Notorious former Lake Charles priest Mark Broussard’s 2016 conviction was a long time coming for the men he sexually abused as children in the 1980s and 1990s, but their suffering didn’t end with the verdict. Justice came at the painful cost of reliving childhood trauma through courtroom testimony.
“It didn’t just upset you for that week. It carried on for years after, really, to go through that,” one of Broussard’s victims, who did not want to be named, said in an interview. “A couple of my friends I know of lost jobs or marriages or had other extreme difficulties after the trial happened.”
One juror voted to acquit Broussard on all charges, despite vivid testimony from four victims and Broussard’s past admissions of molesting children. The dissenting juror, Alex Landry, recounted his reasons in an interview. The biggest, he said, was that he saw one witness laughing in the courtroom gallery while another wept on the stand.
Landry said his fellow jurors did not buy his arguments.
“They were all mad with me,” Landry said. “Since they wouldn’t even let me try to tell them anything, I just found (Broussard) innocent of all the charges.”
It seemed inconsequential at the time, since Louisiana allowed for non-unanimous convictions.
But then a political groundswell spurred state voters to bar split verdicts in 2018, ending a staple of Louisiana justice that had been enshrined in the state constitution 120 years earlier.
And last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that non-unanimous convictions were unconstitutional, permanently banning them in both Louisiana and Oregon, the only other state to adopt the split-jury scheme. That decision, in Ramos v. Louisiana, entitled to new trials about 100 Louisiana inmates, who had not exhausted their appeals.
The new state law applies only to offenses committed after 2018, meaning that it, like the Ramos decision, doesn’t address older convictions. Broussard does not qualify for a new trial under either change, but he might with yet another Supreme Court decision, which is expected soon.
Broussard is among a much larger pool of inmates hanging on the outcome in the case of Thedrick Edwards, a Baton Rouge man convicted of rape and robbery. In that case, the high court will decide if the Ramos decision applies retroactively to inmates like Edwards, whose convictions are final.
A decision in the affirmative would undo split-jury convictions for as many as 1,500 inmates, according to the Promise of Justice Initiative, a criminal justice advocacy organization in New Orleans. That’s almost one in 20 Louisiana inmates. A quarter of the group has been locked up for more than 20 years.
Among them is Calvin English, who is nearing the halfway mark of a half-century sentence for a 1998 armed robbery in Caddo Parish.
His brother, Cedric English, testified that Calvin walked in on the robbery in progress, unaware. Cedric testified that he’d pointed a gun at Calvin and ordered him to tie up the victim.
Cedric pleaded guilty and received an eight-year prison sentence. Calvin, who had a prior robbery conviction, was convicted on a 10-2 vote. Prosecutors then invoked Louisiana’s habitual offender statute to inflate his prison term.
The day of the verdict was one of the last times English saw his parents outside of prison, he said on a video call from Avoyelles Correctional Center.
“I done lost my mom, my dad, all my aunties, all my uncles,” English said. “I’ve been in here wrongfully, unconstitutionally, for 23 years now. In those 23 years, I done lost all this.”
English said he was stunned and heartbroken when he heard the verdict, since his brother had taken full responsibility for the crime.
“I actually believed somebody must have snuck in the jury room and persuaded them into saying I was guilty of this charge,” English said, adding that he feared an unfavorable Supreme Court decision would “be like going through the event all over again, of hearing the jury say I’m guilty.”
“Mentally, I haven’t even prepared myself for that,” English said.
In anticipation of a favorable ruling, hundreds of English’s fellow inmates are scrambling to access sealed jury polling slips and other evidence just to prove they were convicted by split juries.
This often requires an arduous journey through local clerk’s offices, appellate courts and other venues, sometimes without legal help, said Jamila Johnson, a managing attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, which spearheaded the legal challenge to split verdicts.
“It’s really, really hard for people who are incarcerated to get their own records. That has been a significant problem in Louisiana,” Johnson said. “Maybe they got transferred and lost all their records, or their records were in a facility that flooded, or their records were sent to an aunt who died.”
There are roughly 300 inmates who believe they were convicted by split juries but cannot prove it, according to Johnson. Time may be running out for them to do so.
Inmates seeking to vacate non-unanimous decisions must apply for post-conviction relief, and state law appears to impose a one-year deadline from the Ramos decision. That deadline is April 20, but a decision on retroactivity could come after that.
It is not clear if courts ultimately would uphold the deadline, but Johnson said she is not taking chances. Her team aims to file about 900 post-conviction relief applications for inmates before April 20.
“The state statute is a pretty terrible one,” Johnson said. “The fact that we have to do this now, and that there is any question that people might learn there is retroactivity but be procedurally barred because they didn’t file within this one year is a real error.”
Sealed jury polls have been especially nettlesome. Louisiana law allows courts to seal polling slips at courts’ discretion, meaning defendants must ask appellate courts to unseal them. That has worked in some cases, but not others.
The 24th Judicial District Court in 2019 refused an inmate’s request to unseal jury slips from his 1980 rape conviction. The inmate, Wesley Young, appealed. In a similar case last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal ordered the district court to allow access to polling slips with juror names redacted.
But the state Supreme Court denied the same remedy to Young, who did not have a lawyer. Justice Jefferson Hughes, writing for the majority, reasoned that Young had not yet filed a post-relief conviction application.
Then-Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, who retired last year, noted in a dissent that the situation is a Catch-22.
“(Young) cannot file a post-conviction relief application arguing that he is entitled to the benefit of Ramos if he cannot show that he was convicted by a non-unanimous jury verdict. And he cannot show that he was convicted by a non-unanimous jury verdict without the clerk providing him with the jury polling slips,” she wrote.
Another opportunity to abuse?
The case of Broussard, the Lake Charles priest, is unusual for at least one reason: Broussard is White. Black inmates comprise about 80% of those with split jury convictions and about two-thirds of the overall state prison population, according to the PJI.
Those numbers track the findings of an exhaustive investigation by this newspaper, which analyzed roughly 1,000 jury trials and found that Black defendants were about 30% more likely to be convicted by split juries than White ones.
The disparities are the manifestation of a non-unanimous jury law born in the 1898 state constitutional convention, the stated purpose of which was “to establish the supremacy of the white race.”
Calvin Duncan was soaking in the sun outside the federal courthouse in New Orleans about a year ago when the subject turned to Greek mythology.
But some violent crime victims fear the cost of reversing a longstanding, racist law will land squarely on them.
Suffering through a new trial would be like undergoing chemotherapy again after beating cancer, one of Broussard’s victims said in an interview. He said his ultimate fear is that Broussard will be let out of jail and hurt more children.
“If he gets released, he’s not being punished for what he did, and he has the motive, he might find the opportunity to abuse another kid,” the man said.
Broussard’s victims testified in grotesque detail about how he raped them for years after building trust with their families, and Broussard himself admitted to molesting children in a 1998 deposition.
But the evidence did not convince Landry, the dissenting juror. Landry said he felt sorry for the witness he saw crying, whose story he believed, but his perception of mockery on the part of the other witness was, in his view, a fatal flaw for the prosecution.
“You don’t laugh at somebody who got the same thing you got. You are going to hurt with him. If it’s funny to you, nothing happened to you,” Landry said. “I knew in my heart after watching (him) laughing that he was lying.”
In the jury room, Landry said the other jurors told him he was crazy and refused to listen to him. Landry said there was not much discussion.
“We may have sat down and ate for about two hours, but we didn’t talk at all,” Landry said
The prosecutor in the Broussard case, Cynthia Killingsworth, said the other jurors might have worked hard to convince Landry if unanimity had been required.
“Once they had the minimum, they could just come out. They didn’t have to sit there and work hard to try to convince anybody, or to show the other person all what evidence we had, because they were done,” Killingsworth said. “When you change the numbers in the middle of the stream here, it’s really unfair to the victims.”
‘We must correct that wrong’
In arguing against retroactivity before the Supreme Court, Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill has raised the specter of a crushing burden on the state’s trial system if the court voids all split convictions.
But in New Orleans, the new reform-minded district attorney, Jason Williams, has already opened a relief valve for more than 320 inmates who were convicted by split juries and have no remaining appeals.
Williams’s office last month started giving new trials, plea deals and early releases to those inmates in bunches.
Williams began by agreeing to vacate 22 “final” convictions rendered by non-unanimous juries in one of the 12 sections of the Orleans Parish criminal court, casting it as a necessary first step.
“The original process was unfair and tainted by a racist, Jim Crow law,” Williams said last month, “and we must correct that wrong.”
The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will reconsider whether felony defendants in state court can be convicted by divided juries, a move that…
So far, no other district attorney in Louisiana appears to be following Williams’ lead.
Several, though, have begun setting new trial dates for cases overturned under the Ramos decision, or offering plea deals.
“Case by case” is how East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said he’s handling those vacated convictions.
He provided a list of 15 inmates whose convictions fell under the Ramos decision, with eight now set for retrial and two who have since entered pleas. Many of those defendants are accused of sex crimes, including aggravated rape and incest. Moore’s list represents a fraction of the cases that would return for new trials if Edwards prevails.
Moore’s office in February allowed one defendant, Jimeelah Crockett, to plead no contest to manslaughter. An 11-1 jury convicted Crockett of second-degree murder in the 2017 killing of her boyfriend. She faced a mandatory life sentence. Crockett claimed she acted in self defense. Under her plea, she’s expected to face 15 to 30 years at a June sentencing.
In St. John the Baptist Parish, District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut said she is still settling on how to handle the eight split-verdict convictions affected by the Ramos decision in her district.
“We have to make public safety and victim impact determinations. That’s exactly where I am with all of this,” she said.
The judge in one of Dinvaut’s cases stopped polling the jury at the 10th guilty vote, as that made for a valid conviction at the time. After the Ramos decision, two unpolled jurors and the foreperson were called back in to swear to a unanimous guilty verdict.
Dinvaut said she is being cautious when deciding whether to offer plea deals, and she isn’t looking at older split convictions.
“My top priority is going to be to comply with the law,” she said. “At this point in time, Ramos is the controlling law.”
Even supporters of Williams’ progressive approach acknowledge the pain that reopened cases can cause victims. His move last month to help 22 inmates convicted by split verdicts prompted a bitter attack from at least one victim, a man who’d been shot in the face.
Broussard, the Lake Charles priest, was initially indicted in 2012 on more than 200 counts, which were whittled down to five to streamline the prosecution. Broussard received back-to-back life prison sentences.
Killingsworth, the now-retired prosecutor, said she worries about a different prosecutor starting from scratch, and she wonders if the victims will be able to handle another trial.
“It was horrible for them the first time to have to bare themselves like that. I don’t know if all of them can do it a second time, I really don’t,” Killingsworth said.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.