Defense attorneys want death penalty excluded in killing of deputies
A state judge is expected to rule in November on a defense motion to take the death penalty off the table for one of the two anti-government extremists accused of gunning down a pair of St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies last year.
During a 20-minute hearing Thursday in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard, the two accused gunmen, Brian Smith and Kyle Joekel, said little. Both men are charged with capital murder and face the possibility of execution if convicted of killing Deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche during a shoot-out at a LaPlace mobile home park in August 2012.
Brian Smith’s father, Terry Smith, who is charged as principal to attempted first-degree murder, also attended the hearing.
In a motion filed in July, Richard Bourke, an attorney representing Brian Smith, said his client suffers from “severe mental illness,” and argued that sentencing him to the death penalty would be “excessive.”
The filing also argued that Louisiana is “out of step with the national consensus against executing the severely mentally ill.”
The number of death sentences handed down statewide each year has fallen steadily in recent years, from 315 in 1996 to 78 in 2012, according to the filing. Louisiana is one of five states where someone who is mentally ill can be sentenced to death.
Bourke called the state “a significant outlier from the rest of the nation” and said Louisiana has “fallen behind the nation’s evolving standards of decency.”
He declined to detail the nature of the illness in the filing, but Smith’s loved ones have described him as being a paranoid schizophrenic. The motion said Smith faces an uphill climb in the courtroom due to claims about his condition.
“Defendants suffering from serious mental illness are more likely to be poor witnesses, to express a lack of remorse, to obstruct counsel’s efforts, and to have a demeanor at trial that appears strange or disturbing to jurors,” the motion states.
In the state’s opposition to the motion, Justin Lacour, a St. John Parish assistant district attorney, argued that no federal or state Supreme Court decision recognized mental illness as a reason to bar execution in and of itself. “Rather, the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure provides that evidence of a capital defendant’s mental illness is a mitigating circumstance which the jury may consider during the penalty phase,” the filing states.
On Thursday, Judge Sterling Snowdy, who is handling the case, postponed the motion until November.
Snowdy also took under advisement another motion filed by Joekel’s attorney, Bruce Whittaker, seeking to quash the indictment, claiming that a “short-form” indictment used by St. John sheriff’s deputies was flawed because it did not allege the aggravating circumstances necessary to push the charge from second- to first-degree murder, which is punishable by death. In Louisiana, that would include a suspect having a specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm upon a police officer in the line of duty.
Snowdy in July denied a similar motion filed by Brian Smith’s attorney.
At the time, Bourke claimed St. John District Attorney Tom Daley failed to properly instruct the grand jury on the elements of a first-degree murder charge required to indict his client.
But in his judgment, Snowdy ruled that because the grand jury indicted Smith for intentionally killing more than one deputy sheriff who was on duty, their action “demonstrates that the requisite factual findings were made by the grand jurors, even though they were not specifically instructed.”
Snowdy ruled that the district attorney acted appropriately and chided Bourke for claiming otherwise. “Allegations such as these are not taken lightly by this court, or any other court for that matter, and defense counsel would be well-advised to withhold any further allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that are so wholly lacking in factual or legal support,” the judge wrote.
State prosecutors opposed the motion to squash Joekel’s indictment, arguing that prohibitions against the short-form indictment only applied to federal prosecutions.
The family accused in the killings have ties to the Sovereign Citizens, a loose-knit, anti-government extremist group described by the FBI as domestic terrorists.
Seven people were initially charged in the 2012 massacre. Three still await trial.