The Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction and death sentence of a Shreveport man in the 2012 death of his toddler son, ordering a new trial for Rodricus Crawford after finding that the trial judge botched the constitutional process to exclude several black people from the jury.
The decision marks the latest reversal of a death sentence from Caddo Parish, the state's leader in sending people to death row.
Including Crawford, Caddo Parish juries have sentenced five people to death since 2010, accounting for 38 percent of the state's total death sentences in that time.
Critics of that record place much of the blame on former Acting District Attorney Dale Cox, a prosecutor who once wrote a memo saying that Crawford "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies."
A Caddo Parish jury convicted Rodricus Crawford of first-degree murder in 2013 with scant ev…
Cox declined to run for district attorney last year, citing the distraction of national media scrutiny of his vocal pursuit of the death penalty.
New District Attorney James Stewart said the case would be reassigned to a new prosecutor to determine "a proper course of action" in the case against Crawford in the Feb. 16, 2012, death of Roderius Lott.
The boy was nine days past his first birthday when he fell asleep with his father on a foldout couch at the Shreveport home where Crawford lived with his mother and other relatives.
In the morning, Crawford, now 27, shouted frantically, "Look at the baby, look at the baby, what's wrong with Bobo?" while relatives called 911.
Authorities found bruises on the baby's buttocks and a broken lip. Crawford told police the child had fallen in the bathroom and insisted he never harmed him.
If it weren’t for Caddo Parish, capital punishment would have been largely phased out in Lou…
A forensic pathologist diagnosed his cause of death as smothering, then stood by that account even after test results came back showing that the boy had pneumonia and that his blood was positive for streptococcus bacterial.
Crawford's attorneys argued that the jury relied on bad forensic science and skipped over strong indications that the boy died of sepsis, rather than at his father's hands.
They cited the forensic pathologist's testimony that Crawford "more likely than not" smothered his son — an assessment they claimed wasn't nearly enough to convict him.
Crawford's attorneys also noted that Cox, the prosecutor, had urged the jury to sentence Crawford to death because it's what he said Jesus would do.
In a 36-page opinion, the Supreme Court declined to accept those arguments, citing a high legal bar for overturning a jury's verdict based on evidence it heard at a trial.
Justice John Weimer wrote that "the alternative hypothesis of death by natural causes in this case is not sufficiently reasonable that a rational juror could not have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Within Louisiana, where capital punishment has declined steeply, Caddo Parish has become an …
Instead, the court found that the ad hoc trial judge, Joe Bleich, conflated a three-step process that the U.S. Supreme Court has laid out to ensure that prosecutors aren't removing potential jurors based on their race.
Five of the seven potential jurors stricken by prosecutors in Crawford's case were black. Instead of forcing prosecutors to offer race-neutral reasons for excluding those jurors and then ruling on them, Bleich provided his own reasons, the high court found.
Justice Jeannette Knoll agreed with the decision to overturn Crawford's conviction but, in a separate written opinion, said she would have acquitted Crawford based on a lack of evidence that he killed the boy.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson also endorsed Knoll's view.
Crawford's mother, Abbie Crawford, who tried to revive her young grandson that morning four years ago, called the decision "a long time coming" and said she was awaiting word on prosecutors' plans.
"I just don't know what to do, I'm so filled with joy!" she said. "I knew that my child wasn't that type of person. My son would never do nothing to hurt his own child, or anybody else's child. I just have my faith in the Father and know they're going to work it out."
Cecelia Kappel, an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project who argued Crawford's cause at a September hearing, called the case "a tragedy from Day One."
"I'm glad the court did the right thing, and I look forward to continuing to work with the DA's Office to seek justice for Rodricus and Roderius."