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.
Lavergne was sent off to hard labor at Angola Aug. 17, the same day he was sentenced in open court, saving the victims’ families from a long and grueling death penalty trial and appeals process.
Stutes, 60, says he was eligible to retire March 1 but remained on to tie up some loose ends at the office and chose to stay even longer when his track — he is chief of the DA’s Track 2 Section, part of an informal system for allotting cases based on the date of the offense — was assigned the Shunick case.
But there is another matter pushing Stutes to move on, at least in part.
On Feb. 27 federal agents paid a visit to private investigator Robert Williamson’s Arnould Boulevard home, the same day they were at the DA’s office sifting through the desks and files of Barna Haynes, District Attorney Mike Harson’s longtime office administrator, and ADA Gregory Williams. Investigators were mainly seeking records on the office’s handling of OWI cases — in particular a pretrial diversion program and expungement process (a program Harson created called "immediate 894"). Haynes was put on unpaid administrative leave by Harson two weeks after the FBI came calling.
Sources close to the ongoing federal investigation tell IND Monthly that some in the DA’s office do indeed have doubts about whether OWI cases were properly prosecuted. At some point after the FBI launched its probe, Stutes stepped in to conduct his own investigation of the office.
Stutes declined to comment on what, if any, action he took — IND Monthly reported in April that he had subpoenaed individuals to appear for questioning — but did confirm that the federal probe factored into his decision to retire. “There are a lot of circumstances that bring me to where I am today. That is a factor, among a lot of factors, wanting to spend more time with my grandchildren, my family, other interests,” he says.
It didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who know Stutes that he sought to get answers about the goings on in the office. “I know he is so honest and straightforward that if there was any monkey business — and I’m not saying there was — he would do something about it immediately,” says Lafayette criminal defense attorney William Goode. “He would not stand for it.”
Harson did not return messages left with his office and on his cell phone seeking comment on Stutes’ departure.
While he has been engaging in fund-raising activities, it’s unclear whether the longtime DA plans to seek re-election in the fall of 2014 (Harson was re-elected without opposition in 2008). Stutes’ name — he is highly regarded as a competent prosecutor by his fellow colleagues and defense attorneys alike — has been widely circulated among potential contenders for the post, but he is non-committal on his level of interest. “I have indicated often that it’s never been my intention to run for DA,” Stutes says, “and the older I get, the less inclined I am.”
Still, he would not rule it out. “At this point, it’s premature,” he says.
Reached by phone early Tuesday afternoon, Goode was taken aback by word of Stutes’ retirement. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the defense attorney says. “He’s as good as it gets. He’s got it all. He’s tough as nails, but he’s fair and intellectually honest and has a lot of compassion. You can’t ask for more.
“I’m happy for him in one respect because I know how hard he works,” continues Goode, himself a former state prosecutor in Caddo Parish and a former federal prosecutor.
Diligent and organized are among the words used by those who work with Stutes. “When he tries a case, he’s got it streamlined to a T,” says fellow ADA Danny Landry, a co-prosecutor on the Shunick case. “In my opinion Keith epitomizes a career prosecutor, and young [ADAs] should look to his standards to develop their careers as prosecutors.”
Stutes acknowledges that he’s ready for a little R&R, noting in particular that the emotional toll of difficult cases has intensified over the past three decades.
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.”
MAY 17 Here's a column from James Gill, this time in the Advocate. Gill, who has jumped ship from the Picayune, writes about the absurdity of dueling polls in this post. The numbers are so wildly different, it is obvious that both sides are "cooking the books," he writes. In particular, he looks at Sen. Mary Landrieu, and how her recent actions in DC have been received by those polled. Gill's acerbic, amusing prose is a welcome addition to a paper so conservative as to be occasionally lacking in personality.
MAY 17 Blogger Tom Aswell continues delivering bombshells about the state education department and Gov. Jindal's education "reform" efforts. In this post, he reports that students in the Shreveport area have been signed up for a charter school without their knowledge or consent. Most interesting to Aswell is how this Texas-based charter (with ties to GOP types) got the personal student information it has, if the students didn't give it.
MAY 17 This post by JR Ball in the Baton Rouge Business Report is an interesting tongue-in-cheek look at recent Baton Rouge economic development efforts. Among the items he examines is the idea that gaining a Costco makes BR a "world-class city." (Really? All you need is a different brand of Sam's? MK!) This effort, and other recent ones, are all built on the taxpayer's back, with tax zones, tax incentives and tax rebates, Ball writes.
MAY 17 Blogger CB Forgotston is critical of the legislature's reliance on a revenue-estimating committee's decision to include projected tax amnesty income in this year's forecast. That's a problem, CB posts, because the deadline for these people to pay their taxes is June 30, 2014. So when do you think these people who haven't paid taxes in years are going to pay their taxes? Surely not before June 30, and that means the money won't be there for this year's budget, he argues.
MAY 17 Here's an interesting blog out of California by a Hollywood writer, attorney and academic named Brian Alan Lane. He blogs about higher ed, and was a whistle-blower in a scandal over false credentials. In this post, he takes aim at LSU's new top dog, King Alexander. It's convoluted and a little confusing, but it sure makes Alexander a lot more interesting than he was yesterday.
MAY 17 Blogger Robert Mann writes about the LSU Board's refusal to allow Dr. Fred Cerise to testify before the legislature about Gov. Jindal's plan to close down all the state's charity hospitals and dump the poor on the private system. It's hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Cerise to testify about that, so why would anyone try to prevent him doing so? Mann thinks it is because the powers that be aren't interested in hearing any truth about the plan.
MAY 17 This post on the Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle, a blog that notes developments in the Bayou Corne and Jefferson Island salt domes, talks about a proposed expansion of the salt dome storage under Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish. Residents are working against it for several reasons, including two biggies: the sinkhole disaster in Bayou Corne and the continuing, unexplained bubbling on the surface of the Lake.
MAY 17 NOLA police arrested more people Thursday accused of either being involved in the Mother's Day shooting or hiding the suspect afterward, this Gambit story reports. The NOLA police chief said he suspects the whole thing was gang-related and throws out a challenge to the gangs: he's got informants now, he says, and he knows a lot more than the gangs want him to know. The people who live in the neighborhoods terrorized by gangs are ready to talk, he says.
Is it a crime for citizens to photograph, video, or take notes of a police officer in the line of duty, or a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Locally, such activity, as witnessed recently, will at the very least result in a night spent behind bars.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
Episcopal School of Acadiana’s Dr. Joshua Caffery, chair of the school’s English Department, is headed to Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress as the latest winner of the Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies.