Inside Report: Guilty pleas save heartache of trials

Defendants in two emotionally charged criminal cases in the Felicianas, and their attorneys, spared a large number of people the horrifying ordeal of participating, in one fashion or another, in criminal trials this year.

Brett Gerald, who’ll be 31 on May 30 — exactly one year after he killed seven Baton Rouge residents in a head-on collision on Plank Road in East Feliciana Parish — pleaded guilty in December to seven counts of vehicular homicide.

Minutes after Gerald answered, “Guilty,” seven times before 20th Judicial District Judge William G. Carmichael, Brenda Sinclair, of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Gerald’s decision to plead guilty was “a no-brainer” given the evidence but his pleas spared the families the horror of listening to gruesome testimony in a trial.

“He did not want to put the victims’ families, or his own family, through a trial, so as a result he took those actions,” explained Tommy Damico, Gerald’s attorney.

Many others expressed a sense of relief in March when Trevor Reese, 19, dropped his insanity defense and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the incomprehensible June 10, 2010, throat-slashing death of an 8-year-old boy from Clinton on a biking trail in The Bluffs on Thompson Creek.

Jackson “Jack” Attuso was attacked in the woods by the then-16-year-old and killed in a manner as gruesome as it was inexplicable.

Some testimony was given in the case soon after the youth was arrested, but it came during a closed hearing when the judge decided to try Reese as an adult.

When the courtroom doors reopened, several court officials could be seen dabbing at their eyes with tissues.

Brett Gerald’s sentence has been the subject of two emotional hearings, but Reese is awaiting sentencing.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled some years ago that juvenile defendants cannot be put to death, the only penalty left for Reese when he killed the 8-year-old was life in prison without parole.

Last year, however, the Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that mandating a life sentence for a juvenile without any consideration for the possibility of parole is unconstitutional.

Carmichael said he will set a sentencing hearing after the state Legislature amends Louisiana’s first- and second-degree murder statutes.

In questioning Reese about his plea, Carmichael twice asked the youth if he understood the hearing still could result in a life sentence without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. Reese answered he did.

Because prosecution and defense attorneys have agreed not to discuss the case while it’s still pending, the reason for Reese’s decision to plead guilty is not clear.

The sentence in the Gerald case became even more complicated by a March state Supreme Court ruling that vehicular homicide is a crime of violence for which a defendant must serve 85 percent of a sentence. Although relatives of the victims protested vehemently, the judge resentenced Gerald to seven consecutive five-year terms instead of the original seven consecutive 10-year terms.

Because of the state’s “good time” law, Gerald would have been eligible for supervised release after serving 28 years of the original 70-year sentence. Now, with a 35-year sentence, he apparently will be eligible for release after 29 years and nine months. That’s more time for less time.

James Minton covers Baker, Zachary and the Felicianas for The Advocate. His email address is jminton@theadvocate.com.