The Livingston Parish death penalty case against Dakota Theriot, accused of killing three people in Livingston and two in Ascension, will move forward after a monthslong halt in which two public defense agencies said they did not have the funding for such a taxing workload.

Theriot, 22, is accused of killing Summer, Tanner and Billy Ernest — a family he had been temporarily living with — in Livingston Parish before traveling to Ascension Parish to kill his parents, Keith and Elizabeth Theriot, the morning of Jan. 26. Authorities say he then fled to Virginia, where he was apprehended at his grandmother's home.

Theriot was then returned to Louisiana, where he faces five counts of first-degree murder and the death penalty in both jurisdictions.

Though it's been more than seven months since the slayings, the 21st and 23rd Judicial District courts have not made it far in Theriot's prosecution because of the claim there's a lack of funding in the local public defenders' offices and the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

The defense team and district attorneys in both judicial districts have been back and forth in court arguing the need to adequately fund the case to afford Theriot his constitutional right to a proper defense.

Theriot is being represented in both jurisdictions by two Louisiana Capital Assistance Center attorneys who previously told a judge in the Ascension district that they were working pro bono in Theriot's case, but need funding to hire mitigation experts and witnesses.

Theriot has been determined an indigent, meaning he does not have the means to pay for his own defense and therefore a defense attorney will be appointed to him. It's up to the courts to do that.

A 23rd Judicial District judge in May decided there was adequate enough funding for the Ascension case to move forward. The same issue had remained in Livingston court since then until late last week when a 21st Judicial District judge determined the same.

In court filings, the office of 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux pushed for Judge Brenda Bedsole Ricks to mandate the Louisiana Public Defender Board pay for the defense to keep the case moving forward, which she ultimately did, according to an Aug. 1 order.

The 21st Judicial District Public Defender's office claimed in court filings it does not maintain funds for capital defense, and has not had any capital-qualified attorneys on staff for years.

The District Attorney's Office and the local Public Defender's office both claimed the Louisiana Public Defender Board has more than $1.4 million in unallocated funds due in part to a legislative budget increase last year, and argued that money could be directly applied to Theriot's defense.

LPDB claimed the local public defender's office had more than $500,000 available in its budget for the defense in Livingston, but Ricks ultimately found that the Louisiana Public Defender Board acts as the oversight for local defenders' offices and is responsible for ensuring indigent defendants have legal representation.

Interim State Public Defender Richard Pittman said Tuesday it's difficult to predict exactly how much Theriot's case will cost to properly defend, but he noted a large portion of costs is the personnel and number of attorneys needed in the legal team.

Capital punishment cases usually have two experienced attorneys, as well as a capital-experienced investigator and a mitigation expert, Pittman said.

Death penalty trials are split into two parts: the guilt phase and penalty phase. The first is the same as other criminal trials in which lawyers present their evidence and a jury decides whether the defendant is guilty or not. Death penalty cases differ, however, in that if the defendant is found guilty, a penalty phase begins in which the same jury hears mitigating factors and evidence to determine whether the death penalty is warranted over another form of punishment.

Pittman said the Louisiana Public Defender Board has a regularly-scheduled meeting Thursday in which they will allocate funds for the 2019-20 fiscal year. It's expected they will discuss Theriot's case and officially allocate defense funds then.


Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.