In this business of news we have a unique vantage point from which we observe functions of government, often at its best and sometimes at its worst. Among these is the spinning of the criminal justice system’s wheels, and this sight is not always pretty.
Sometimes we observe the very beginning of what becomes a case, the arrest of an individual or the sight of what occurs shortly after, the man or woman with their hands cuffed behind them, causing a sliver of their humanity to be shed from the start. If freedom is a desired ideal then the stripping of freedom should never be a welcome sight, no matter how necessary it might be. We get to see what happens after, when a person appears before a judge, cloaked in a robe that bespeaks the majesty of the law, or should. Occasionally we witness a trial, which at its best is a spirited clash between advocates representing separate interests. The prosecutor argues for the will of the state, which has used its great power to bring things this far, to the point where a judge or – as in most cases – a jury will decide what the facts are or are not, so that guilt or innocence may be determined. The defense attorney represents a different interest, advocating on the client’s behalf, forcing the state to put up or shut up, demanding that proof be produced and reminding the judge or jury that if it is not, the accused must go free.
During much of my career I have written of fine work defense attorneys have done, even in those cases – which are the majority – where the state’s case prevails. I have also written about prosecutors and presented instances where their job was admirably done.
The quality of neither is not adjudged by the outcome of the case. A prosecutor can do a formidable job even where innocence is declared, and a defense attorney can be a success even if the case is not.
In Division B of the 32nd Judicial District’s court both sides have been very busy lately. As Judge Johnny Walker has looked on with rapt attention, Seth Dodd and Dennis Elfert have functioned as a team to close out several cases in recent weeks. In one, a man awaiting trial for murder was tried on a less crucial matter, masturbating in the jail in eyeshot of a female medical worker, intending to be seen. That led to a conviction, which allowed Dodd and Elfert to seek a habitual violent offender designation by Dodd and Elfert. They prevailed, and now without even being tried for murder the defendant is going away for 30 years. At a time when people like those prosecuted have been responsible for a lot of pain in this parish, that’s not a bad thing.
Last week Dodd and Elfert secured a guilty plea to drug and weapons charges from one Alton Williams III, a drug dealer who kept an AR-15 in the trunk of his car, and who will now serve 20 years.
I got a chance to speak with Dodd about these and other cases recently, and got a good taste of what it’s like to be the guy who puts the bad guys away.
“I began this year taking a hardline on felons in possession of firearms,” said Seth, who is pleased the statutory tool is good, but that it needs tweaking. “I believe the time the statute currently requires is inadequate with all the gun violence we have out there. Currently it calls for a minimum of 10 and max of 25. Personally I believe the mandatory minimum should be 25 without benefit of probation, parole, suspension of sentence and go up to say 50. There needs to be some teeth to put an end to all of this.”
Legislators will tell you there are grave problems to be dealt with like the fact that Louisiana is broke. But Seth’s suggestion is a good one and they should follow it. Louisiana’s law, which allows only people convicted of certain crimes to be punished for carrying a gun, is sound and fair. It erodes nobody’s right to bear arms. The Bayou Region’s delegation is aware of the wave of violence. Even if the state was flush, people dying from gunshot wounds is not a good thing.
There is no reason why lawmaker’s can’t handle fiscal responsibilities and also pass laws that will make us all safer. They are not bashful about passing laws that restrict the freedom of people in very iffy circumstances, or legislating against the rights of gay citizens, for example. The prosecutors are not demanding that the legislators do something like what Seth recommends, they are too busy building cases. But all of you lawmakers read this column – I know you do – so pay attention. Chabert, Brown, Amedee, Magee, Allain, Zeringue, Gisclair, Richard, some one among you can surely create a change in the law like this. The cops are doing ther jobs, and the prosecutors too. Back them up in a real way. Seth Dodd has not excoriated legislators, but during our discussion when the question of whether legislators should find some time to do this came up he agreed.
“Too many violent ones that are a danger to society are slipping through the cracks. It’s time to hammer down,” he said, when the question was posed.
Then he went back to preparing a case he and Elfert were working on, trying to put another offender away for a long time. But not enough. The hands in the courthouse are willing. The tools are still weak. It’s time to fix it.. •