By Bill Lodge
Advocate staff writer
May 29, 2012
A former Baton Rouge deputy constable, serving life in prison for murder, has twice beaten state officials in a lawsuit over religious freedom.
The case of Henry Lee Leonard, 56, now moves to a national stage at the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced Tuesday that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has appealed for reversal of the lower court rulings.
Through Communications Director Amanda Larkins, Caldwell and his assistant attorneys general declined Friday to comment on the case.
“We’ll let the petition speak for itself,” Larkins said.
In that petition, Caldwell argues that U.S. District Judge Donald E. Walter, of Shreveport, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans incorrectly concluded it was wrong for state officials to deny Leonard access to “The Final Call,” a weekly newsletter published by the Nation of Islam and led by Louis Farrakhan.
Caldwell said in the petition that the newsletter’s back cover contains a statement known as “The Muslim Program,” which prison officials have argued could lead to racial conflict among inmates.
Walter ruled in September 2010, however, that “denial of access to ‘The Final Call’ based solely on the inclusion of ‘The Muslim Program’ is a violation of the First Amendment” freedom of speech. The judge added that the ban also violates a state-law guarantee of religious freedom for inmates.
In November 2011, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed Walter’s decision.
“ ‘The Final Call’ is objectionable to the prison officials only because it regularly includes ‘The Muslim Program,’ ” said 5th Circuit Judges Thomas M. Reavley, of Houston; Emilio M. Garza, of San Antonio; and James E. Graves Jr., of Jackson, Miss.
“We agree with the district court that banning the entire newspaper is not justified,” the appellate judges wrote.
Leonard is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in the continuing dispute.
“This is a very important religious-freedom case,” Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said Friday. “And the law is clear: There is no basis for this decision to be overturned” by the Supreme Court.
“This is nothing more than an unfair delay for Mr. Leonard, who is being denied his right to exercise his right to freedom of religion,” Esman added. “And it’s unfair to the people of Louisiana, who will have to pay a bigger bill when this is all over.”
“The Muslim Program” is on the The Nation of Islam’s website at http://www.noi.org.
The program’s first three goals are those of freedom, justice and equality, according to the website:
The program has another goal: The establishment of a separate state or territory at the expense of “our former slave masters,” who would be required to fund all needs in that territory “for the next 20 to 25 years.”
“The Muslim Program” also wants “freedom for all Believers of Islam now held in federal prisons. We want freedom for all black men and women now under death sentence in innumerable prisons in the North as well as the South.”
Another plank in the program: “We want the government of the United States to exempt our people from ALL taxation as long as we are deprived of equal justice under the laws of the land.”
In his request for reversal by the Supreme Court, Caldwell noted that Leonard has been a member of the Nation of Islam for 25 years. Caldwell said the group “embraces black superiority and supremacy as fundamental tenets.”
The attorney general said prison officials attempted to avoid a permanent ban on “The Final Call” by asking the Nation of Islam to omit “The Muslim Program” from issues of the publication that are distributed to inmates.
The Nation of Islam “did not respond,” Caldwell told members of the Supreme Court.
Leonard, the man at the focus of the dispute, had a career in law enforcement and a history of domestic violence before the 2003 murder that sent him to prison for life.
Police reports show Leonard was suspended by the Baton Rouge Police Department after a 1998 altercation in which he broke his wife’s wrist. A year later, he was forced to resign after he beat his 14-year-old daughter with a weight-lifting belt and pleaded guilty to a charge of simple battery.
In 2003, Leonard was arrested and indicted for second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a 50-year-old pharmacist, Kenneth LeDeaux, who was dating Leonard’s ex-wife.
Constable Reginald Brown fired Leonard from his deputy’s post after LeDeaux’s death.
Trial testimony — and security videotape from the after-hours medical clinic where his ex-wife worked — showed Leonard fired three bullets into LeDeaux as he left the clinic. Leonard then wrestled the body into the trunk of LeDeaux’s Infiniti.
Leonard’s ex-wife witnessed the shooting and immediately called 911 from the clinic.
Police officers stopped Leonard as he walked toward his Ford Explorer with LeDeaux’s blood on his clothes.