“We’re way in the deep end drowning”
Baton Rouge murders are only one portion of the problem East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore and his office face.
The district attorney’s office has a copious amount of backlogged cases, in addition to new ones that continue to pour in.
“We’re really drowning in cases at this point,” Moore said. “We probably have around 280 murder cases yet to be tried in one fashion or another.”
Moore said the flood in 2016 represented the start of a large number of backlogged cases. Before the office could catch up on those cases, the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down again.
He explained anytime offices shut down because of flooding or big rains or snow, they fall further behind on the caseload.
There were 170 homicides in 2021 just in East Baton Rouge Parish and 136 in 2020, according to the EBR Coroner’s Office. Moore said that number normally was around 80 for a given year.
“When our office stays the same size and judges stay the same size, you can imagine the backlog,” he explained. “When you’re wanting to let people out of jail because of Covid and you see them return, things get harder and harder. It seems now everything is more complicated with DNA, body cameras, you name it, so the cases that used to be triable within a year now take much longer. That has all added to the backlog.”
Because of the current state, Moore said the timeline for cases going to trial varies but it can range from one to three years.
The community’s trust in the system could help get rid of some of the backlogged cases, according to the DA.
“This is the same thing that’s occurring across the country and it’s a lack of trust in the system,” he said. “When people don’t trust the system, they don’t cooperate and that means that we have no witnesses. When police make an arrest on probable cause, maybe cellphone or some technology and that’s as far as it gets, I have no one to put in the chair to testify and say ‘that’s the man that killed’ because they’re afraid, then it makes it much more difficult. We have to find a way to restore trust in the system.”
Moore said it’s possible his office could see an even bigger bump in caseload.
“Now, it’s 12-0 (unanimous verdict) for a jury,” Moore said. “That’s a different structure for us. When you add the (Evangelisto) Ramos non-unanimous verdicts where we have to retry that whole group of cases. Then there’s another effort for us to have to retry 1500 non-unanimous jury verdicts that people have already exhausted their appeals and we’re waiting on a Supreme Court decision on that now. If that decision says we have to retry those people, for Baton Rouge that means 200 to 300 more cases, mainly murder, rape, and significant cases. We’re way in the deep end drowning if that were to happen.”
In 2015, Evangelisto Ramos was indicted in Louisiana state court for second-degree murder. Ramos defended his innocence and demanded a trial. After deliberation, 10 of the 12 jurors found him guilty and because of a provision in Louisiana’s constitution that allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts at the time, Ramos was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Ramos appealed arguing that the U.S. Constitution requires jury unanimity to convict and took it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 6-3 vote, the court reversed the decision against Ramos, ruling that unanimity of a jury vote for conviction set by the sixth amendment must also be an incorporated right against the states.
In 2018, Louisiana Amendment 2, the unanimous jury verdict for felony trials amendment, was on the ballot and with 64.3% of the votes, it was approved.
That would add to the already heavy workload the prosecutors in East Baton Rouge face. Moore estimated that each prosecutor has between 300 and 400 cases.
“That’s a significant number. We are doubled what we should have. Probably the same with the public defender’s office and the court staff. We have to find a way to stop the volume of cases coming in. If we don’t ever stop the volume coming in, that back end is just going to keep growing. That’s not going to be fixed by law enforcement alone. That has to be by the community. We have to stop that inflow.”
Moore said his office is looking to attend a seminar in the coming months on ways to reduce the backlog of cases.
“In the middle of all this, you have a victim and you have to make the best decision you can on what you have and often times it’s frustrating for victims where we surely can’t give them their person back but try and make sure they understand the system and get what they think is justice out of it,” he said.