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.”