The veteran prosecutor, immensely respected among his peers throughout the justice system, is retiring effective Friday.Keith Stutes, the lead prosecutor in the Mickey Shunick case, confirmed to IND Monthly Tuesday that he is retiring after 28 years with the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. His retirement comes less than a month after successfully negotiating the plea deal that sent Brandon Scott Lavergne to prison for the first-degree murders of Shunick in May of this year and Lisa Pate in 1999. Perhaps the most effectively orchestrated prosecution ever handled by the local DA’s office, Lavergne’s plea agreement was reached just 20 days after Stutes and his co-prosecutors secured an indictment for the two murders.
One case, in particular, sticks with him to this day. He says an innocent young man was presumed guilty by many in the community for nearly two decades. The young man’s grandmother, Yolanda Theriot, was raped and murdered in her home in 1985, and he was charged with the crime, the trial ending in a hung jury. Stutes did not prosecute that case but did step in many years later when DNA evidence linked an unknown suspect to the murder. Stutes won a conviction. “Handling that case produced one of the most rewarding results,” Stutes says.
It finally exonerated her grandson, but a lot of damage had already been done, he says. “It was a hung jury, so it wasn’t a not-guilty verdict [for the grandson]. There were many people in the family and the community who said, ‘He did do it, he just got away with it.’ It was a terrible burden for him to carry. It was justice in arriving at a verdict against the real [killer], but it was as much justice for him, a vindication for him.
“I’ve tried 125 cases in my career, about a third to a half have been murder trials and rape trials,” continues Stutes. “To a certain extent they have all been rewarding in the results, but in that particular case, had the grandson been convicted, he would have served 20 years in prison by the time the DNA evidence would have freed him.”
There have also been some firsts in Stutes’ career that involved very complex prosecutions: The 1998 conviction of Dr. Richard Schmidt for attempted second-degree murder was the first time in forensic history that viral DNA was used to prove a link between two people with HIV at trial in a criminal case. In 1994, Schmidt used a sample of blood taken from one of his AIDS-infected patients and injected it into his girlfriend. Observers say Stutes was brilliant in the courtroom; Schmidt is serving a 50-year sentence.
The Shunick case is another that was particularly wrenching, Stutes says. Before Lavergne was brought into the courtroom Aug. 17 to enter his guilty plea and explain how he killed the young UL student, the prosecutor went over to Shunick’s parents, who were seated in the front row. “They choked me up,” says Stutes, the father of two daughters and grandfather of three, one 5-year-old and two 2-year-olds. “This could have been anybody.”
Stutes will keep his law practice going, plans to spend his time with his family and will continue teaching criminal justice at UL Lafayette. He also volunteers with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, chairing a hearing committee, and is an excellent photographer.
Would he, like so many before him, turn to criminal defense work?
"The joke was I’m only going to specialize in representing the absolutely, positively, not-guilty, innocent defendants," Stutes says. "I don’t anticipate I’d have a lot of business.”
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The former star of Saturday Night Live throws in his 2 cents on the Big Oil lawsuit.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday, March 10, 2014:
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled Monday that businesses don't have to prove that they were directly harmed by BP's 2010 Gulf Of Mexico oil spill to collect settlement payments.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has closed Interstate 10 from I-49 in Lafayette to Seigen Lane in Baton Rouge.