Retiring East Baton Rouge Parish sex crimes prosecutor Sue Bernie tears up when she reflects on her more than three-decade career of seeking justice for victims of sexual and physical assault and on the plaque that hangs just inside her office.
It reads: “A hundred years from now … it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
The plaque was given to Bernie years ago by one of her investigators, Steve Danielson, now a fellow prosecutor in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s always been very special,” she said.
Bernie believes strongly in the words on the plaque, words the 64-year-old prosecutor has lived by since joining the District Attorney’s Office in 1986.
She has been the section chief of the office’s sex crimes division since 1988 and has come in contact with thousands of children and adults victimized by sexual and physical abuse.
Bernie, who worked for three years at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office under then-District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. before joining the staff of the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, said she has viewed her work as a sex crimes prosecutor as “a way of giving a stronger voice to women and children” who have been victimized.
“I tried,” the prosecutor said in a soft, humble voice. “You always want to make a positive difference.”
“It’s been rewarding,” she added, “but it’s time to hand on the baton.”
That baton is going to fellow Assistant District Attorney Sonya Cardia-Porter, who will take over as chief of the sex crimes division when Bernie leaves in June.
“She’ll do a great job,” Bernie said of her successor.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who has been Bernie’s boss since 2009, called Bernie a “tireless champion for sexual assault victims” in Louisiana and said she will be sorely missed.
“She has handled thousands of sex crimes cases in her career and tried more such jury trials than any other sex crimes prosecutor,” he said. “East Baton Rouge has particularly been fortunate to have had her serve our community for the majority of her service.”
Moore said Bernie’s expertise and skill in the realm of sex crime prosecution is one that people from all over the state look to for advice and guidance in sexual assault-related matters.
“She has blazed a path that no one before her has traveled,” he said. “She is leaving our community and particularly the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in a much better position than when she arrived.”
Some of her more high-profile prosecutions have included former local NAACP President George Washington Eames, south Louisiana rapper Mystikal, former Baton Rouge police officer James Dietrich Jr., former LSU running backs Jeremy Hill and Cecil “The Diesel” Collins and several former teachers at the Louisiana School for the Deaf.
Eames was sentenced in 1995 to more than five years in prison for molesting and contributing to the delinquency of a teenage girl. Mystikal, whose real name is Michael Tyler, spent six years in prison in the 2000s for sexual battery and extortion. Dietrich was sentenced in 1996 to six months in a halfway house and five years probation for fondling a teen girl.
Hill was put on probation in 2012 after pleading guilty as a Redemptorist High School senior to a misdemeanor charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Collins was put on probation in the late 1990s after he pleaded guilty to charges that accused him of forcing his way into the Baton Rouge apartments of two women and fondling them. He later served more than 13 years in a Florida prison for a burglary conviction in that state while on probation in Louisiana. He remains on probation in Louisiana.
Bernie said she has dealt with victims younger than 3 years old and as old as 99.
Her prosecutorial efforts also have sent “lots” — Bernie says she doesn’t keep statistics — of rapists to prison for the rest of their lives, including Hollis Maten, of Baton Rouge, who was 50 in 2011 when he was convicted in two cold cases of raping two women at knifepoint in the 1980s. DNA eventually linked him to the crimes.
“The development of DNA has just been incredible,” she said.
Bernie said the real heroes are the victims of sexual and physical abuse who help prosecutors bring their abusers to justice.
Bernie, whose law degree from the University of Florida never stopped her from being a fervent supporter of the LSU Lady Tiger basketball and softball programs, played a large role in the creation of the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center in 2002.
She described the center as a “child-friendly” environment where young victims can be interviewed by law enforcement and child protection workers. In recent years, more therapy services have been added for children and their families, she said.
Bernie has been a district attorney representative on the Children’s Advocacy Center board and will continue as an ad hoc member in her retirement.
She has testified numerous times before the Legislature and was instrumental in having the spousal exception removed from the state’s rape statute in 1990.
The Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault annually presents the Sue Bernie Justice Award to deserving recipients.
Although she will be retired by then, Bernie will return in August to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse for jury duty.