans police Officer Daryle Holloway over the weekend in a brazen escape from custody. Police captured Boys early Sunday after an exhaustive manhunt.
Louisiana law defines the slaying of a peace officer as first-degree murder, affording prosecutors the option of seeking a capital verdict if they see fit.
In the face of what appears to be strong evidence, including footage captured by Holloway’s body-worn camera, Cannizzaro will have to decide whether to expend some of his limited resources on a death penalty prosecution that could play out for years. The second-term district attorney, who declined to comment for this article, could also seek a punishment of life in prison, the only other sentence available for the murder of a police officer.
Donald “Chick” Foret, a former prosecutor who has followed Cannizzaro’s office closely, said he believes “the community is going to demand that he seek the death penalty” against Boys. “If you’re not going to do it in this case, with a cop killer, you might as well just take it off the books,” Foret said.
Before deciding, Cannizzaro likely will weigh the wishes of Holloway’s family, as well as the so-called aggravating circumstances of Boys’ case. He might also take into account Boys’ previous convictions for aggravated escape, carjacking and cruelty to juveniles, among others.
“Even though on paper it’s clearly a capital case, I think what you will see is the DA’s Office is going to review all the facts,” said Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who is now president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “It’s not like they’re going to consider offering this offender (a charge of) manslaughter. It’s either going to be life (in prison) or death.”
The calculus is simple for many local law enforcement officials, who consider Holloway’s killing a personal affront to the rule of law. Since his death, some of Holloway’s colleagues have struggled to put into words the feeling of shock and devastation that has gripped them.
“It’s the fact that we are responsible for the safety of the public, and when we fail to do that for ourselves, it’s an enormous blow,” said Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. He said he supports the death penalty in Boys’ case, adding that he would be surprised if Cannizzaro decides not to pursue it. “I think the only thing more egregious than this (type of killing) is when there are multiple victims,” he said.
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said that talk among the ranks hasn’t yet turned from Boys’ arrest to his prosecution. He noted, however, that “police officers are generally law-and-order folks, and (capital punishment) is the law in Louisiana.”
“They will be interested in seeing that justice is done,” Livaccari said, referring to the evidence against Boys as “pretty damning.”
Capital punishment has fallen into a steep decline around the country amid a parade of DNA-based exonerations and the growing acceptance by juries of alternative sentences such as life without parole.
Like several other states, Louisiana also has struggled to procure lethal injection drugs. The state has not executed a prisoner since January 2010, when Gerald Bordelon waived his right to an appeal. Before that, the state’s last execution was in 2002.
In New Orleans, a city that has no shortage of heinous murders, the death penalty has become almost a relic. Death verdicts were not uncommon during the tenure of former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., but they had grown rare by the time Connick left office in 2003.
Cannizzaro, who took the helm in 2008, has sought capital punishment on occasion, but an Orleans Parish jury has not sentenced a defendant to death in nearly six years. And that sentence, in the case of quintuple murderer Michael “Mike-Mike” Anderson, was overturned within months. Anderson, who slaughtered five teens in Central City, is serving life in federal prison.
Before Anderson, the city’s last death sentence came in September 1997 in the case of Phillip Anthony, a man convicted of fatally shooting three employees at a Louisiana Pizza Kitchen.
Capital cases are inherently complicated to prosecute and often take several years to come to trial. To secure a death sentence, prosecutors must persuade all 12 jurors in both the guilt and penalty phases of a bifurcated trial, while noncapital cases in Louisiana — even for crimes that carry a mandatory life sentence — can be decided with a split verdict of 10-2.
Even after conviction, capital cases tend to drag on for many years because there is a more robust appeal process.
“In a lot of these cases, the family members are looking for closure, and they don’t want to see a case remain open and subject to the lengthy appellate process,” Goyeneche said.
Still, the killing of a police officer in the line of duty might be viewed as a horse of a different color, even by the most liberal Orleans Parish jury, said Roger Jordan, a former assistant district attorney under Connick who prosecuted Anthony. Not only was Holloway carrying out his lawful duties at the time he was shot, Jordan said, but Boys also is accused of aggravated escape, a contemporaneous felony, and eluding capture for an entire day.
“He just shot him in cold blood, and I wouldn’t put it past an Orleans jury to give this defendant the death penalty because these facts just scream for it,” Jordan said. “I couldn’t see (Cannizzaro) taking this as a noncapital case.”
Death penalty opponents said they hoped a more dispassionate approach would prevail. Beth Compa, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, encouraged authorities “not to expend state money on a policy that does not deter crime and is based upon anger or revenge.”
“We abhor what happened to Officer Holloway,” Compa said. But even in cases like Boys’ and the church massacre last week in South Carolina, she said, officials should examine “the root causes of violence, and place funds and support where they are needed most — in crime prevention, victim assistance and police services.”
In the meantime, Boys has been jailed without bail and has been appointed two defense attorneys, including one who heads the capital division of the Orleans Public Defender’s Office.
Holloway’s uncle, New Orleans lawyer David Belfield, said the family remains in mourning and hasn’t yet broached the topic of capital punishment. He said Holloway’s mother “demanded that (Boys) be treated fairly” upon his arrest, apparently worried her son’s colleagues might be tempted to exact immediate retribution.
“She didn’t want the story to be about the mistreatment of the perpetrator,” Belfield said.
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