By Bill Lodge
Advocate staff writer
March 11, 2013
A spike last year in Baton Rouge homicides led the city’s two top prosecutors to focus on felons found with firearms in ways expected to send more of those offenders back to prison, both said in a recent interview.
And firearms seized for any reason by local, state or federal law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge now should be processed as if they are evidence from a murder scene, said District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III and U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. That includes checking those weapons for DNA.
Cazayoux and Moore said they meet regularly to decide whether heavier prison terms could be won in state court or whether certain defendants might be imprisoned longer in the federal system.
All felons are prohibited by federal law from toting guns. Some are prohibited by certain state laws from possessing firearms.
“It’s simple,” Moore explained. “If he’s a really bad actor, we want him to get the most prison time possible.”
Moore added that his office also checks with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Metro Gun Task Force.
“Every morning somebody from my office and the ATF task force review the previous days’s arrests of people carrying firearms,” Moore said.
He said he and Cazayoux want to know whether any of those people have criminal records because such defendants can more easily be convicted and returned to prison.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Mark Upton said cherry-picking felons with firearms for prosecution could mean some offenders would be treated more harshly in state court while others would receive longer prison terms in federal court.
Upton said prosecutors know which system is likely to produce tougher results in a particular case.
Penalties in federal court can range from probation to life imprisonment, Upton said. Probation is rare, but possible, he added.
Some offenders convicted in state district court face a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
“Our resources are limited, so we try to target the most violent offenders who are out there,” Cazayoux said.
Veteran defense attorney Michael S. Walsh noted, however, that federal law truly is blind where nonviolent offenders are concerned.
Nonviolent offenders in possession of firearms when they are arrested by federal agents automatically are subject to prosecution, said Walsh, president of the Baton Rouge Bar Association.
“Think about the guy who is 50 years old and did something stupid, but nonviolent, when he was 20,” Walsh mused. “That guy can’t take his son or grandson hunting without risking a federal prison sentence.”
“Those people aren’t our targets,” Cazayoux said.
The federal prosecutor added, though, that his office must comply with federal law.
If a nonviolent felony offender is discovered in possession of a firearm, he will be charged, Cazayoux said.
Moore also emphasized that he is looking for violent offenders. And he said he hopes routine DNA testing of seized weapons will help send more of the violent offenders to prison.
DNA testing of clothing helped convict Leandre Bell, 24, of Baton Rouge, on two counts of second-degree murder last year, Moore noted. Bell was sentenced to life in prison for the 2010 shooting deaths of Ericca Turner, 44, and Christopher Jason Domingue, 45, in separate incidents.
Domingue, who was the brother-in-law of former Police Chief Jeff LeDuff, was found with his pants pockets turned inside out, Moore noted. And the crime lab discovered Bell’s DNA on the pockets.
The .38 caliber revolver that was used to murder Turner was discovered in a garbage can at a house where Bell was shortly after Domingue’s body was found nearby.
DNA testing is increasingly important in other situations that are not overtly violent, Moore noted.
“Our biggest challenge is a gun found in a car at a traffic stop with four people inside the vehicle,” the district attorney said.
“Who’s going to claim ownership of that gun?” Moore mused. “You know it’ll be the guy who doesn’t have a criminal record.”
The district attorney added, though, that DNA testing will show whether the weapon was handled by the man with the clean record or one of the other three passengers.