Recent acquittals highlight ‘reasonable doubt’
“The lesson to be learned here is you need verifiable, hard core evidence to go forward. The cops and detectives need to do a better job for our district attorney.” Joel Porter, attorney
East Baton Rouge Parish juries have handed down acquittals in several high-profile murder cases in the past 17 months, three of them this year, but the parish’s current and former chief prosecutors say it would be foolhardy to suggest — as some local criminal defense lawyers have — that the numbers signify a trend.
Still, attorneys for some of the acquitted defendants, as well as attorneys not involved in those cases, contend it’s clear juries are becoming better informed — thanks in part to technological advances and television crime shows such as CSI — and are holding prosecutors’ feet to the fire when it comes to their stringent burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Ten years ago, you would have never seen this,” lawyer Rodney Messina said of the string of recent acquittals in murder cases. “Am I happy? Yes. But remember, tomorrow’s another day.”
Stephen Sterling, an East Baton Rouge Parish public defender, said his faith in the system has been restored by recent events.
“Juries are now becoming a lot more educated on following the law as opposed to their feelings and emotions. They’re a lot more savvy now,” he observed last week.
Former East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Doug Moreau, who held the job for 18 years before leaving office in January 2009, said it’s important to remember each case is unique with its own set of facts as well as different witnesses and jurors.
“If somebody were to call that a trend, I don’t know how you could accurately call that a trend,” he said of the not guilty verdicts in four murder cases since mid-2012. “Each one of these cases is so unique on its own merit.”
It was on May 11, 2012, that nationally renowned Baton Rouge rap artist Torence “Lil Boosie” Hatch was found not guilty in the alleged murder-for-hire of Terry Boyd on Vermillion Drive in 2009.
Hatch, who was charged with first-degree murder, continues to serve time on various drug-related charges.
This year, juries acquitted Mark David Young on April 20 in the 2011 shooting death of Derrick Casey on Gracie Street; Charles Young (no relation to Mark Young) on Aug. 29 in the 2009 fatal shooting of Denham Springs couple Dustin and Beth Duncan on Canonicus Street; and Casey Gathers and Michael Jermaine Lewis on Oct. 7 in the 2007 shooting deaths of LSU graduate students Kiran Allam and Chandrasekhar Komma, both of India, at the Edward Gay Apartments on the north side of campus.
Messina said what the acquittals signify to him is a Constitution at work.
“Reasonable doubt means a lot in our Constitution. Reasonable doubt is a tough burden,” he said.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the reasonable doubt standard is much higher than the probable cause standard that police must have to make an arrest.
Despite his acquittal, Charles Young continues to serve a 137-month federal prison term after pleading guilty in 2009 to cocaine possession.
Prosecutors dismissed second-degree murder charges against his co-defendant, Cedrick Kelly, in 2011 in the murder case.
Lewis is under indictment on a second-degree murder charge in a case unrelated to the LSU double-murder.
Moore maintains his belief the evidence was strong enough to convict Gathers and Lewis and insists his office won’t be deterred by any single jury decision.
“The people can be assured: We’re going to continue doing our job. We accept our burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said, adding he respects jury decisions.
“We try the cases that we feel need to be tried based on the evidence. We are not afraid of the hard cases. We’re not just going to try a case because we think we can win. We let the jury make the decision.”
Moore said his office tried 37 cases in 2010 and lost one, tried 42 cases in 2011 and lost three, tried 48 cases in 2012 and lost three and has tried 47 cases this year with eight losses.
He added his office chooses not to prosecute numerous cases due to insufficient evidence.
“We’re not going to prosecute anyone who is factually innocent,” he said.
Joel Porter, one of Mark Young’s attorneys, said the acquittal in that case should send a message to police and prosecutors.
“The lesson to be learned here is you need verifiable, hardcore evidence to go forward,” he said, adding he believes the police investigation of the Gracie Street killing was flawed.
“The cops and detectives need to do a better job for our district attorney.”
“It’s going to ensure in the future that everyone does their job,” said Laurie Tate, another local public defender, said of the impact of the recent acquittals.
Tate said she realizes juries are under enormous pressure, particularly in high-profile cases.
“The public wants to see a conviction. They want to see someone pay,” she said. “But not everyone who is accused is guilty. Period.”
Porter called on Moore’s office to drop the prosecution of Mark Young’s co-defendant, Cardale Green, who is scheduled to stand trial March 24.
Porter also is one of Green’s attorneys.
“They’re going to lose this case too,” Porter predicted. “The evidence hasn’t changed. It’s the same evidence.”
Moore said a different trier of facts may view the evidence in a different way.
Green has waived his right to a jury trial and will be tried by state District Judge Don Johnson, who presided over Mark Young’s jury trial.
One of the jurors in the Mark Young case said last week he was prepared to cast a guilty vote but ultimately cast a not guilty vote because he feared something might happen to him and his family if he was the lone dissent.
“I voted for not guilty because I didn’t want to single myself out,” said the 55-year-old Baton Rouge man, who chose to remain anonymous. “I hated to let the guy go. I lost sleep over it for months.”
The juror, however, also acknowledged there were enough loose ends in the case to acquit Young, as the jury did unanimously.
“The prosecutor never put it together. It was kind of loosely put together,” he said. “They (his fellow jurors) wanted the prosecutor to paint a picture.
“She never painted a picture. The dots weren’t connected. They just didn’t tie it up. There was enough doubt. That’s why I went along.”
The juror said Young claimed he was not at the house where the shooting occurred but was in the area at the time at the home of a man named Slim.
The juror said police never tried to verify that information.
Gail Ray, who represents Charles Young, said she believes his case highlighted the perils of putting persons who may have an agenda — convicted felons and deal-makers — on the witness stand in an attempt to convict someone.
“I think there’s a problem when someone gets a benefit from testifying. It doesn’t mean they’re lying, but it’s problematic,” she said.
Ray said the prosecution’s case was built around two convicted and imprisoned felons — Tyrus McDowell and Joseph Nixon.
At trial, Ray told the jury that Nixon — who is facing a possible life sentence as a habitual offender — “wants to go from a career criminal to a professional witness.”
In the Charles Young and Hatch trials, Moore said key witnesses changed the stories they gave police.
“Just because witnesses change their stories, we’re not going to give up,” he said. “We just can’t let that tail wag the dog.”
Prosecutors argued at Hatch’s trial that Michael “Marlo Mike” Louding, who told police in 2010 that Hatch paid him $2,800 to kill Boyd, lied to the jury when he testified he and Hatch had nothing to do with Boyd’s death.
Moore points out that, in addition to Louding’s about-face, Adrian Pittman — the getaway driver in the Boyd killing — did not testify at Hatch’s trial.
When Louding was tried in April in the slaying of Boyd, Pittman did testify and Louding was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, he said.
In the Charles Young case, McDowell testified that everything he told police was untrue.
He had implicated Young and Kelly in the murder of the Duncans.
“It’s difficult when a witness changes his story,” Moore said.
In the LSU double-murder, the prosecution’s case essentially hinged on the testimony of an alleged accomplice, Devin Jamell Parker, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery and accessory charges and is awaiting sentencing Oct. 21.
Moreau conceded such a proposition is always dicey.
“Those kinds of cases are difficult because they rely so much on how the trier of fact will perceive the testimony. It’s impossible to know ahead of time,” he said, likening the experience to going on a blind date.
Parker, who gave police three videotaped statements that contain a number of inconsistencies, agreed to testify at the trial of Gathers and Lewis as part of his 2011 plea agreement.
In his closing argument to the jury, former East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutor Beau Brock, one of Gathers’ attorneys, alleged Parker was the conductor of a runaway train that the District Attorney’s Office refused to get off.
He said the train was not bound for glory, but instead carried nothing but liars and the unholy.
“The words of a liar alone are not enough to send a person to jail for the rest of his life,” Brock told reporters after the verdicts were announced.
Moore, who said the jury was looking for more evidence to tie Gathers and Lewis to the crime, spoke with the jury after the trial about plea agreements.
“They said they didn’t have a problem with that. They understood,” the district attorney said, adding when given the chance he also asks jurors for their thoughts about how law enforcement could have done better.
“They had some concerns about some parts of the (LSU double-murder) investigation,” Moore said while not elaborating specifically on what the jury said in that regard.
Moore said he made a pledge when he took office in January 2009 to try cases even if they were difficult or old, such as the 1985 rape and beating death of Tina Marie Kristynik, 19, at her Silverthorn Avenue home, the 2003 killing of Vietnamese grocer Xuan Duong at his Baton Rouge Avenue store, and the 2004 slaying of Alan Waters at his Woodlake Drive home in White Oak Landing.
Jan Waters pleaded guilty in October 2010 to manslaughter in the killing of her ex-husband and was sentenced to 20 years in prison; Vernon Kennedy was convicted in December 2010 of second-degree murder in Kristynik’s death and was sentenced to life in prison; and Joseph Brown was found guilty in September of second-degree murder in Duong’s killing and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Messina said it’s wise for a district attorney’s office not to duck the difficult cases.
“It looks worse if you sweep it under the rug,” he said.