First-degree murder charges were rare in Jefferson Parish for the past decade. When they happened — just three times between 2006 and 2016 — prosecutors were clear in each case about their intention to seek the death penalty, a punishment that only a first-degree murder conviction makes possible.
But in the past two months alone, District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. has matched that tally.
And in each of those three recent cases, Connick has either given no public indication he will pursue capital punishment or, in the most recent example, filed documents explicitly ruling it out.
In that case, two second-degree murder charges against Shaun Barnett, for allegedly shooting a Kenner couple in their bed, were raised to first-degree murder in a superseding indictment handed up Aug. 31.
That same day, prosecutors filed notice in 24th Judicial District Court that the death penalty was off the table for Barnett, noting that as a result, they will need only 10 jurors to get a conviction, not the 12 required in capital cases.
Without the raft of special conditions imposed on capital prosecutions, the new indictment appears to make little difference in the outcome for Barnett if he's convicted. Whether found guilty of first- or second-degree murder, he would face life in prison without the possibility of parole — a fact that prompted some head-scratching at the Gretna courthouse about the increased charges.
Connick’s office, which is notoriously tight-lipped and has a policy of not commenting on open cases, declined to discuss what was behind the move with Barnett, or the wider uptick in first-degree murder indictments.
And it’s still possible Connick's office could yet seek death in one or both of the other two recent first-degree cases it filed — against Armande Tart in July and Jatory Evans in August.
But some defense advocates say privately they think Connick could be turning to first-degree murder charges to inoculate some cases against a mounting push by advocates to allow parole eligibility to lifers convicted of second-degree murder.
The Legislature is in the midst of a sweeping reform effort that could threaten Louisiana's stiff "life means life" laws, which bar parole eligibility for all convicted murderers in Louisiana, along with those convicted of aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping.
A state task force that issued recommendations early this year to the Legislature suggested granting parole eligibility to inmates serving life sentences who have "served 30 years behind bars and have reached the age of 50, excluding those sentenced for first-degree murder.”
That recommendation was put on ice early in the process when proponents agreed to table all proposed sentence reductions for violent crimes in a political compromise with the state's powerful district attorneys.
Still, the reform legislation passed in the spring created a new task force to address possible sentencing changes for serious crimes. And advocates have warned if the state doesn't eventually address its rising number of long-serving inmates convicted of violent crimes, taxpayers will be increasingly burdened by a costly population of graying inmates who are "stacking up" in the system.
The Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Office would not comment for this story. State Public Defender Jay Dixon said he has noticed the uptick, but he “can’t separate it from the natural ebb and flow of first-degree murder cases.”
E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he hasn't discussed such a pre-emptive strategy with Connick or any other district attorney.
"But I will tell you, if you just follow the trend, it's just leniency, leniency, leniency,” Adams said of the recent direction of the Legislature. “Every year we're having to face proposals to create parole eligibility for virtually anyone."
Police often book suspected killers on first-degree murder counts, but it’s the district attorneys who decide what charges to recommend to a grand jury.
In Jefferson, that charge has for years been primarily second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence without benefit of parole, probation or suspended sentence.
“Jefferson Parish historically has not sought first-degree murder charges without the death penalty,” said Richard Bourke, of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, “but it’s something that has happened regularly across the state.”
Bourke said he couldn't speculate on what has prompted the apparent change. And Connick's office could yet bring the death penalty in the Tart case, which involves a quadrouple murder, and the Evans case, which involves the slaying of a pregnant woman in her parents in a River Road home immediately set ablaze.
What's clear is that since 2007, first-degree murder has become a more viable charging option for prosecutors who aren't pursuing the death penalty. That's when state lawmakers dropped the unanimous jury requirement for first-degree murder, keeping it in place only if prosecutors seek capital punishment. First-degree charges require at least one of a raft of aggravating circumstances – that the murder was committed during a kidnapping, arson or rape, or if the victim was a police officer, elderly or a witness, for example – that prosecutors need to prove in court.
But second-degree murder has been and remains a potent, reliable way to guarantee those convicted will never set foot outside of prison for the rest of their lives — at least for now.
When it comes to death penalty cases, meanwhile, court watchers say the two capital prosecutions Connick's office announced late last year — against accused cop-killer Jerman Neveaux and one of the suspects in the gruesome stabbing death of a Raising Cane’s manager — don’t seem to reflect any new trend toward the death penalty.
“There’s been no significant increase in death-penalty prosecutions in Jefferson Parish or across the entire state,” Bourke said. “There is a clear and steady decline in the use of the death penalty.”
Although 10 people were sentenced to death during Connick’s first term, from 1997 to 2003, capital prosecutions in the parish soon waned.
A capital murder prosecution against Isaiah Doyle, indicted for first-degree murder in 2005, was the last death-penalty case — and last first-degree murder indictment — against someone in Jefferson until 2013, when prosecutors sought the death penalty against Matthew Flugence for the murder of 6-year-old Ahlittia North. Flugence later pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder charge in exchange for a life prison sentence.
In a rare interview in 2009, Connick told The Times-Picayune his office’s philosophy had evolved to reflect the reality of capital prosecutions, which he said require the state, the defense and judges “have to do the perfect case" to prevent them from being overturned.
But back then, he said his office would not shy away from seeking death in instances where it was warranted.
"It has to be, in our opinion, the worst of the worst," Connick said. "The facts of the case have to be heinous."
Advocate staff reporter John Simerman contributed to this report.