ST. FRANCISVILLE — Angola 5 defendant David D. Mathis pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree murder in a deal that spares him a possible death sentence for the 1999 slaying of a Louisiana State Penitentiary security officer.
Mathis, 36, entered the plea before Judge Jerome Winsberg, ending a lengthy round of defensive maneuvers and the possibility of a drawn-out trial beginning in late September.
Mathis was among a group of Angola Camp D inmates whose botched escape plan resulted in the beating and stabbing death of Capt. David C. Knapps, 49, in a restroom of the camp’s Education Building.
Winsberg immediately sentenced Mathis on Friday to a life sentence without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence and ordered that it be served “consecutively to any other sentence you are serving.”
The wording has greater significance in Mathis’ case than perhaps in others involving inmates with multiple life sentences.
His defense attorneys are challenging his second-degree murder conviction and life sentence in the 1992 slaying of his adoptive grandmother in Baker, when Mathis was 15.
Defense attorney Jim Boren said Mathis was mentally incompetent in 1992 and should have been found “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
Boren said a hearing in that case is scheduled before East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court Judge Kathleen Richey on Monday.
The would-be escapees also held two other officers as hostages until Angola’s riot control team rescued them. Officers storming the Education Building found Mathis and inmate Joel Durham holding one of the hostages in an inmate property storage room.
The entry team killed Durham, 26, and shot Mathis in the face.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick took over prosecution of the case, which had languished without formal indictments until Sam D’Aquilla became the district attorney for East and West Feliciana parishes in 2003.
D’Aquilla cannot prosecute the case himself because he briefly represented one of the defendants while serving as a public defense attorney.
Christine Gauf, one of Knapps’ sisters, said Connick made the decision to allow Mathis to plead guilty.
“They didn’t know if they could push it to the death penalty. We don’t think he should have got off, but there’s nothing we can do,” Gauf said after court adjourned Friday.
Testimony and evidence in earlier trials and hearings revealed that Mathis, unlike his co-defendants, did not have Knapps’ blood on his clothing. Also, no witness has testified that Mathis took part in the attack on Knapps.
“The killing of Capt. Knapps was a tragedy, and David Mathis is deeply sorry about the loss the Knapps family has suffered,” said Rachel Conner, a Mathis attorney since 2005.
“This is a just outcome, and hopefully takes into account David Mathis’ role in the offense, and hopefully will provide closure to the entire Knapps family,” Conner said.
The Jefferson Parish prosecution team, headed by Tommy Block, has obtained three convictions and two death sentences against the Angola 5 since May 2011.
Juries, which have been chosen in St. Tammany Parish, returned death sentences against Jeffrey Clark, 52, and David Brown, 39, while Robert G. Carley, 44, received a second life sentence when his jury had at least one holdout opposed to the death penalty.
“We believe we could have proven the (Mathis) case,” Block said after court.
“But anytime an offer is made to plead guilty to the charge, which is what happened here, serious consideration must be given to that offer,” Block said, adding that Mathis admitted he was a principal to Knapps’ murder and will spend the rest of his life locked “in a cell for 23 hours a day.”
The prosecution team lost two key members last month when the Caddo Parish district attorney forced two assistants, Hugo Holland and Lea Hall, to resign over a dispute about rifles obtained from a state surplus property agency.
Block said Connick has not made a decision whether to ask Holland and Hall to assist in prosecuting the remaining Angola 5 defendant, Barry Edge, 52, whose trial is scheduled for January.
Block said he and prosecutor Mike Futtrell will go back to Jefferson Parish and “begin preparing for his trial in January for his role in this murder.”
Three members of the Knapps family said in letters filed in court that the defendants took a man whose music and humor was the life of numerous family gatherings.
In addition to a family member, the inmates took the life of a “man in blue” committed to the duty of confining the people society says are not capable of living in freedom, niece Cindy Vannoy wrote.
“That could have been any one of us in that bathroom: me, my mom, my dad, my husband,” said Vannoy, one of many Knapps family members who are employed in corrections.