New Orleans prosecutors are using Louisiana's repeat-offender laws to create potential sentences so lengthy that criminal defendants have no choice but to plead guilty, potentially depriving them of the right to a fair trial, according to three candidates for Criminal District Court.
Marie Williams and Graham Bosworth, who are challenging incumbent Judge Frank Marullo in the race for Criminal Court Division D, and Byron C. Williams, who is running against Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens for the open Division G seat at Criminal Court, appeared in a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Home Defense Foundation of New Orleans. The foundation advocates on behalf of people charged in self-defense shootings.
Many of the questions at the forum focused on tactics used in the courtroom, including a query by foundation member Nadra Enzi regarding the use of "multiple bills" on repeat offenders. Under Louisiana law, defendants convicted of certain felonies can receive enhanced penalties after subsequent felony convictions if they are charged as repeat offenders. The practice is called "multiple billing," and the district attorney's office has complete discretion over whether to charge a defendant who has prior felony convictions as a repeat offender.
For example, in 2012, a 48-year-old man with previous drug and theft convictions refused a 12-year sentence on a plea deal for a simple burglary charge. He then was convicted at trial and faced a life sentence because he was charged as a repeat offender.
Bosworth says there are "constitutional issues" with the practice. The rights to remain silent and receive a fair trial are enshrined in the Constitution, he said, and using major penalties as leverage to force a guilty plea essentially deprives defendants of those rights. Innocent defendants may be forced to plead guilty, Bosworth said, or guilty defendants may be forced to plead to crimes more severe than the present case warrants.
Marie Williams said she also had issues with the practice, especially in cases when there are problems with the evidence. When defendants are forced to plead guilty, she said, they then put themselves at risk for more severe penalties if they face felony charges in a separate case later.
Byron Williams said multiple billing and guilty pleas are contributing to Louisiana's high incarceration rates. On the other hand, he said, judges have little authority over such outcomes because the state Legislature has removed much of their discretion when defendants are convicted under the state's repeat offender law.