There was nothing particularly unusual about the case of David Brown. Prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that might have helped him, and he wound up on death row.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon consider whether to cancel his date with the executioner. That wouldn’t be particularly unusual in an appeal out of Louisiana, either.
The lead prosecutor in the Brown case was Louisiana’s itinerant death penalty specialist, Hugo Holland. DAs who really want a defendant dead will call in Holland.
It doesn’t make much difference in the long run. As Louisiana Public Defender Board Chairman Robert Burns noted in a recent letter to the editor, 50 of the 52 death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 have been thrown out by higher courts. Seven death-row inmates have been entirely exonerated.
It was no great shock, therefore, when Holland, along with several other prosecutors, appeared at the State Capitol again last week to support a bill that tilts the odds against defendants in capital cases. The bill, which has now passed, revamps the state Public Defender Board and diverts state funds from death cases, which are frequently farmed out to private outfits. The idea is to free up some of the millions spent on capital cases and bail out local public defender offices handling less heinous offenses.
With 20 of Louisiana’s 42 local offices insolvent, the criminal justice system is in danger of grinding to a halt. Prosecutors, thus, had a legitimate and compelling interest in the bill, for they cannot go about the business of racking up convictions unless counsel is provided for all defendants.
Prosecutors were not just for this bill but proved its most vociferous advocates at committee hearings. That might raise a suspicion that the welfare of indigent defendants was not the bill’s principal concern.
Holland certainly thinks the state Public Defender Board has spent too much hiring what he calls “boutique law firms” to provide defense counsel in capital cases. He was gung ho for the bill, because it changes the make of the board, which he thinks has been dominated by “anti-death penalty zealots.”
Holland is something of a zealot on the other side, devoting his life to securing the death penalty. He was drafted in for Brown’s 2011 trial in St. Francisville. Brown is not the kind of convict whose plight will tug at the heartstrings, for he already was doing life for murder when he and five other Angola inmates took three guards hostage during an escape attempt. One of the guards, David Knapps, was beaten to death when he refused to hand over his keys.
Trial judge Jerome Winsberg threw out Brown’s death sentence, though not his conviction, because Holland and his fellow prosecutor, Tommy Block, had withheld a statement from another prisoner. According to that statement, Brown had not administered the fatal beating.
The state Supreme Court reversed Winsberg, when four of the seven justices reached the bizarre conclusion that the statement would not have helped Brown avoid the death penalty. So the U.S. Supreme Court, which has cried foul in plenty of Louisiana capital cases, is being petitioned to do it again.
Prosecutorial misconduct is common enough in Louisiana to suggest that spending less on indigent defense in capital cases is not the way to serve justice. But leaving local public defenders without the wherewithal for bread and butter cases is no way to serve justice, either. There just isn’t enough money for the state board to do everything.
The bill mandates that the board dedicate 65 percent of its budget — currently at $33 million — to the local offices, which also derive some income from court fees and traffic tickets. Legislators, unable or unwilling to come up with more money, have opted to shift around what they have.
They have also changed the composition of the board, which was set up in 2007 with 15 members and is responsible for training and regulating the local defenders. Now, it will have 11 members. Gone are the law professors Holland dismissed as zealots, while five members will be nominated by the local public defenders they are supposed to oversee.
The whole idea of robbing capital defense is to improve the quality of local defense efforts. Imposing a glaring conflict of interest on the state board is an odd way to achieve that.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.