Special judge assigned to evidence vault theft case

La. high court move resolves potential conflicts of interest

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday appointed a special judge to the case of William Bates Colvin, a former East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court employee charged with smuggling cocaine and firearms from a courthouse evidence vault.

The order wrested Colvin’s proceedings from state District Judge Janice Clark and recused the entire 19th Judicial District Court bench, resolving a bitter dispute over which judge should hear the case.

Colvin is the son of state District Court Judge Kay Bates, a relationship that prompted all but two local judges to disqualify themselves even before the high court weighed in.

The prosecution challenged the Clerk of Court’s Office assignment of the case and ultimately sought the outside appointment because Clark is a colleague of Bates and primarily handles civil matters.

The case has been rife with potential entanglements from the outset, prosecutors said, pointing to jailhouse recordings in which Colvin said he expected preferential treatment because of courthouse connections.

“It’s too inbred at this point,” First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns said shortly before the high court ruled. “It involves the integrity of the courthouse.”

Instead of a local judge, Colvin and his co-defendants will appear before retired Judge Marion Edwards, who formerly presided in the 24th Judicial District Court of Jefferson Parish and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.

“It’s probably best for all of the court itself and the public that everyone knows this matter is going to be heard by someone who is not associated whatsoever,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. Moore added that Colvin’s comments placed all of the judges in a difficult position.

Colvin’s defense attorney, Frank Holthaus, opposed the appointment of an ad hoc judge, claiming prosecutors had skirted proper procedure in their request and were essentially shopping for a judge to their liking.

“They made a decision and we’ll work with it,” Holthaus said of the ruling.

Colvin, who was indicted with five co-defendants last month on several charges, including malfeasance in office, has admitted swiping some 22 kilograms of cocaine from the evidence vault and pocketing thousands of dollars distributing it.

He is expected to plead guilty to one or more charges, and prosecutors said he faces a minimum of 15 years behind bars due to the amount of cocaine involved.

Holthaus has said Colvin was suffering from severe substance-abuse issues at the time he took the cocaine.

The controversy began shortly after the indictment was handed down when all but two local judges sought to avoid the awkward position of potentially having to decide whether to send a colleague’s child to prison.

Colvin’s position at the Clerk of Court’s Office — and his familiarity with local officials — only added to the potential for conflicts of interest.

After the case was re-allotted to Clark, prosecutors contended it should have been assigned to District Judge Don Johnson, the remaining jurist who had not recused himself and primarily handles criminal cases.

They said the allotment was improper because court rules called for the case to be randomly assigned to a criminal section.

Prosecutors later asked the Louisiana Supreme Court to appoint a special judge, saying Clark’s involvement had “created the further appearance of impropriety.” The defense resisted, calling the prosecution’s attempt a “poorly disguised effort to return to the days when prosecutors dictated which cases were assigned to which judges.”

The back-and-forth continued Wednesday in dueling court filings in the hours before the high court’s decision.

The prosecution filed court papers suggesting it was ironic that Clark removed herself from a criminal case involving her own son in 1997, yet declined to recuse herself from a case involving the son of a colleague.

The filing noted the local bench had also recused itself many years ago in a robbery case involving state District Judge Mike Erwin’s sons.

The cocaine smuggling case also led to charges against former Clerk of Court employee Debra Vicknair Bell, 55, who is charged along with Colvin with malfeasance in office and possessing more than 400 grams of cocaine.

Bell’s son, Colt Bell, 29, and Terrance Sloan Ramirez, 30, are accused of extorting Colvin to commit more thefts from the evidence vault. Charged with possession of stolen cocaine are Deroy Joseph, 40, and Larry Collins, 26.