Livingston — A convicted murderer who shot and killed a Tangipahoa Parish deputy in 1984 was taken off death row Friday afternoon.
Chief Judge Robert Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District, resentenced Abdullah Hakim El-Mumit, formerly known as Thomas Sparks Jr., 65, to life in prison.
A defense lawyer said El-Mumit’s case illustrates what can happen when a state does not adequately fund public defenders. Prosecutors agreed to accept a deal for El-Mumit to be resentenced to life rather than having to go through the challenges of retrying portions of a decades-old case. The victim’s widow also supported the new sentence.
On Feb. 1, 1984, El-Mumit robbed a bank in New Orleans, making off with $6,900 before fleeing to Hammond, where he met a woman for drinks and spent the night with her in a motel ingesting cocaine, according to a court document.
The next day, he drove to Amite to see a relative and was spotted by Deputy Edward Toefield Jr. as he was traveling on U.S. 51 on his way back to Hammond.
Toefield followed El-Mumit into a restaurant parking lot and attempted to arrest him, but as the deputy tried to handcuff him, El-Mumit pulled a gun out of his waistband and shot Toefield once in the chest and twice in the head.
The trial was moved to Livingston Parish, where a jury found El-Mumit guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. However, El-Mumit appealed, saying his court-appointed attorney Wayne Stewart gave him inadequate representation.
In 2011, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the murder conviction but sent the case back to the district court to investigate whether Stewart could have done more during the sentencing phase of the trial.
Four and a half years later, on Friday, the two sides met to strike a deal. Faced with the possibility of retrying portions of the decades-old trial, the District Attorney’s Office supported a plan to allow El-Mumit to be resentenced to life, rather than death.
Restarting the trial would be “an extremely long and drawn-out process,” said Assistant District Attorney Patricia Amos.
“We just didn’t want to put the (Toefield) family through that,” Amos said. “We would basically have to start from scratch explaining” the case to a new jury.
The potential trial also would require experts to analyze evidence gathered at least 30 years prior. Witnesses — those who are still alive — would have to try to recall events that happened half a lifetime ago.
Toefield’s widow, Emma Toefield, said she supported the new sentence.
Shortly after her husband was killed, Emma Toefield wanted El-Mumit to die, she said in a Friday phone interview. But over the years, she’s changed her mind.
She said she can’t bring her husband back.
“Let (El-Mumit) live his life out. ... Every day he’ll know he took a life,” Emma Toefield said.
El-Mumit’s current lawyer, Jim Craig, of the MacArthur Justice Center, said the trial exposed flaws in the judicial system. Death penalty advocates should demand more resources for court-appointed attorneys, Craig said, because it can backfire when the state cuts corners, and that can lead to death sentences being overturned.
“This case really shows what happens when you don’t adequately fund public defenders,” he said. “It’s everybody’s right to have adequately funded lawyers.”
Several lawyers assigned to El-Mumit’s case dropped it, so by the time it was turned over to Stewart, he had only two months to prepare and too little funding to hire expert witnesses, Craig said.
“He was thrown into an impossible situation,” Craig said.
Neither Stewart nor Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards returned Friday afternoon calls seeking comment on the resentencing.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.