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Judge Mike Erwin

The longest tenured and arguably most colorful judge on the Baton Rouge-based 19th Judicial District Court is retiring effective Aug. 1, but 69-year-old Mike Erwin is leaving the bench much sooner than that.

Erwin's last day in his judicial robe will be March 29. He'll then be on paid leave, including using up his vacation time, until his retirement takes effect.

"I've been ready to retire for quite some time. I've seen enough dead bodies and raped children and child molesters," said Erwin, who has been involved in the criminal justice system for four decades.

"I used to look forward to coming to work, but not anymore," he said in an interview Friday. He added that his departure is not health-related.

Erwin became embroiled in rare controversy in February 2017 when a black woman accused him of using a racial slur against her at Sammy's Grill on Highland Road. The judge denied the accusation a short time later by stating, "I never have, never would and never will utter the language I was accused of saying."

Erwin has been banned from Sammy's since the incident. The woman filed a complaint against him with the Louisiana Judiciary Commission, which makes recommendations to the state Supreme Court. The high court has not announced any discipline against the judge.

Erwin, a native of Franklinton, served as an assistant city prosecutor in Baton Rouge from 1979 to 1981, then as an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney from 1981 to 1990.

He has been a state district judge since 1991 and was re-elected to a fifth six-year term in 2014. That terms expires at the end of 2020.

A special election to fill the unexpired portion of his term will be held Oct. 12, the gubernatorial election date. A runoff, if necessary, would be Nov. 16. The qualifying period will run Aug. 6-8.

"It has been an honor and privilege to have served the citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish," Erwin wrote to the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office in his formal retirement notice.

The 19th Judicial District Court's chief judge, Tim Kelley, said he has asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to send a temporary judge to handle Erwin's docket beginning April 1.

Kelley said whoever sits as the temporary judge cannot seek election to the seat.

Kelley, who has served on the 19th JDC since 1997, had high praise for his retiring colleague.

"Since 1991, Judge Erwin has faithfully served our community and handled some of the toughest criminal cases that have come before the 19th Judicial District Court," he said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who has held his post since 2009, said many young lawyers now serving in positions of authority were raised in Erwin's courtroom over the years.

"All of us from all sides of the judicial system will miss his presence on the bench," Moore said. "He was always available to prosecutors and defense counsel alike. He kept his docket current and moved cases in his section."

Erwin has made clear over the years his disdain for those who harm children and the elderly.

In 2015, the judge sentenced Steven Staggs to the maximum 40 years in prison for second-degree cruelty to a juvenile in a 2009 case involving the Baton Rouge man's then-20-month-old son, who weighed just 15 pounds and had a red burn mark from the tines of a fork on one of his thighs when he was rushed to a hospital after ingesting fingernail polish remover. Erwin told Staggs, "You disgust me."

He also sentenced Staggs' second wife and the boy's stepmother, Charlotte Staggs, to 40 years on the same cruelty charge in 2012. The judge called her "sinister and despicable."

During a 2014 bail hearing for Joleslie and Lauren Looney, the daughter and granddaughter of an 82-year-old Baton Rouge woman found dead in her wheelchair and riddled with severely infected bedsores, Erwin stated, "It made me sick ... to allow somebody to live in those kinds of conditions."

Joleslie Looney was convicted of manslaughter, and Erwin gave her the maximum 40-year prison term. Lauren Looney pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and was sentenced to five years, also the maximum penalty for that charge.

Erwin also sent a strong message in 2016 to heroin dealers when he sentenced a Baker man, Kedric J. Williams, to the maximum 50 years behind bars for trying to sell heroin on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge. Williams was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute heroin, which prior to 2001 carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

"If a life sentence for dealing heroin were still an option, I would feel comfortable sentencing every convicted heroin dealer to life in prison without the eligibility of parole and truly believe it would be a start in the process of saving lives and hopefully run these criminals out of Baton Rouge," Erwin said at Williams' sentencing.

"Since the penalty has been reduced, Louisiana has given a 'green light' or a 'welcome sign' to dealers to come into our state," he added.

One of Erwin's more memorable and oft-stated quotes comes during jury trials when he tells prosecutors and defense lawyers before they give their closing arguments: "A closing argument should be like a woman's skirt — long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting."

Erwin has presided over numerous high-profile cases, including that of Henri Broadway, who was convicted in 1995 and condemned to die for his role in the 1993 ambush killing of Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers and wounding of a grocery store manager she had driven to a bank to make a night deposit.

Warrick Dunn, a former Catholic High School, Florida State University and NFL running back, is one of Smothers' six children.

Erwin also presided over the case of former "Sons of Guns" reality television personality Will Hayden, who was convicted in 2017 of sexually assaulting two preteen girls in East Baton Rouge Parish. The judge sentenced him to a mandatory life prison term for aggravated rape and a consecutive 40 years for forcible rape.


Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.