Race, justice and the death penalty loom large in La. race
Big super PAC, special election shine national spotlight on local drama
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.