Race, jus­tice and the death penalty loom large in La. race

Big su­per PAC, spe­cial elec­tion shine na­tional spot­light on lo­cal drama

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JANELL ROSS janell.ross@wash­post.com

Dis­trict at­tor­ney races are of­ten fiercely com­pet­i­tive.

For starters, the can­di­dates are lawyers, tem­per­a­men­tally in­clined to en­joy a good bout of non-lethal com­bat. And chief pros­e­cu­tor jobs (most of which are elected) don’t come open all that of­ten. That’s part of the rea­son that, in ma­jor me­trop­o­lises and tiny ru­ral ham­lets alike, the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s name is one that a lot of peo­ple know.

But in Caddo Par­ish, La. (pop­u­la­tion: 255,000; big­gest city: Shreve­port), there is a dis­trict at­tor­ney’s race that seems ut­terly suited for some­thing straight out of a Jim Crow pe­riod piece about jus­tice, bias and South­ern pol­i­tics. And al­though this might sound like an oxy­moron, this may also be a rel­a­tively grip­ping story about cam­paign fi­nance.

What’s hap­pen­ing in Caddo cen­ters around Glen Ford, a black man con­victed of mur­der, sen­tenced to die, then locked away in soli­tary con­fine­ment for 30 years be­fore a court de­clared him in­no­cent and set him free. There has to be a men­tion that the un­til-re­cently pre­dom­i­nantly white Caddo sen­tences more peo­ple to death per capita than any other place in the coun­try. And 77 per­cent of those who have been so con­demned over the past 40 years were black.

Any retelling would spend some time — prob­a­bly too much if pro­duced by Hol­ly­wood — on a white and deeply apolo­getic ju­nior pros­e­cu­tor who now ad­mits, decades later, that am­bi­tion and nar­cis­sism helped pro­duce a hor­rific mis­car­riage of jus­tice. He also staked the jury with white mem­bers and knocked blacks out of con­tention. He has asked the Louisiana State Bar As­so­ci­a­tion for pun­ish­ment.

One of the re­main­ing cen­tral char­ac­ters would be Dale Cox, Caddo’s in­terim dis­trict at­tor­ney, ap­pointed af­ter the par­ish’s elected pros­e­cu­tor was dis­cov­ered dead in a Shreve­port ho­tel room. (No foul play is sus­pected.) Cox, who is white and in pos­ses­sion of a cen­tral-cast­ing kind of South­ern drawl and an affin­ity for the death penalty, is res­o­lute that Ford's case does not in­di­cate a sin­gle ill in Caddo Par­ish.

Cox says the state owes Ford noth­ing. Noth­ing at all. To hear Cox tell it, noth­ing il­le­gal hap­pened. Noth­ing im­moral hap­pened. In fact, the sys­tem worked. Cox doesn’t know why that ju­nior pros­e­cu­tor has even apol­o­gized. Louisiana should, Cox says, ex­e­cute more peo­ple. And hey, at least Ford made it out of pri­son alive.

This is what Cox has said pub­licly, most re­cently on CBS’s “60 Min­utes” last week­end.

But Cox has (be­fore the “60 Min­utes” in­ter­view but shortly af­ter the New York Times ran a story ti­tled “The Pros­e­cu­tor Who Says Louisiana Should “Kill More Peo­ple’ ”) bowed out of a spe­cial elec­tion sched­uled for Satur­day. So six peo­ple are seek­ing to be Caddo’s next dis­trict at­tor­ney.

Now, en­ter the fi­nal char­ac­ter. That would be Ge­orge Soros, a Hun­gar­ian Amer­i­can known for his sup­port of lib­eral causes and con­cern about race-re­lated in­jus­tice.

Soros is either an­other white hero or a vil­lain here, de­pend­ing on your no­tion of fair­ness, your pol­i­tics and your feel­ings about cam­paign fi­nance law. Soros ranks among the coun­try’s big­gest bil­lion­aire fed­eral cam­paign financiers. And on Oct. 5, he dropped $256,000 into a Louisiana su­per PAC that promptly put ads on the air in sup­port of one of the Caddo dis­trict at­tor­ney can­di­dates. Soros ap­pears to be the su­per PAC’s only donor.

Now, pic­ture some tense court­room scenes, cor­ri­dors and of­fices. The su­per PAC’s ad has started work­ing to sup­port a black judge and Demo­crat named James Stew­art. Stew­art re­tired from the bench in Septem­ber af­ter a some­what shad­owy source fi­nanced bill­boards en­cour­ag­ing him to run for Caddo dis­trict at­tor­ney. A lo­cal lawyer filed a suit against Stew­art, say­ing Stew­art had to re­sign if he was go­ing to run.

On Oct. 2, at Stew­art’s re­quest, a court in­stead sanc­tioned that lo­cal lawyer, de­scrib­ing his suit as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and pos­si­bly noth­ing more than a pub­lic­ity stunt since the court did not have ju­ris­dic­tion to rule on the le­gal ques­tions raised. The lawyer knew this, the court ruled, be­cause he had done some­thing sim­i­lar. So, the court or­dered Stew­art's would-be foil to pay court costs and take 10 hours of train­ing in ethics and pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

Even be­fore the Soros do­na­tion to that su­per PAC, Stew­art seemed to have ad­van­tages over other can­di­dates. Stew­art might have en­tered the race last, but he worked as a ju­nior and se­nior pros­e­cu­tor in Caddo Par­ish be­fore he was elected to the bench in the early 1990s. Both his older broth­ers are lawyers. One, a Bill Clin­ton ap­pointee, is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Fifth Cir­cuit.

So Stew­art knows the lo­cal jus­tice sys­tem and has broader con­tacts, too. There’s some ex­pec­ta­tion that if elected he would be far less in­ter­ested than Cox in send­ing peo­ple — an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of them black — to death row.

In ad­di­tion to the New York Times and “60 Min­utes,” New Yorker mag­a­zine came to town. The Wash­ing­ton Post wrote about the case, too.

And par­ti­san out­lets have weighed in, too, in ex­pected ways. The con­ser­va­tive Wash­ing­ton Free Bea­con said Soros is try­ing to “buy” the elec­tion for Stew­art, in con­trast to the ob­jec­tions that Soros and many other Democrats of­ten raise about the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of big money in pol­i­tics.

All that drama has been com­pounded by a per­sonal story of the man in­volved that is noth­ing short of tragic.

The day Ford was re­leased from jail, the state did give him a $20 gift card. He used it to by fried chicken, iced tea and french fries. He emerged with $4 and change. Two weeks later, Ford was di­ag­nosed with an ad­vanced form of lung can­cer and has since died, just more than a year af­ter his re­lease. The Louisiana In­no­cence Project an­nounced his late-June death on July 4. Donors cov­ered the cost of his funeral, as Ford was pen­ni­less.

The state hasn’t paid Ford’s heirs any­thing, even though a state law in­di­cates they are el­i­gi­ble for about $330,000. Cox in­sists Ford knew that the rob­bery that led to the mur­der was go­ing to hap­pen and did not in­form po­lice, and there­fore his heirs aren’t en­ti­tled to the pay­out. Ford has never been charged in con­nec­tion with Cox’s al­le­ga­tion. But Cox says it’s true and that it is good enough rea­son for tax­pay­ers to avoid a $330,000 bill.

In the end, an in­no­cent man spent 30 years on death row. The lo­cal in­terim pros­e­cu­tor is bor­der­ing on proud. Some mem­bers of the lo­cal me­dia seem per­plexed about the na­tional out­rage and sug­ges­tions that racism may have had some­thing to do with all that has hap­pened.

Mostly, the con­sen­sus con­cern seems to be the “bad press” that Cox has brought to Caddo as in­terim dis­trict at­tor­ney. Now, big out­side cam­paign cash and a spe­cial elec­tion have made what would oth­er­wise be a lo­cal race into a na­tional story in­volv­ing race, death, wrong­ful con­vic­tions and par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

We’ll find out Satur­day what the next chap­ter holds.

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