But Landry’s outspokenness on topics like police brutality, racial profiling and sentencing disparities has put her at odds with local prosecutors, who say that she has unjustly accused them of being biased against African Americans. Last month, the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in New Iberia, La., began requesting that she be recused from pending criminal cases on the grounds that she “is biased or prejudiced against this office such that she cannot be fair or impartial.”
Since then, the situation has escalated. As of Wednesday, Landry was facing more than 300 virtually identical motions asking that she be removed from upcoming cases, according the Acadiana Advocate. Routine court proceedings have ground to a halt, and hundreds have rallied in Landry’s defense in recent weeks, with one supporter getting ejected from the courtroom on Wednesday.
As evidence of Landry’s alleged bias, prosecutors cite comments that she reportedly made from the bench, such as “African American men do not survive traffic stops with the police.” According to the 27-page motion, she has repeatedly pointed out instances where she believes white defendants are getting more generous plea deals than black defendants, suggested that cops who get caught planting evidence could be indicative of a broader culture of corruption, and claimed that prosecutors apply the state’s habitual offender statute inconsistently, “which disproportionately puts African Americans in more harm or risk than anyone else.”
Landry — herself a former prosecutor — was first elected to the bench in 2002, after spending nearly nine years at the same district attorney’s office that is now accusing her of unfair treatment. According to her official biography, she was also the first woman to serve as assistant district attorney for the 16th District, which covers three parishes in southern Louisiana.
Among them is Iberia Parish, which came under scrutiny in 2016 for a shocking series of alleged civil rights violations. Federal prosecutors contended that the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office oversaw a reign of terror at the local jail, beating inmates with metal batons as they pleaded for mercy and targeting young black men for what they described as “n----- knockin'.” One former narcotics agent, asked at trial how deputies felt about people in the neighborhoods they policed, replied, “They were animals, and they needed to be treated like animals.”
Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, who was accused of encouraging the racism and violence, was ultimately acquitted of all charges. But seven deputies were sent to prison, and the sheriff’s office has paid millions to settle lawsuits brought by former inmates.
Landry has reportedly suggested that local prosecutors turned a blind eye to widespread misconduct at the sheriff’s office, saying that they “knew or should have known” about the pervasive problems. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist,” she is quoted as saying in the recent motion from the district attorney’s office, which cites those remarks as proof of her bias.
In total, the motion to recuse Landry from upcoming criminal trials contains more than 30 examples of what prosecutors present as improper behavior, dating from October 2015 to September 2019. The judge is accused of referring to a pretrial diversion program as “extortion” and “highway robbery,” claiming that prosecutors “deliberately incarcerate African Americans more severely and at a higher rate than others,” and ruling that evidence should be suppressed because a Louisiana state trooper erred by assuming that African American drivers with out-of-state license plates were “up to something.”
In one instance in which a defendant accused a prosecutor of being racist, Landry reportedly replied that she didn’t believe that was the case, “but, you never know. I wouldn’t doubt that there are prejudices and biases because there are in everyone.”
The prosecutors’ complaints aren’t limited to Landry’s views on racial justice. They also claim that she bullied prosecutors and made inappropriate, victim-blaming comments to victims’ families. But the overall gist of the recusal motion is that Landry has routinely implied that the district attorney’s office treats black defendants unfairly. That isn’t the case, they argue, and claiming otherwise means she’s no longer a neutral arbiter.
“One allegation is that we believe that the judge is advocating on behalf of defendants at times,” 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhé told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser on Wednesday. “And that’s not the role that she should be playing.”
The unusual tactic has brought the routine workings of the criminal justice system to a standstill. One Tuesday morning in late September, no defendants could be arraigned because prosecutors filed a recusal motion every time Landry called a case, the Daily Iberian reported. A similar scene played out again a week later.
“This is an attempt to unseat me and overturn the vote of the people,” Landry responded, according to the Daily Iberian.
The hundreds of recusal motions have been distributed among the dockets of other judges in the 16th Judicial District, who will decide whether their colleague will effectively be stripped of her power as a judge. But scheduled hearings have repeatedly been pushed back, with prosecutors asking for more time to gather evidence. In the meantime, defendants whose cases were assigned to Landry are stuck in limbo.
Amid criticism that people were being held in jail with no opportunity for a bond hearing, Duhé told the Daily Advertiser that prosecutors were working directly with defense lawyers. “The perception that we’ve stalled the system is not true,” he told the paper.
As the Appeal noted, Louisiana’s criminal justice system has glaring racial disparities: Although roughly one-third of the state’s population is black, a study found that black prisoners constitute approximately 91 percent of inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Another study found that convicted murderers were 14 times as likely to get the death penalty if their victims were white than if their victims were black.
According to the Daily Iberian, the ongoing dispute over fairness in the criminal justice system has led to an outpouring of support for Landry, with community members packing her courtroom in solidarity and holding demonstrations outside the courthouse. So many supporters showed up for one recent hearing on the recusal motions that it was standing room only inside the courtroom, KLFY reported.
“Our judge is not going to be sanctioned or silenced by a system that has proved not to be just,” one speaker told a crowd of almost 100 people, many of them black, who gathered for a rally earlier this month.
Landry’s supporters have argued that the allegations of bullying made against her are false and that, in fact, she is the one being bullied for standing up for her beliefs. Some have expressed concerns that she is being targeted for insisting on equal treatment for black and white defendants.
“Judge Landry is part of a system that she’s trying to make right,” Khadija Rashad, a local activist who organized the rallies, told KATC earlier this month.
During court proceedings on Wednesday, where prosecutors requested to again delay hearings on the recusal motions, Rashad attempted to directly address 16th Judicial District Court Judge Anthony Thibodeaux and was kicked out of the courtroom for the interruption.
“We elected Judge Lori Landry,” she later told the Advocate. “She wasn’t appointed, she wasn’t selected and by God’s honor we’re going to see to it that she serves out her time the way she’s supposed to.”