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.”
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