Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Watch | Opinion

How a fired prosecutor became the most powerful law enforcement official in Louisiana

By Radley Balko

November 2, 2017 at 9:00 AM

Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland speaks during a news conference on Aug. 12, 2016, in Lake Charles, La., after a jury found Felix Vail guilty of murder in the 1962 death of his first wife, who he had claimed accidentally drowned. (Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP)

This past June, the Louisiana legislature passed 10 bills tackling sentencing reform, prisoner rehabilitation, and related criminal-justice reforms. The New York Times editorial board called the effort “one of the most ambitious criminal-justice reform packages in the country.” The reforms took effect recently, and supporters cite a Pew Charitable Trusts study that claims that the bills will reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent over the next 10 years.

There’s a good case to be made that the bills are historic. The state’s incarceration rate is about double the national average. If it were an independent country, Louisiana would lead the world in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizens. And even as much of the rest of the country began moving toward decarceration years ago, up until this recent series of bills, Louisiana only continued to get more punitive. So any move toward decreasing the state’s prison population would be a landmark shift in strategy.

But some defense attorneys and reform advocates say that all is not as rosy it seems in Louisiana. They say the state could have done a lot more, and see the reform package as a missed opportunity. “Louisiana leads the country in incarceration,” says G. Ben Cohen, a defense attorney who takes cases in Louisiana through the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative. “And after these bills, it will still lead the country in incarceration.” Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) and the package’s supporters are at least a little more optimistic — they say that after 10 years, the new laws will put the state at No. 2.

But the skeptics also say that the state could have done more if weren’t for the one man who is almost single-handedly holding up real criminal-justice reform: Hugo Holland, an old-school prosecutor formerly of the DA’s office that at one point led the state in death sentences. Holland is arguably the most powerful prosecutor in Louisiana, which is odd given that not only has he never run for office, he isn’t even officially a full-time state employee. In fact, Holland was forced to resign his position as an assistant district attorney for Caddo Parish in 2012. He and another prosecutor were caught falsifying federal forms in order to procure a cache of M-16s for themselves through the Pentagon program that give surplus military gear to police departments.

According to pay records obtained by the Promise of Justice Initiative and shared with The Watch, almost immediately after he was fired, Holland was re-hired by parishes all over the state as a part-time prosecutor. Some DAs have given him their most serious and high-profile cases — death penalty cases in particular. In fact, by 2015, thanks to those freelance gigs, Holland had doubled the salary he was earning when he resigned.

Perhaps more importantly, Holland has also been hired by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association — with public funding — to persuade state legislators to vote against criminal-justice reform. So far, he has successfully scuttled momentum to end the death penalty in Louisiana, and persuaded lawmakers to divert money from indigent defendants in death penalty cases. He was less successful in killing the reforms passed in June, but some reform advocates say he did persuade lawmakers to vote down the reforms that most worried prosecutors.

“Hugo Holland captures everything that’s wrong with the criminal-justice system in Louisiana,” says Cohen. And his sudden ascendance and popularity with prosecutors has some activists worried that the state’s taste for reform may be short-lived.

Bayou rot

According to a recent report by a state task force, since the late 1970s, the number of state prisoners in Louisiana has increased at 30 times faster than the state’s population. Most of these offenders aren’t violent: Of every five people behind bars in Louisiana, four were put there for nonviolent crimes, and the most common crime for which people in the state are incarcerated is drug possession. The state still hands down life sentences for juveniles, despite recent Supreme Court rulings that such sentences should be rare. Currently, Louisiana is one of a handful of states where more than 10 percent of the prison population is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

And then there’s the death penalty. Here too, the state suffers all the problems of other death penalty states, but on a grander scale. Start with the racial disparity: One recent study found that killers of white victims in Louisiana are over five times more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of black victims. Another recent study found that four out of every five death sentences in the state since 1976 have been reversed, and for every three people the state has executed since then, one person sentenced to death has been exonerated.

There’s also an ongoing problem of prosecutor misconduct: In 2003, the New York Times reported that some of the state’s prosecutors threw themselves parties after winning death sentences. Some wore neckties with images of nooses or of the grim reaper. In Jefferson Parish, prosecutors were rewarded for every victory in a death penalty case with a plaque engraved with a needle and the name of the condemned. One prosecutor from that parish, James Williams, kept a miniature electric chair on his desk that delivered a small shock when touched. In 1995, he showed a reporter from Esquire how he had decorated the mini-chair with photos of the five men he’d sent to death row. Four of those five would later have their death sentences overturned. Two have since been exonerated.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv reported in 2016 that Louisiana has had 128 death sentences overturned since 1976 — 25 for prosecutorial misconduct. Only two were overturned by state judges, who tend to be former prosecutors. Federal courts intervened in all of the others. Incredibly, 11 people who at one point were condemned to die in Louisiana have since been been declared innocent and released.

The longtime dean of Louisiana prosecutors was Harry Connick Sr., the New Orleans district attorney who served from 1973 to 2003. Connick’s office had a notoriously shoddy record of sharing evidence with defense attorneys. Press accounts from the 1990s depict state and federal judges increasingly fed up with the office, going so far as to order some prosecutors to take classes on how to abide by the rules of evidence. In 1995, Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote that Connick’s office had “descend[ed] to a gladiatorial level unmitigated by any prosecutorial obligation for the sake of the truth.” Connick responded to the ruling by saying he had stopped reading legal opinions a long time ago, and saw “no need” to make any changes to any of his office policies.

No state has a higher rate of reversed convictions than Louisiana, yet misbehaving prosecutors in the state are rarely held accountable. Back in 2013 I interviewed Charles Plattsmier, the head of the Louisiana State Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Plattsmier told me at the time that in his 17 years on the job, he could only think of three instances in which a prosecutor had been disciplined for misconduct. One of those was Michael Riehlmann, a former prosecutor who revealed that another prosecutor in a death penalty case had confessed to him to hiding exculpatory evidence. That evidence later exonerated John Thompson, who had been wrongly convicted of two felonies — a murder and an armed robbery — and outlived eight death warrants. And yet Riehlmann, whose actions likely spared Thompson from execution, was the only prosecutor from Thompson’s case to face any discipline — because he had waited five years before coming forward. (John Thompson recently died of a heart attack.)

If Louisiana is arguably the most punitive state in America, Caddo Parish, home to the city of Shreveport, is likely the most punitive in Louisiana. Caddo lies in the far northwestern corner of the state. Long and thin on the map, the parish is bordered on the east by the squiggly 19th-century contours of the Red River. It’s home to an Air Force base and a Harrah’s Casino and, thanks to some tax breaks for Hollywood, the city has been the backdrop for several movies.

In 2015, a writer in the New Orleans Advocate called the death penalty a “cottage industry” in Shreveport. Caddo Parish led the country in death sentences per capita for some time, and between 2010 and 2014 was responsible for three of every four people sent to Louisiana’s death row. It is also among the 2 percent of U.S. counties responsible for more than half of America’s death sentences.

In their vigor to send suspects to death row, Caddo prosecutors have been known to invoke the wrath of God, and to instruct to jurors that no less than Jesus himself would demand that they hand down the ultimate penalty. That sort of unapologetic fire-and-brimstoning has attracted a lot of media attention. In just the last several years, the culture in the district attorney’s office has been profiled in the New Yorker, the New York Times, “60 Minutes,” the Economist, a host of other national and international publications.

Caddo also seems to have a race problem. Aviv pointed out last year in the New Yorker that 77 percent of the people sentenced to die in the parish have been black, though blacks make up only about 49 percent of the population. Of the black people Caddo has sent to death row, almost half were sentenced for killing white people. Meanwhile, despite a long and ugly history of racial terrorism by white supremacist groups (the parish once carried the well-earned nickname “Bloody Caddo”), a Caddo jury has never sentenced a white person to die for killing a black person. One 2015 study found that over the previous decade, prosecutors in the parish used peremptory challenges three times as often to strike black people from juries as others. To look at it another way, Caddo prosecutors bumped 46 percent of qualified blacks from juries in criminal cases, vs. just 15 percent of qualified jurors of other races. Earlier this month, the parish’s sheriff complained about the new reform laws, which would allow for the release of some nonviolent prisoners. The sheriff lamented that the prisoners targeted for release were those “we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in our cars, to cook in the kitchens,” comments that to some were reminiscent of convict leasing programs.

But most of the recent national attention on Caddo has centered around Dale Cox, a Bible-quoting longtime assistant district attorney who prosecuted about a third of the people sent to Louisiana’s death row between 2011 and 2015. Aviv profiled Cox in her New Yorker article, looking in particular at the case of Rodricus Crawford, a man convicted and sentenced to death in 2013 for killing his 1-year-old son. Aviv’s article points to convincing evidence that the boy likely died of pneumonia and sepsis. Last November, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the conviction, finding that Cox may have improperly excluded black people from the jury. One justice wrote to express her concern that Crawford had ever been charged in the first place.

Cox was named acting district attorney for the parish in April of 2015, after the death of the elected DA, Charles Rex Scott. That was about the time that the Glenn Ford case made national news. In 1984, an all-white Caddo jury convicted Ford and sentenced him to death for a murder he almost certainly didn’t commit. He was cleared of the crime and released from prison in 2014. The following year the man who prosecuted Ford, A.M. “Marty” Stroud III, wrote a remarkable open letter in the Shreveport Times in which he apologized to Ford and decried the culture of conviction in the DA’s office that compelled him to put away a man he now believes was innocent — and then to celebrate over drinks. “I was 33 years old,” Stroud wrote. “I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning … I end with the hope that providence will have more mercy for me than I showed Glenn Ford. But, I am also sobered by the realization that I certainly am not deserving of it.”

When Ford was exonerated and released after nearly 30 years in prison, the state of Louisiana put him back on the street with only a $20 debit card. When Ford petitioned the state to compensate him, Cox publicly opposed the petition. Cox won when a state judge determined that while Ford likely didn’t commit the murder, he may have had knowledge of the robbery that led to it. Ford died of lung cancer in 2015 without receiving another dime from the state.

As the spotlight warmed in the wake of the Ford case, Cox didn’t do himself any favors. In an interview about the Ford case with the Shreveport Times, Cox said of the death penalty, “I think we need to kill more people. The death penalty should be used more often. We need it more now than ever and we use it less.” He added, “We’re not considered a society anymore — we’re a jungle.” (Cox did not respond to a request for an interview.) It’s worth noting that as with the rest of the country, violent crime in both Shreveport and Louisiana has sharply fallen since the early 1990s.

The national attention put Caddo in the crosshairs of criminal-justice reformers, and eventually did bring some change to Shreveport. George Soros himself began spending money to put fresh blood in the DA’s office. Local Republicans, worried about whether Cox could be elected to continue serving, persuaded him not to run. Instead, they nominated Dhu Thompson, another fixture of the office who ran on a law-and-order platform. But it appeared that voters had finally had enough. In 2015, Caddo Parish elected former judge James E. Stewart Jr. as its first-ever black DA. Stewart beat Thompson, the bearer of the status quo, by a healthy 10-point margin.

But the punitive, law-and-order school still isn’t dead in Louisiana, or even in Caddo. It lives on in Hugo Holland. And ironically, his firing five years ago appears to have freed him to become one of the most influential law enforcement officials in Louisiana.

A true believer

“If it weren’t for Caddo Parish, capital punishment would have been largely phased out in Louisiana by now,” wrote New Orleans Advocate columnist James Gill in 2015. “And Caddo largely owes its preeminence to just two prosecutors, Dale Cox and Hugo Holland.” Over one five-year stretch, the two men alone secured six death sentences in a parish of just 256,000 people.

In a recent profile of Holland, the Baton Rouge Advocate describes Holland’s office, which the reporter likened more to a war room. The walls are decorated with World War II memorabilia, a radio terminal and two dozen long guns. There is an ultrasound photo of the child Holland and his wife were expecting when the profile was written, just next to a photo of prisoners laboring at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Holland named his cat after John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he told the paper is “the most maligned man in U.S. history.” Holland also keeps a portrait of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in his office. Holland told the Advocate that he admired Forrest for his command of cavalry, not his racism.

In an era in which the death penalty is waning in much of the country, and in a state with a history of sending innocent men to death row, Holland remains blunt and unapologetic about capital punishment. “If a stray kitten was hit in the street, I’d pick it up and take it to the vet, pay the bill and then try to adopt it out,” Holland told the Advocate. “But it would not faze me in the least to watch a man executed, and that would include hanging or firing squad.”

Over his career, Holland has personally sent 10 men to Louisiana’s death row. Half of those convictions have since been overturned, and two more are currently facing court challenges. In at least three cases he has been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence. In one of those cases, the man Holland wanted to execute was mentally disabled and was 16 at the time the crime was committed. There’s also persuasive evidence that he is innocent. (Note: In an email exchange, Holland agreed to consider answering a list of questions pertaining to this article. After receiving the questions, he responded: “As i suspected, most of the information upon which you predicate your questions is incorrect. I will let you know within the next several days whether i wish to participate.” The following day he wrote, “I do not believe you will consider or publish any answers I provide. You will have to do your hit piece without my help.”)

Holland began his work as a prosecutor in Caddo Parish in 1991. He won his first death sentence the next year. His name first appeared in the national media after the exoneration of Calvin Willis, who was convicted in 1982 for the rape of a 10-year-old girl. Willis was released more than 20 years after his conviction when a test confirmed the DNA found on fingernail scrapings taken from the victim matched the DNA found in a pair of boxer shorts left at the crime scene — and neither matched Willis’s. Holland wasn’t yet out of law school when Willis was convicted, but by the time Willis’s attorneys were able to get DNA testing years later, Holland was chief of the Caddo Parish sex crimes unit. As GQ reported in 2007, even after the DNA test, Holland made “a concerted effort to ensure that Calvin Willis retain[ed] the stigma of child rape.” Holland told the magazine, “Calvin Willis is not innocent. He’s just not guilty. . . . [Just] because we didn’t find Calvin Willis’s DNA on the underwear doesn’t mean that he didn’t leave them there.”

Holland also contributed a quote that may provide some insight into how he approaches his job. “There is no reason whatsoever for us to ever say that the legal system made a mistake,” he said. That was in 2007. Willis was the 138th person to be exonerated by DNA testing.

In fact, Holland himself would go on to make the mistakes he told GQ never happened. In 1999, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that he had withheld exculpatory evidence in the death penalty case against Bobby Lee Hampton. However, because the court also ruled that the evidence wouldn’t have affected the verdict in the case, the justices still upheld Hampton’s conviction.

More recently, there’s the case of David Brown, one of five Angola prisoners accused of murdering a guard during an attempted escape. Holland was brought in as a special prosecutor to try the case in 2011. In June of that year, Holland and another prosecutor interviewed an inmate who told them that two of the five men had admitted to him that they acted alone in killing the guard — that Brown had no part in the murder. That interview was never turned over to Brown’s attorneys.

Holland went on to win a conviction and death sentence for Brown, who was already serving a life sentence for a separate second-degree murder committed in 1992. In 2014, a state judge overturned Brown’s death sentence, citing the state’s failure to turn over the interview. Holland and the state appealed, and eventually won at the Louisiana Supreme Court, which held that the interview wasn’t material to Brown’s conviction and death sentence. The court found that the jury likely would have convicted even if they had been made aware of the interview.

Brown’s attorneys followed up with a complaint against Holland with the state bar. That complaint went nowhere. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel found that because the state’s supreme court ruled that the evidence Holland withheld wasn’t material in the Brown case, and the same state supreme court would have the final say over any disciplinary action, the ODC couldn’t sanction Holland for his actions.

Cohen, the Louisiana defense attorney, says it’s a cruel irony for a state so enamored with retributive justice to then go out of its way to excuse rule-breaking by the public officials who administer that justice. “The same people who scream about accountability and personal responsibility when it comes to crimes by low-income black people are constantly looking for ways to excuse one another for prosecutor misconduct,” he says.

The fact that Brown was already in prison for a separate murder and had admitted to participating in a planned escape perhaps doesn’t him make him the most sympathetic figure. But if prosecutorial malfeasance isn’t sanctioned wherever it’s found, it inevitably turns up in the harder cases, too. Corey Williams is a good example. Williams has an IQ of 68, and suffers from the effects of severe lead poisoning as a child. When the police came to arrest him for the murder of a pizza delivery man, they found him cowering under a bed sheet. Williams, 16 at the time, was one of four young men at the house. One of the other men’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon. Another had the victim’s blood on his sweatshirt. And yet only Williams was charged with first-degree murder. Holland was the prosecutor.

For the first several hours of his interrogation, Williams maintained that he played no role in the murder, and his account was consistent with all the other evidence. He said he was with the other teens when the others decided to rob the delivery man. Williams said he wanted no part of it. When one of the boys then shot the delivery man, Williams fled in fear.

Yet after six hours of questioning late into the night, and without food, water or sleep, Williams finally confessed. He told his interrogators, “I’m ready to go home and lay down.” As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in 2015 for Slate, before Williams’s confession, the police had already pieced together the most probable narrative for the crime, based on interviews with the other teens and other witnesses. In that narrative, Williams was innocent. Williams’s confession was nonsensical and didn’t fit with the known evidence. But after he gave it, the other teens changed their stories to implicate him. At Williams’s trial, Holland told the jury that for the other teens to have conspired to frame Williams would be the greatest conspiracy since the murder of JFK.

Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000. Because of his disability, that sentence was later changed to life without parole, over Holland’s objections.

For 10 years, Holland had said that the tapes of the interviews with the other teens didn’t exist. Instead, Williams’s attorneys, the courts and the jury that convicted Williams had to settle for summaries of those interrogations provided by the state. But in 2015, Williams’s attorneys finally obtained the recordings of the police interrogations of the other teens. They were damning. They revealed that not only was Holland wrong about a conspiracy, but even the interrogating officers believed at the time that the other teens were framing Williams.

Holland’s team also failed to turn over a host of other exculpatory evidence, including statements from witnesses who saw one of the other teens carrying the murder weapon both before and immediately after the crime; statements from police investigators themselves indicating they believed Williams was innocent and had been set up by the others; and statements that one of the other teens and his relatives had threatened witnesses to change their stories. (Note: In October, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear Williams’ appeal. There was no opinion, although two justices dissented.)

All of that evidence was withheld by the same prosecutor who is now being hired to handle death penalty cases all over Louisiana.

Zombie killer turned hired gun

The incident that cost Holland his job started in December of 2011, when he and another prosecutor, Lea Hall, falsified documents in an attempt to obtain eight M-16 rifles for themselves through a Pentagon program that gives surplus military equipment to police departments across the country. Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator said that the two prosecutors ordered the guns without his knowledge, and that he wouldn’t approved if they had asked.

This raises the question of why a couple of prosecutors would want a cache of M-16s in the first place. Back in 2009, Hall and Holland formed what they informally called the “Zombie Response Team.” It began as a bunch of prosecutors who got together on their days off to shoot guns and engage in tactical training. It eventually morphed into something quasi-official. Citing deposition testimony, the TV station KTBS reported in 2015 that the prosecutors had “equipped their vehicles with emergency lights and sirens, pulled motorists over, conducted surveillance work and accompanied police officers when warrants were served.” Some members of the “team” also began wearing SWAT-like clothing during work hours, and had designed a patch and license plates with the zombie team’s logo. (One member of the team is now a district court judge.) KTBS quoted from the deposition of one Caddo prosecutor who found it all pretty disturbing: “I went to law school. I’m supposed to go stand in court. I’m not supposed to be at crime scenes … I’m thinking about how stupid it is that they want to go out and play cop.”

Don Ashley, an investigator in the Caddo DA’s office, brought the Zombie Response Team antics to the attention of local officials. He too found it to be inappropriate behavior for a group of prosecutors. When he learned in 2012 that Holland and Hall had attempted to acquire the M-16s, Ashley notified the sheriff. Ashley was then was promptly fired by the DA.

Ashley filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which he settled in 2014 for about $447,000. It was in the depositions from Ashley’s lawsuit that the public first learned about the existence of the Zombie Response Team. Upon learning about the M-16s, Sheriff Prator asked for a state investigation, which revealed the “inaccuracies” in the forms that Hall and Holland had sent to the Pentagon. Any regular citizen who knowingly submitted false information in the hopes of obtaining a cache of M-16s would likely face a litany of criminal charges, including felonies. Hall and Holland were merely asked to resign.

But that forced resignation would prove to be a boon to both Holland’s career and his bank account. Holland recently told the Advocate that he was idle “for about two days” after his resignation before he began to receive freelancing offers from other DAs. Even Caddo, the same parish that fired him, quickly hired him back on a contractual basis. By the end of 2014, a year and a half after his resignation, six parishes were paying Holland between $8,000 and $24,000 to prosecute or review cases. He made at least $126,000 from freelance prosecuting in 2014, already more than the $120,540 he made during his last fiscal year as a full-time prosecutor.

It only got more lucrative from there. In 2015 Holland was working as a prosecutor for at least 10 parishes, eight of which paid him more than $10,000. That year, he made at least $205,000 from Louisiana taxpayers. And last year it was more of the same. Holland was hired by at least eight parishes, six of which paid him at least $25,000. He made at least $210,000. To put that into perspective, Louisiana’s governor makes $130,000 per year. The chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court makes $167,000.

According to the records provided to The Watch by the Promise of Justice Initiative, at least 10 different parishes have hired Holland since 2012. (The Baton Rouge Advocate article put the figure at 18.)

Despite his record — or perhaps because of it — Holland has been contracted to handle some of the most high-profile and high-stakes cases in Louisiana. Calcasieu Parish hired him to prosecute suspected serial killer Felix Vail for the 1962 murder of his wife. (Vail was convicted last year.) Rapides Parish hired Holland to aid in the case of death row inmate Darrell Robinson, who was sentenced to death for a 1994 quadruple murder. Defense attorneys in that case have alleged that the former prosecutor in the case withheld documents. The Advocate profile points out that Holland also gets a premium in every death penalty case he’s assigned. In 2015, the DA in Webster Parish hired Holland to screen every felony case there for about $25,000 per year. He is also handling a sensitive public corruption case in Rapides Parish.

Holland’s defenders say he gets these cases because he’s good at what he does. Webster Parish DA J. Schuyler Marvin told the Advocate, “Give him a death penalty case, walk out of the room and he’ll handle it competently.” But it doesn’t take a brilliant prosecutor to get a death sentence in Louisiana, only an aggressive one. In the Angola Five cases, Holland had five men already in prison for serious crimes who then murdered a guard as they tried to escape. Of those five, Holland won two death sentences. One was against a defendant who represented himself, and one was against Brown, who may have been the least culpable of the five.

The reform killer

More alarming still, Holland has been hired by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA), with public funds, to persuade legislators to kill off criminal-justice reform — in a state that may need it most. The LDAA has consistently opposed every reform proposed by Edwards and state legislators, even some less controversial proposals such as compassionate release for elderly inmates or ending life without parole for nonviolent crimes. The group has scuttled reform efforts for years. As the Nation reported in a story this month, “From 2012 to 2015, criminal-justice bills backed by the LDAA had an 85 percent rate of passage in the Louisiana Statehouse, while criminal-justice bills it opposed passed only 38 percent of the time.” The LDAA even opposed relaxing the state’s toughest-in-the-country marijuana laws — a possible six-month sentence for first-time possession, five years for a second offense, and 20 years for a third.

Holland has made what amounts to about $900 per day lobbying the Louisiana legislature. And the reforms that were passed in June notwithstanding, he’s been quite successful at it. Earlier this year, for example, the state legislature considered a bill to abolish the death penalty in Louisiana. It seemed to have some momentum. Two of the three co-sponsors were Republicans, and two had prior experience in law enforcement. The bill’s proponents pushed it as a cost-saving measure, although Marty Stroud and others also noted the state’s history of sending innocent people to death row. The prosecutors’ association sent Holland to kill the proposal. The bill ultimately failed in committee when one of the original co-sponsors, a former sheriff, flipped and cast the deciding vote against it.

Holland also successfully lobbied for a complicated bill that transfers a large portion of the state’s budget for capital defense to local public defender offices. On the surface, the bill may have seemed well-intentioned. But reform advocates say it could well be disastrous. The Louisiana public defender system has been in a state of perpetual crisis for years. According to a report last year by the Louisiana Public Defender Board, which oversees the system, the state’s public defenders on average are handling twice the maximum recommended caseload. In some parishes, it’s more than four times what is recommended. (In Caddo, it’s 2.38 times higher.) Consequently, defendants who can’t afford bail can languish on waitlists for months. For less serious crimes, innocent arrestees can end up pleading guilty just to get themselves out of jail. In some cases, defendants have spent more time in jail waiting for an attorney than if they’d pleaded guilty and served out the sentence. Last spring, three of every four public defender offices in the state were turning away cases.

Most parishes fund public defense with traffic fines and local court fees, meaning, perversely, that in order to adequately fund representation for existing criminal defendants, the state needs a steady stream of criminal defendants. It also puts the burden of funding the system disproportionately on the poor. More perverse still, most parishes only assess court costs after a conviction. On some level, that makes sense — you shouldn’t have to pay court costs if you’re found innocent. But this also means that public defenders add to their office budgets only when they lose cases, not when they win them — a textbook example of a perverse incentive.

The situation for indigent defendants in death penalty cases in Louisiana is somewhat better. In most states, capital defense is handled at the state level, while public defense in other cases is primarily administered locally. Louisiana’s capital defense system once also suffered from a lack of funding and overly burdened staff. But in 2007 the state passed guidelines, which were implemented in 2010, for capital cases that essentially mirrored those recommended by the American Bar Association. More importantly, the state provided at least some of the funding that would be necessary to meet those guidelines. As a result, death sentences declined in the state overall (in spite of a few parishes like Caddo, where they went up), and executions virtually came to a halt, while the ability of defense attorneys to hire investigators and spend more time on cases helped expose prosecutor malfeasance.

So while the state’s capital defense system isn’t exorbitantly funded, it is at least adequately funded. But the broader public defense system is in crisis. Instead of finding money to adequately fund both, the bill Hugo Holland successfully lobbied for simply shifted money from capital cases to local public defender offices. It moved non-capital public defense slightly forward, while moving capital public defense slightly backward.

Holland of course lobbied for the bill on behalf of all the state’s prosecutors. But given that Holland has carved out a niche market for himself as the state’s go-to prosecutor in death penalty cases, the bill’s primary beneficiary would appear to be Hugo Holland. “The 2007 changes had a real impact. And the main impact they had is that they made Hugo Holland’s job more difficult,” Cohen says. “It put defendants on more equal footing with prosecutors, and that made it more difficult to win death sentences.”

Because the Public Defender Board contracts many capital cases in Louisiana to out-of-state legal groups, Holland pushed the bill by launching attacks on what he claimed was lavish spending by “boutique” firms. He has also criticized the Public Defender Board for funding too many appeals, and has accused it of being staffed with “anti-death penalty zealots” — all accusations that could also be characterized as defense attorneys merely doing their jobs. It’s worth noting that most of the exonerations of death row inmates in Louisiana came well after the accused had exhausted their appeals and were well into post-conviction. That is, it took a long time, a lot of money, a lot of investigating, and lot of litigation to expose the evidence that cleared them — all aspects of capital defense that critics like Holland find excessive.

It isn’t the first time Holland has advocated for less-than-vigorous defense for indigent defendants in death penalty cases. In a 2005 case, Holland testified that as a member of the National District Attorneys Association, he often discouraged prosecutors from joining the American Bar Association, which he felt was too stacked with defense attorneys. “Anytime somebody brings up the ABA standards, which, by the way, in my mind, do constitute the pie-in-the-sky perfect scenario for criminal defense, we don’t want anybody to be able to point to them and say, ‘Well, prosecutors were members of that group, and they agreed with these standards,'” he said. In fact, the ABA’s criminal defense standards have often been cited by the Supreme Court as an authority when determining whether someone received an adequate defense.

Holland was the district attorneys association’s main opposition to the round of reform bills were finally passed by the Louisiana legislature in June. Despite the national praise, Cohen says Holland was able to get them watered down. “By the time they were put into bills, the reform suggestions were de minimis,” Cohen says. “And we still only got half the cup.” Of particular disappointment to longtime critics like Cohen was the DAs’ success in stripping out the provisions that would have made the sentencing reform retroactive.

Other reform advocates are less pessimistic, though there is definitely still a sense that more could have been done. “It did get a little watered down, but I’d say we still got 70 to 80 percent of what we asked for,” says Flozell Daniels Jr., a reform advocate who also sits on the Public Defender Board. Marty Stroud says that while the bills “were somewhat watered down,” they “still improved what we had before.”

In addition to the lobbying, reviewing cases and litigating felony cases, Holland is also helping to pass the old Caddo culture on to a new generation of prosecutors. According the document cache obtained by the Promise of Justice Initiative, Caddo and Calcasieu parishes paid expenses for Holland to speak at the 2014 Louisiana District Attorneys Association’s fall conference in New Orleans. Calcasieu also paid for Holland to speak at the group’s summer 2015 conference at a resort in Florida. Stroud says Holland has also told him that he has been hired to instruct new agents with the FBI.

An ethical morass

Holland’s freelancing gigs raise a number of ethical and public policy issues. First, there’s the question of whether it is appropriate for prosecutors to hire a private attorney to lobby the legislature on criminal-justice issues. “I’m really troubled by the use of taxpayer money to lobby the legislature,” says Stroud. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a DA’s office would have its own paid lobbyist. This what happens when you have no one at the state level to oversee the actions of the DAs. They have carte blanche to do whatever they want.”

Daniels agrees. “I’m not even sure if that’s legal. I can’t understand why the DAs would hire a lobbyist with public funds in the first place, but certainly not one who had apparently been terminated with cause. I mean, if the public defenders did something like that, it would be on the front page of every newspaper in Louisiana.”

According to Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who studies legal ethics, it isn’t uncommon for prosecutors to lobby state legislatures on criminal-justice bills. “You see it in a lot of other places. The guidelines put out by the National Association of District Attorneys say that prosecutors should take a role in shaping public safety policies. So I don’t think prosecutors’ lobbying by itself is an ethical problem.”

But Hessick says that sort of lobbying is typically done by prosecutors already on the public payroll. Hiring of an attorney in private practice like Holland is more unusual. Still, she says, “I don’t see any clear problems here from the standpoint of legal ethics. But I’d certainly have questions about it as a matter of public policy.”

It does seem like a questionable policy. Cohen says the core issue is that, again, Holland is getting paid with public funds to advocate for policies that benefit him personally. “You have to understand what’s at stake for prosecutors,” Cohen says. “Reform would make their jobs harder. This isn’t about making the state safer, because there’s no evidence that the state’s punitive laws do that. But so long as you can threaten some kid with a long but unjustified prison term, you can force him to plead guilty to a lesser charge, even if he’s innocent. You don’t have to try him. You get your conviction, and you don’t have to work very hard at it. They’re going to fight any changes that make their jobs more difficult.”

There’s also the matter of which parish is providing the funding for Holland’s lobbying. The pay records obtained by Cohen’s group seem to indicate that the LDAA is paying for Holland’s lobbying with public funds from Caddo Parish. It’s unclear why any single parish should foot the bill for the LDAA’s lobbying. But it seems particularly troubling that the parish doing so is the same parish that not only fired the same man hired to do the lobbying but that is also where voters just elected a DA who ran on a campaign of reform. In 2016, the year James  Stewart took office as DA, the parish paid Holland more than $7,000.

Holland began his freelance relationship with the Caddo DA’s office in 2013, just months after he was forced to resign. He and then-DA Charles Scott, the same DA who forced him to resign, signed a contract stipulating that Holland would be paid $150 per hour to handle appeals on a select group of cases. But according to the contract, Holland would also …

assist with the Legislative Session(s) consistent with the positions of the LDAA and the CPDAO, including but not limited to pre-legislation meetings as needed, appearing before committees of the legislature, meeting with the Governor’s staff and legislative staff and the LDAA Board of Directors and/or LDAA Legislative Committee, and any and all other committees of the LDAA Including the matters of Criminal Discovery, Expungements, and other policies and procedures thereto pertaining …

The contract puts a cap on payments to Holland at $18,000 per year. The relationship continued after Scott’s death with interim DA Dale Cox. And surprisingly, at least according to pay records, it continued after James Stewart took over.

Stroud says he’s very surprised to hear that. “I supported Mr. Stewart for the DA position,” Stroud says. “I’d be really disheartened if this were true. I’d be saddened by it. It’s like a blow to the stomach.”

I made multiple attempts to ask Stewart about Holland’s lobbying. The only response I received from him was a curt voicemail stating, “Hugo Holland did not do any lobbying work on behalf of the Caddo Parish District Attorney.” Stewart’s office did not respond to my attempts to follow up.

Stewart’s voicemail to me certainly seems to be contradicted by the pay records. Perhaps Stewart’s response hinges on some hyper-technical definition of “lobbying.” It’s true that Holland is not registered with the state as an official lobbyist. But according to Cohen, he probably should be. The pay records show that well more than 20 percent of Holland’s contract with Caddo has involved either direct contact with lawmakers to discuss legislation, or preparation for those meetings. Under Louisiana law, that’s the threshold that would require Holland to register.

Whether or not Holland is officially “lobbying,” the records make it unquestionably clear that he is being paid to wield influence with lawmakers. On April 7, 2016, for example, Holland filled out a witness card indicating that he’d be testifying before a legislative committee on behalf of the LDAA in support of House Bill 818. This was the bill that restructured how the state funded capital defense and public defenders. Here’s the video of Holland’s testimony, which starts at the 17:20 mark. The following month, Caddo Parish paid Holland $900. According to Holland’s invoice, the $900 was for “legislative duty” on April 7 in “BR LA” — almost certainly Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Holland sent at least 10 invoices to Caddo Parish in 2014 that included line items that seem to indicate lobbying. In 2015, there were at least four. In 2016, after Stewart took over, there were at least six. (I use “at least” because Cohen believes some line items Holland has billed as case reviews are actually cases where Holland is collecting information about defense costs to use in his lobbying efforts.)

The wording of Stewart’s voicemail message suggests he may be taking the position that Holland’s lobbying has been on behalf of the LDAA, not the Caddo DA’s office specifically. That’s consistent with how Holland has been identified when he testifies in front of the legislature. But the pay records also show that he was paid with public funds from Caddo Parish.

A curt email exchange with LDAA Executive Director Pete Adams wasn’t any more clarifying. When asked if the LDAA was paying Holland to lobby or influence the legislature Adams responded, “No.” When asked whether Caddo was paying Holland on behalf of the LDAA, Adams responded “N/a,” which is presumably and puzzlingly an abbreviation for “not applicable.” When asked who has been paying Holland on behalf of the LDAA, Adams responded, “Do not know.” He added, “DAs, ADAs are permitted to testify on matters before the Legislature. Public defenders do the same.”

But Holland isn’t a DA. He is perhaps a quasi-assistant district attorney, or ADA — a few parishes have appointed him to that position on a contractual basis. But according to his own invoices, Holland was being paid separately for his work to influence the legislature. According to pay records, that money has either come from the Caddo Parish treasury or was somehow passed through it. I asked Adams in a follow-up to explain why Holland would bill Caddo for his lobbying work for the LDAA, and why Caddo would pay him for it. Adams replied, “He is a member and does as his DA directs him to do. Part of his job is monitoring legislation.” That still does little to clear up who is paying Holland to lobby, and where that money is coming from.

The final ethical issue here is one of logistics. It’s difficult to see how Holland could possibly have the time to handle all of this lobbying and teaching, along with his caseload. “This would be my main ethical concern,” says Hessick. “I think there’s a problem if you have someone essentially working full-time as a freelance prosecutor, but who then is also getting paid for these other roles.”

For example, according to the pay records, here’s possibly incomplete list of Holland’s prosecutorial and lobbying gigs in 2015:

All of this was in addition to the time Holland spent lobbying, planning with the LDAA, and teaching at seminars.

Under Louisiana law, a public official can’t simultaneously hold two full-time positions. If nothing else, Holland is billing for a lot more than that, which suggests he’s at least in violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter. Again, Holland refused to answer my questions, but he told the Advocate that he’s able to juggle all of his new responsibilities because … he’s just really good. “I can take a case that would take a five-year assistant district attorney two hours to review, and I can review it in 10 minutes,” he said.

Ideally, Holland’s freelance work would be reviewed by the Office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. Just recently, for example, that office issued a report on money that went missing from a DA’s forfeiture fund, and another criticizing how the state DAs’ offices report revenue. But there are some issues there, too. In 2014, Caddo Parish paid Holland $2,400 to train investigators in the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

Blood and justice

Louisiana has seen reform criminal-justice reform efforts scuttled before. Even in New Orleans, the state’s largest and most liberal city (which also leads the country in its rate of exonerations), change has been fleeting. Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro, for example, has often been touted as a reformer. In 2014 he set up a “Conviction Integrity Unit” in the office to work with the New Orleans Innocence Project to uncover wrongful convictions. Given the legacy of Harry Connick, that seemed like a welcome break from the old culture.

But Cannizzaro hasn’t strayed far from his predecessor. Since taking office in 2009, he too has been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in murder cases. His office was recently found to have been knowingly (and illegally) issuing fake subpoenas to intimidate witnesses, and was just hit with a lawsuit on the matter. He has also recently come under fire for locking up rape victims to compel them to testify, and faced accusations that he had a defense investigator arrested in retaliation for that investigator’s exposure of misconduct in Cannizzaro’s office.

As much of the country talks about decarceration, Cannizzaro has locked people up at a rate far exceeding even his punitive predecessors. New Orleans has seen a 15 percent increase in state prisoners since he took office, even as the state’s overall prison population dropped by 5 percent. Cannizzaro too spoke out against reforming the state’s marijuana possession laws, and once used the state’s habitual offender law to argue for a life sentence for a man arrested for stealing $15.

A report published last year concluded that Cannizzaro “chooses to transfer children to adult court in almost every possible instance,” including children with mental disabilities, and children who played a minor role in the alleged crime. And a 2015 report from the Phillips Black Project found that only Los Angeles handed down more life sentences to juveniles than New Orleans in the past five years.

Cannizzaro eventually stopped asking for funding for his innocence unit, and the entire project was scrapped barely a year after it started.  Since then, when defense attorneys have produced witnesses who recant their testimony in potential innocence cases — often attributing their wrongful testimony to threats from police officers — Cannizzaro has had those witnesses arrested and charged with perjury. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Connick himself recently wrote a letter to the editor praising Cannizzaro.

James Stewart isn’t Cannizzaro, but his employment of Holland seems odd for a man who has been touted as a reformer. Stewart has also disappointed reformers by declining to initiate any formal review of his predecessors’ work, despite their considerable record. Unlike reformist prosecutors recently elected in places such as Orlando and Philadelphia, Stewart doesn’t oppose the death penalty. In fact, he’s seeking it against Grover Cannon, a man accused of shooting a police officer. In one of his first acts, Stewart declined to charge police officers who shot and killed a man armed with a three-inch knife. Last spring, Stewart warned that he planned to start charging parents when their children commit crimes. He did just that in a case in August.

On the other hand, Stewart did dismiss a number of prosecutors from the previous administration, and he opted against re-trying Rodricus Crawford — the man convicted of murdering his 1-year-old son, but whose conviction was overturned — but only after suggesting that Crawford may still have been guilty of negligent homicide. There’s also some evidence that Caddo prosecutors are screening cases more carefully, and are less likely to opt for the most serious charges available (and Stewart is already facing criticism for it). There’s also evidence that he may be finally winding down Caddo’s relationship with Holland as well. An open records request for 2017 pay records shows just one payment to Holland from Caddo — it was in March, for $600.

“I don’t know why Stewart would have kept working with Holland,” Stroud says. “I can only imagine it’s some sort of misunderstanding, or perhaps he was only recently made aware of what was going on. I’ll just say this: I still believe James Stewart is one of the good ones.”

Stroud’s conversion and his apology to Glenn Ford have made him something of a moral compass for the Louisiana justice system of late, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine how he and Holland could have come from the same office. When you talk to Stroud, he rails against the prosecutorial mentality he calls “blood and justice.” He says things like, “Justice is not about punishment, it’s about fairness” and “a prosecutor is not supposed to be an an advocate, but an administer of justice.” Hugo Holland tends to say things like, “It’s the Old Testament thing: an eye for eye,” and, “That’s why I went to law school. I wanted to be on the side of taking care of these a––holes who do this sort of thing to people.”

Judging by the praise the state has received for the reforms passed in June, Louisiana appears to be taking small steps in the direction of Marty Stroud. But it’s hard to escape the fact that while Stroud works in private practice, Hugo Holland is handling hundreds of cases all over the state, wielding considerable influence with state legislators, and teaching the old ways to new generations of prosecutors. Louisiana’s new laws do seem promising, but it’s also fair to ask how effective the new laws can be if the officials entrusted to implement them haven’t changed much at all.


Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

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