GONZALES — Judicial candidate Bruce E. Unangst II’s career as a former Baton Rouge public defender and criminal defense attorney has become the focus of sharpening campaign rhetoric from his opponent as the two Republicans battle for votes in the final days of the 23rd Judicial District Court Division C election.
The campaign ads, social media posts and comments of Gonzales lawyer Katherine Tess Percy Stromberg raise questions about Unangst’s “tough on crime” claims, pointing to his representation of defendants in a couple of highly-publicized criminal cases.
Defending accused criminals is a constitutionally mandated function of the court system, and Unangst says the ads are a below-the-belt attack that is unbecoming of a candidate for judicial office.
Unangst has countered Stromberg’s ads with ads of his own, emphasizing how closely he has worked with law enforcement. Some have interpreted his remarks to mean he improperly worked against his own client’s interests in a high-profile Ascension Parish murder case — a claim Unangst strongly denies.
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor of legal ethics and criminal law, says the dueling ads do no credit to either candidate.
“I think both of them, what they are saying, is unfortunate,” Ciolino said. “One of them is saying it’s inappropriate to be a criminal defense lawyer and there’s something wrong about that. And rather than defend what important work he does, he (Unangst) is trying to explain it away in a manner that looks like he is, in fact, part of law enforcement.”
As Election Day on Tuesday approaches for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parish voters in the district, Stromberg is standing behind her late-inning push, including a tough television ad reminding voters that Unangst represented one of five defendants in the brutal, February 2012 robbery-murder of Robert and Shirley Marchand and Shirley’s adult son, Douglas Dooley.
The ad starts by displaying Stromberg’s name while a narrator speaks of her credentials, then cuts to a picture of Unangst set against faux newspaper headlines, in red typeface, declaring, “Unangst Defends Accused Ascension Marchand Family MURDERER” and “Unangst Defended SERIAL KILLER Derrick Todd Lee.”
The commercial’s narrators intone: “An experienced hearing officer and attorney, Tess Percy Stromberg is truly tough on crime. Although her opponent claims to be tough on crime, he has, in fact, made a career defending violent criminals and murderers.”
Unangst was co-counsel for Lee.
The video then cuts to images of Stromberg shaking hands and talking with Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson and 23rd Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin. The narrator notes that “Tess has forged strong working relationships with law enforcement and public officials.”
Unangst has fired back that Stromberg is smearing the oath they both took as lawyers by improperly politicizing his work representing defendants in criminal cases.
“I have a constitutional duty to uphold my oath, and for her to attack that and politicize that terrible tragedy for personal gain is shameful. It’s disgraceful, and I think she has disqualified herself for consideration as judge,” said Unangst, who is certified to handle death penalty cases and is supervising attorney for the Baton Rouge Capital Conflict Office.
Stromberg, who has not tried a criminal case before a jury, said the ad is intended to call attention to the fact that Unangst wants to talk in his ads about his felony trial experience but doesn’t mention that it is as a criminal defense lawyer.
“I have absolutely no problem or issue with anyone being represented. Everyone deserves a fair trial and deserves to be represented. The point of that ad is that when Mr. Unangst addresses crowds or in ads, he is literally never honest about what his trial experience has been,” said Stromberg, who is on leave as hearing officer and judicial administrator for the 23rd JDC.
“If he were to acknowledge it, it wouldn’t be an issue,” she added.
Unangst, who has backing from the parish Republican Party Executive Committee and the Tea Party of Louisiana, has claimed a tough-on-crime stance, emphasizing his past work with law enforcement.
He wrote in a recent Facebook post, in response to Stromberg’s attacks over his defense of Travis Moore from the Marchand case, that “In the awful case in Ascension (exploited by my opponent for her political gain), we cooperated fully with the District Attorney’s office and Law Enforcement to help ensure murder convictions. Now you know the truth.”
Unangst disputed Friday that his post meant that he cooperated with law enforcement, against his client’s own interest, to help convict his client, Moore. He said the only people reading his post that way are allies of Stromberg trying make an issue out of it.
Unangst said that he and Moore, who faces three counts of first-degree murder and a possible death penalty sentence, cooperated and helped bring about the guilty pleas of two codefendants, Michael Aikens and Bernard James. Those men, who faced the same charges as Moore, have been sentenced to life in prison.
N. Gregory Smith, LSU Law Center professor of professional ethics, said he understood the Facebook post as Unangst explained it.
“I don’t think there is anything inappropriate about that if it’s true. If that’s not what is going on and he is just throwing his client under the bus, then it is more problematic,” Smith said, saying it could represent a conflict of interest.
Moore has not entered a plea, but Unangst said there is a signed plea agreement in which Moore promised to testify against Aikens and James at trial. Unangst said attorneys for all the other defendants received a copy of the agreement and the agreement is filed into the court record.
Portions of the record, however, have been sealed by Judge Alvin Turner Jr. None of the documents that remain public in Moore’s file includes the agreement.
But a March motion from codefendant Bernard James claims Moore and codefendant Devon James gave extensive statements to prosecutors under plea bargains.
Robin O’Bannon, the lead prosecutor in the Marchand slayings, would not say whether a plea agreement existed due to Turner’s seal. But she said Moore provided prosecutors with “information that was essential and necessary.”
“Travis Moore, from time he was arrested and through this prosecution, has been cooperative with the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, and his cooperation has been essential against the most culpable of the codefendants,” O’Bannon said.
She said prosecutors around the nation work with some defendants to ensure the conviction of other defendants most culpable in crimes.
Ciolino, the Loyola University New Orleans law professor, was provided with samples of Stromberg’s and Unangst’s Facebook postings about each other, including the questioned post from Unangst.
He said neither seemed improper.
Ciolino noted that in about 95 percent of criminal cases, defense attorneys do work with law enforcement on resolutions satisfactory to both sides and called Stromberg’s attack on Unangst “a cheap shot.” He added it is disappointing that Unangst seems to be almost apologizing for being a defense attorney.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.