NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana appeals court recently set aside a life
sentence for an African-American man convicted of stealing $15 from a
parked vehicle; and at least one attorney in the state agrees the punishment didn't fit the crime.
According to The
Advocate, Walter Johnson, 38, a felon with three prior
convictions, was sentenced last year under Louisiana’s
habitual-offender statute that mandates a life sentence for four-time
felony offenders. The vehicle Johnson is accused of stealing from was
a law enforcement vehicle used as a bait car to catch burglars.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ordered a New Orleans judge to
draft a reduced sentence in December.
While the decision will reduce the time Johnson will spend in
prison, the three-judge panel upheld Johnson’s conviction. The
court denied Johnson’s claim that he was entrapped by the police.
Peter Russell, partner with the firm McBride and Russell and a
former police officer, told the Louisiana Record that the
sentence itself was unjust, but the judge had little recourse under
“Louisiana’s judges have no authority to go around the
mandatory sentences laws,” Russell said. “It’s not like a
common-law state where judges have some authority and leeway. In
Louisiana, a judge cannot interfere unless it violates the
Louisiana’s constitution or is a violation of the United States
Russell said Louisiana appellant courts probably are stepping
outside the boundary of their authority, but think they have no choice
but to challenge some punishments handed out by state district
attorneys, since the law gives all discretion to those offices.
“Are they outside of what the law allows under the
habitual-offender law? Yes, they are,” Russell said. “The appeals
courts and many of the judges are tired of the prosecutors failing to
use discretion in what they charge and ask for.”
According to statistics released by the state and reported in The
Advocate, the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon
Cannizzaro, who prosecuted Johnson, leads the state among district
attorneys in seeking long prison sentences under the statute.
Russell said Cannizzaro and other district attorneys have the
option to seek felonies instead of misdemeanors for minor offenses —
and in many cases, have gone too far.
“Our DAs are swinging bats and knocking everybody out and
slapping themselves thinking its OK to give these long prison terms
for minor offenses,” Russell said. “Cannizzaro had the option to
go either way and charge a minor crime or charge a felony and seek a
life sentence. Take the same set of circumstances in another state
like Missouri all he gets is a $10 fine. It’s ridiculous.”
The use of the repeat-offender law statewide has given critics
like Russell to question if the law targets the poor and minority
“We are swinging these bats around and its minorities and the
poor who are the line for these long sentences,” he said. “The
majority of poor people are people of color in this state. That's why
we have groups like Black Lives Matter because they are
disproportionally targeted by these laws. They are the ones whose
sons and daughters are being put away for long times for minor
Russell said he does not see much of a change coming in Louisiana
law unless the Supreme Court steps in.