Skip to comments.Prosecutors' Morbid Neckties Add to Criticism
Posted on 01/05/2003 8:59:07 AM PST by Pharmboy
Picture credit:Jonathan Cohen for The New York Times
Lawrence Jacobs, whose son will be retried on capital
murder charges, said prosecutors made light of the
death penalty with their neckwear, which featured
images of the Grim Reaper and a noose
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 3 When Lawrence Jacobs walked into the courtroom a few weeks ago, he couldn't believe his eyes. There was a noose swinging from the prosecutor's chest.
Mr. Jacobs's son is being tried on capital murder charges. The noose was on a necktie.
Then he saw it again. This time two prosecutors were wearing ghoulish ties, one with a dangling rope, the other with an image of the Grim Reaper.
"That's when it really hit me," Mr. Jacobs said. "These guys are out to kill my son. And they're making light of it."
The prosecutors said the neckties were jokes. But their boss did not find it funny.
"Totally inappropriate," said Paul D. Connick Jr., the district attorney of Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. "And unprofessional. I told them: `Don't wear those two ties to work. No nooses, no Grim Reapers.' "
There was no further discipline, and defense lawyers say the neckties are simply the latest proof of a racially tinged, bloodthirsty culture at the Jefferson district attorney's office, which has put more people on Louisiana's death row in recent years than any other parish.
Until recently, lawyers noted each lethal injection by handing out plaques decorated with hypodermic needles.
Yet prosecutors in Jefferson Parish, which actually has a low murder rate, are not alone in what apparently is a relish for capital punishment. It seems to be part of prosecutorial machismo in many places, especially in the South. In East Baton Rouge, 75 miles away, the district attorney celebrates death sentences with office parties, replete with steak and Jim Beam.
In Texas, one district attorney formed a "Silver Needle Society" while another one hung a noose over her office door.
In Mississippi, a former assistant attorney general had a toy electric chair on his desk that buzzed.
Defense lawyers concede that they make jokes too. It is inevitable when dealing with such heavy issues as life and death, said Sarah Ottinger, a New Orleans defense lawyer.
"But taking that humor out of the office and into the courtroom is another story," Ms. Ottinger said.
Several legal scholars concurred.
"It's a solemn event when the state decides that they want to kill one of their citizens," said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University Law School professor. "To be cute and flippant about it clearly is wrong."
Jefferson is one of the most conservative parishes in Louisiana. It is where David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, was elected state representative in 1987. Four years later, he began his nearly successful campaign for governor from the subdivisions here.
While New Orleans, across the river, is two-thirds black, Jefferson Parish is two-thirds white.
This is where Lawrence Jacobs Jr. got into trouble in October 1996. Mr. Jacobs, then 16, and a childhood friend, Roy Bridgewater, then 17, both black, burst into an occupied home in Marrero, a white suburb. The teenagers stole guns and jewelry and raced away in a minivan. When police entered the ransacked house, they found two people, a 45-year-old man and his 70-year-old mother, slumped on the bed, shot to death.
It was never clear who pulled the trigger. Each teenager said the other did it.
The two were sent to trial during some of the bloodiest days in the Big Easy, when people were getting shot in the streets of the French Quarter for their leather jackets and there was a homicide practically every day.
In quick succession, each was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die.
Juries here are not shy about capital punishment. In the last five years, Jefferson Parish has put 11 people on death row, compared with two from New Orleans. The suburban parish has far fewer murders than the city, 38 compared with 258 last year.
In 2001, Mr. Jacobs's case was overturned after the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge had wrongly impaneled a juror who said the only punishment for murder was lethal injection.
As his new trial approaches, Mr. Jacobs, 22, is accusing prosecutors of racial bias on nearly every front, from who runs the courtrooms to who sits on the jury. Recently, his lawyers filed 91 pretrial motions. The one dealing with neckties, to be heard later this month, is called "Motion to prohibit prosecutors from wearing tasteless and improper garb in the courthouse."
According to defense lawyers, an assistant district attorney, Cameron Mary, wore a bright red tie with a six-inch white noose painted on it to several pretrial hearings last year. His colleague Donald Rowan was seen in a Grim Reaper tie at a number of hearings.
Mr. Connick said his prosecutors wore the ties "only a few times" and never in front of a jury.
The neckties were handmade gifts from the wife of another prosecutor.
Mr. Connick would not allow reporters to see the ties or speak to the prosecutors who wore them.
The silk accessories were first spotted by the elder Mr. Jacobs, a department store manager, who tries to attend all of his son's hearings. To him, they were clearly racist. Especially the noose.
"I mean, who else got strung up?" he asked.
The younger Mr. Jacobs said that at a recent hearing, one assistant district attorney turned to him and whispered: "We're going to hang you, boy."
Mr. Connick said he had not heard of this and would look into it.
Mr. Connick says the racism charge is what bothers him most.
"That's completely unwarranted," he said. "There's no selective prosecution here, and it's never based on race."
He pointed out that his outfit had come a long way in hiring blacks. When he took office in 1997, there were no African-American employees. Now, 9 percent of the lawyers and 20 percent of the investigators are members of minorities.
He also said he did not tolerate the type of punishment parties that his predecessors held.
Until a few years ago, every time a prosecutor won a death sentence, the office would take up a collection and buy a plaque. Each one had a needle on it and the condemned person's name, said Robert Burns, a retired Jefferson Parish judge, who saw them hanging in the chambers of a prosecutor turned judge.
But to the younger Mr. Jacobs, who marks time in Louisiana's Angola prison awaiting his retrial, it all looks hypocritical.
"I mean, these guys with their ties act like death is a joke," he said. "And that's what's crazy. They're the ones calling me a cold-blooded killer."
Thank you. The death penalty is probably necessary. But that doesn't mean it is a matter for joking or celebration. God loves that murderer as much as he loves me. He has fallen so far that our society needs to take his life. I find no joy or humor in that.
This is as bad as the 'huzzahs' that burst forth whenever someone posts an article about a homeowner shooting an intruder. I am prepared to defend my family, with deadly force if necessary. But if that happens, and if I should find myself rejoicing in his death, I know it will be time to ask God's forgiveness.
Perhaps your views would be better appreciated on sobsistersunited.com!
I didn't post a hypothetical. And yes, after your snide, incorrect and irrelevant comment back to me, that burning feeling on the back of YOUR neck, is called SHAME.