Prosecutors are using Louisiana’s repeat-offender laws to create potential sentences so high for criminal defendants that they have no choice but to plead guilty, potentially depriving them of the right to a fair trial, three candidates for Criminal District Court agreed Monday night.
Marie Williams and Graham Bosworth, who are both challenging incumbent Judge Frank Marullo in Division D, and Byron C. Williams, who is running against Paul Sens for the open Division G seat, all appeared in a forum Monday night before the Home Defense Foundation of New Orleans, which advocates on behalf of residents charged in self-defense shootings. Many of the questions focused on tactics used in the courtroom to get tough on criminals, including foundation member Nadra Enzi’s query about the use of “multiple bills” on repeat offenders.
Under Louisiana law, defendants convicted of certain felonies can received enhanced penalties after subsequent convictions at trial, subject to the discretion of the prosecutor. For example, in 2012, a 48-year-old man with previous drug and theft convictions refused a 12-year sentence on a plea deal for a simple-burglary charge, was convicted at trial, and faced a life sentence afterward because of the multiple-billing penalties.
Bosworth, the first candidate to respond to the questions, said he had “constitutional issues” with the practice. The right to remain silent and to receive a fair trial are enshrined in the Constitution, he said, and using major penalties as leverage to force a guilty plea essentially deprives defendants of those right.
Innocent defendants may be forced to plead guilty, Bosworth said, or guilty defendants may be forced to plead to crimes more severe than the facts of the case warranted.
“They accept charges and sentences that they otherwise would have the right to fight,” Bosworth said.
Marie Williams said she also had issues with the practice, especially when the cases have evidentiary problems to begin with. When defendants are forced to plead guilty, she said, they then put themselves at risk for even more severe penalties if they face charges again later.
“It becomes more cases and more cases and more crimes they have been accused of, when they may be innocent,” Marie Williams said.
Byron C. Williams said that multiple billing and the guilty pleas are contributing to Louisiana’s high incarceration rates. On the other hand, he said, judges have little authority over it — the state legislature has removed some of their discretion on the issues.
“I’m very concerned with multiple bills. … Sometimes it is filed to the detriment of the defendant, as well as to the community,” Byron C. Williams said. “The pleas are based on the fact that they were multiple billed.”
The District Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue Tuesday morning.
The Marullo controversy
Marullo, the incumbent judge being challenged by Bosworth and Marie Williams, has been embroiled in controversy after he allegedly “offered local lawyer Marie Williams his support for a magistrate commissioner’s post at the court if she would drop out of the race for Marullo’s Section D seat,” according to The New Orleans Advocate. Marullo has said the conversation about her endorsing him and the commissioner’s post were unrelated, and decried the recording of their conversation at Mandina’s restaurant in Mid-City as a “cheap political ploy,” The Advocate has reported.
Marullo had confirmed that he would attend Monday’s forum, said moderator Jeff Crouere, but the judge never showed up at the Eiffel Society. During the event, Crouere alluded to the controversy in one of his questions, asking if it was a “common practice” for judicial candidates to drop out of their races to accept commissioner’s posts.
Marie Williams said she couldn’t comment on her allegations because of the ongoing investigation, but that she does not believe it to be a prior practice. Byron C. Williams said that if it was a common practice, it would be “unacceptable.” Bosworth said there should never be attempts to affect an election in that way, and he is unsure that so many commissioners are needed at the court house.
The forum also included discussion of better case management at the court house, how to set pretrial bonds, judges’ role in changing laws, the causes of recidivism, and a question from the audience about whether the candidates are part of a conspiracy to implement “sharia law” in New Orleans and the United States. To read our live coverage of the forum, see below.