District Attorney Grants New Trials to 22 Defendants, Reversing Legacy of a Brutal Judge

  • BY CALVIN JOHNSON, Retired Chief Judge, New Orleans
Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams talks with the media announcing an unprecedented and sweeping legal action that his office waived all objections to new trials for 22 state prisoners convicted by split juries between the years 1974 and 2014 on the Orleans Parish Courthouse steps Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Staff photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

When District Attorney Jason Williams’ office told me he would grant 22 defendants convicted by nonunanimous juries new trials, I was amazed. I didn’t know the event would trigger so many memories. That Williams started this in Section G, Frank Shea’s court, was intentional.

I watched Shea brutalize defendants there. It is easy to focus on those tried within minutes, as the article does (Terrance Knox’s 1996 murder trial, during Shea’s waning months in office, lasted three hours) but every day he jailed people for little or nothing.

He single-handedly contributed to mass incarceration and intergenerational trauma. Think about those young people he put in jail for little or nothing. They went into jail as children and they came out labeled as criminals. There was a simple reason: Once stamped with a felony conviction, they were doomed for life.

Worst was the media, print and electronic, who portrayed him as a crime-fighting hero. Shea’s speed on the bench was the stuff of legends. In 1975, he purportedly held 168 jury trials, and the following year the Louisiana Legislature commended him for “silencing long-winded, redundant attorneys.” In 1984, Shea held six felony trials in a single day, The Lens reported.

A hundred and sixty-eight trials in one year mean few if any of those received what our Constitution requires — effective assistance of counsel. They received no representation at all because there was not a real public defense system.

The media couldn’t care less. They perpetuated Jim Crow and racism, created a mindset in New Orleans and Louisiana this was a good thing. In keeping with his need to achieve his trial results, he never appointed the Tulane or Loyola Law Clinic, supervised by me, to represent anyone in his court. He literally said to me, “Why are you here? You don’t represent anyone in this court.” My reply: “I just came to watch.”

At Williams’ news conference, former District Attorney Ed Tarpley, of Alexandria, who led the fight for the unanimous jury constitutional amendment, shared these thoughts: God hates injustice. And let me tell you that Louisiana has lived through generations of injustice and this is our chance to change that. And what this man has done here today is a step forward to restore true justice in Louisiana and fight the generations of injustice that have plagued the citizens of our state too long.

This is a new day for New Orleans and Louisiana. We have the power legally and morally to correct past wrongs. John P. Nelson, director of the Loyola Law Clinic, said “It’s never too late to do what’s right.” This is Williams’ time but — more importantly, our time — to do what’s right.


Retired Chief Judge

New Orleans