Prem Burns recalls decades as prosecutor, continues work on post-conviction cases _lowres

Prem Burns

Three days after retiring from the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office, veteran prosecutor Prem Burns sat alone Thursday in a City Hall office with an old photograph of Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers and her six children and boxes of files with the name of Kevan Brumfield, one of two men on death row for the 1993 ambush slaying.

“I’ve been with this family for 22 years,” Burns said, holding the photo that was taken several years before Smothers’ death.

As it turns out, the 65-year-old Burns will be with the family of the slain officer a while longer.

That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court announced on Dec. 5 — the same day District Attorney Hillar Moore III announced Burns would be retiring Jan. 12 — that it would hear arguments in March dealing with Brumfield’s mental retardation claim.

Burns, who spent more than 34 years with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, has agreed to continue working with the office as special counsel on behalf of the victims in her remaining capital post-conviction cases, including Brumfield’s.

In all, Burns secured death sentences against five men while prosecuting in Baton Rouge: Jeffrey Cameron Clark, Allen “Lil Boo” Robertson Jr., Brumfield and co-defendant Henri Broadway, and Gregory “Boo” Brown.

“It’s not a deterrent, but it’s the proper punishment for what you have done,” Burns said of the death-penalty verdicts she won.

Robertson was twice sentenced to death in the New Year’s Day 1991 stabbing deaths of Morris Prestenback and his wife, Kazuko, in their north Baton Rouge home. Clark, whose sentence in the 1984 killing of Studebaker’s nightclub assistant manager Andrew Cheswick was later reduced to life, now is on death row for the 1999 murder of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola prison guard David Knapps. Burns did not prosecute the prison murder.

Burns’ work as special counsel will involve the cases of Brumfield, Broadway, Robertson and Brown, who abducted and killed a Clinton couple — William and Ann Gay — in 1998.

Burns is researching and preparing to argue in front of the nation’s highest court in Brumfield’s case.

For someone who holds the distinction as the first woman felony prosecutor in East Baton Rouge, first woman criminal section chief and first woman named first assistant district attorney, this will be Burns’ first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“That, to me, is something you always think about. It’s the carrot that’s over your head,” she said. “This, to me, is a golden gift to go out on. It’s beyond any expectation and gift.”

Burns’ prosecutorial experience also includes 2½ years with the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office and 1½ years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge. She began her legal career in 1974 at the Legal Aid Society.

“I wanted to be the best lawyer in any courtroom I went into,” she said. “I always overprepared.”

In 1989, two years after her successful prosecution of three Colombian nationals who were sentenced to life in prison in the 1986 slaying of federal drug informant Adler “Barry” Seal outside a Baton Rouge halfway house, Burns landed on the cover of Parade Magazine as one of five “Women Who Could Be America’s Toughest Prosecutors.”

Burns, who prosecuted more than 100 felony jury trials, said what she will miss most in her retirement is interacting with juries.

“Probably standing in front of a jury, doing an opening and closing argument. I adore that, doing justice for that victim,” she said.

Burns, who trained numerous lawyers while teaching at LSU as an adjunct professor and trial advocacy faculty member, said she would love to teach again.

As first assistant district attorney the past seven years, Burns also served as chief of litigation, grand jury legal advisor, asset forfeiture counsel and police incident prosecutor.

Tracey Barbera is the new first assistant, and Dana Cummings is chief of litigation.