Latest legal round in often-delayed St. John murder case set for Monday

More than five years after a Reserve couple was charged with killing their 8-year-old son, a state judge will hear a motion Monday to dismiss the charges on the grounds of double jeopardy.

Errol and Tonya Victor have been indicted three times in the death of M.L. Lloyd III — Tonya’s son and Errol’s stepson — since the boy was pronounced dead at River Parishes Hospital in LaPlace in April 2008. The most recent indictment is the focus of the motion slated for a hearing in 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard.

Covington attorney Stephen Yazbeck, who has a petition pending before the court to enroll as the Victors’ counsel, is seeking to dismiss the second-degree murder charges against them, arguing that when the couple’s second indictment was dismissed, it should have been the end of the matter because state prosecutors’ appeal of the dismissal failed.

“A motion to quash acts (as) a final judgment and acquittal if an appeal is denied or is never taken,” Yazbeck wrote in a court filing in July.

The defense motion says that bringing the same charges once again “raises fundamental double jeopardy concerns,” and warns that allowing it would give prosecutors the upper hand. The state attorney general’s office is prosecuting the case.

“It is more burdensome for a defendant to face charges in separate proceedings, and if those proceedings are strung out over a lengthy period of time the defendant is forced to live in a continuing state of uncertainty,” the defense filing states. “At the same time, multiple prosecutions allow the state to hone its trial strategies through successive attempts at conviction.”

In the five years since young Lloyd died, the Victors have steadily maintained their innocence, saying the boy suffered a severe asthma attack that was provoked by fighting with his brothers. But authorities say the boy’s body was badly beaten. The death certificate listed the cause as “asphyxia due to neck compression,” and an autopsy showed extensive bruising, according to news reports at the time.

Errol Victor Sr., now 48, was initially charged with first-degree murder, while Tonya Victor, now 39, was charged with cruelty to a juvenile and being a principal to first-degree murder. In a twist, the boy’s stepbrother, Errol Victor Jr., who took the child to the hospital, was charged as an accessory, though that charge was not pursued.

In the wake of the first indictment, Tonya Victor allegedly acknowledged to sheriff’s deputies that she had hit Lloyd with a belt as punishment for bad behavior the day he died. That led prosecutors to convene a second St. John the Baptist Parish grand jury, which returned an indictment against the couple in 2009, charging both with second-degree murder. That meant prosecutors needed to prove the couple intended to inflict great bodily harm, but not necessarily to kill the boy.

But a state judge later granted a motion to vacate that indictment because a St. John sheriff’s deputy serving on the second grand jury panel had worn a shirt advertising his employment with the department. In April 2010, the couple was indicted for the third time in two years.

The case was set for trial in August 2011, but the Victors fled on the eve of the proceedings. They dodged authorities for nearly eight months before being captured in Tifton, Ga., hours after their case was featured on an episode of the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” Three months later, the couple was extradited to Louisiana.

It’s been a slow haul since then. Errol Victor Sr., representing himself in court, has filed several handwritten motions over the past year. Several sought to recuse Judge Mary Hotard Becnel from the case, as well as all other judges in St. John Parish, instead requesting the state Supreme Court to appoint a panel of special judges. Becnel denied the requests.

In a motion last year, Errol Victor accused Becnel of “aiding and abetting in treason against the United States of America” if she refused to step down from the case. He also has alleged the judge has a “bias because of pre-emptive knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceedings.”

The Victors have hired and fired their attorneys nearly a dozen times in the past five years, according to some estimates, leading to the baton now being passed from Errol Victor representing himself to Yazbeck, if his motion to enroll in the case is granted.

Though Becnel tried to discourage the defendants from self-representation, Errol Victor has been adamant.

During a hearing in 2010, he told the court that “nobody can represent me better than myself.” Becnel agreed to give him that chance, but she also appointed public defenders as advisers, despite the Victors’ objections.

“They disagree with our defense strategy. They totally ignore us,” Errol Victor complained about his lawyers at the time, according to news reports, even though he had no legal background.

“We want to represent ourselves because we want to be in charge of the strategy of the case without it being dictated to us.”

Lionel Lon Burns, who had two stints representing the couple, believes that the case has dragged on long enough.

“I think that if the state had a case, they should’ve taken them to trial on that first, and not the bail-jumping charge,” Burns said. “I’ve never been convinced by the evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt.” But Burns said that his former client was ill-advised to try to go it on his own. “Mr. Victor doesn’t realize that a skilled attorney is going to make the legal decisions. That was my biggest problem, getting him to understand that you have to take the advice of counsel.”

If — as some have suggested — the Victors were trying to delay the trial by swapping out attorneys, that may not have been the best approach, said Pamela Metzger, a law professor at Tulane University.

“The judge has no obligation to give them a new lawyer, and so you don’t get into the continuance question,” Metzger said. “On the other hand, when you have the money to retain counsel, you do have the opportunity to keep employing or re-employing or unemploying your counsel, until the point at which it interferes with the orderly process of the trial.”

But Metzger believes rotating through lawyers as a stalling tactic isn’t a viable option.

“People who are serious about trying to avoid the process of a trial, I think you often see them try both legitimate, substantive means, and illegitimate, illegal means, but the idea of repeatedly changing lawyers for the purpose of delay is ultimately a self-defeating proposition,” she said.