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Battle for District Attorney: Candidates speak on topics

by Minden Press-Herald

The office of 26th Judicial District Attorney is one that must be balanced between Bossier and Webster parishes. The editorial staff at the Minden Press-Herald recently asked questions of the current district attorney, Schuyler Marvin, and his challenger, Whit Graves concerning the programs of the office and what can be done to make it work better.

Whit Graves

Whit Graves

Whit Graves

What are the qualities of a good district attorney?

Fairness, attention to detail and preparation. We’re seeing too many cases that are unjustifiable with similar facts in the treatment of the two people are dramatically different. A lot of this comes from not paying attention to details of the case when they come from the police departments and not taking into consideration every aspect of the case.

Sometimes people will perceive this as favoritism, and that has to be carefully avoided at all times when dealing with different aspects of people who come in to the criminal justice system. There can be no appearance of a different treatment because of race, economic status, or position in the community.

Preparation is one of the problems I am seeing with the current district attorney’s office. Almost every assistant district attorney works there on a part-time basis. Not every assistant district attorney needs to be a full-time employee. There are areas of the district attorney’s office such as representation of the police jury that do not require a full-time position, and we need to hire attorneys who are knowledgeable in areas of business and finance, but there is just not enough business from the police jury to justify that as a full-time position.

When we get into handling murder cases, aggravated rape cases and things of that nature, it takes an extreme amount of preparation to get those cases ready to go to trial. If you don’t have that preparation, then you make the mistake of jeopardizing the case when it does go to trial. The realization that you haven’t fully prepared for the trial sometimes causes you to have to accept a plea agreement.

What is your policy for disseminating information?

When I worked for Henry Brown and later for Jim Bullers, it was our policy that we placed all police reports and all information that we were giving to the defendant, in the file with the clerk of court’s office, noting that we would delete from that information names of victims – especially those of elderly people or children – innocent victims in rape, child abuse cases and incest cases – so they would not suffer any embarrassment by it being released to the news media or other people who wanted to look at the records themselves.
It’s absolutely necessary if the case is appealed, that the appellate court can look at the same records. The court must know they are receiving all the same information the defense received at the same time.

It is imperative so the media can be the watchdog over the district attorney’s office to ensure there are no improprieties being committed and the fairness of justice is across the board to all and that some people are not receiving preferable treatment.

What will be your procedures for plea bargains?

In nonviolent offenses, where property has been stolen, torn up or otherwise destroyed, before any consideration for any type of plea agreement is made, full restitution must be made. I mean at replacement value – not a future promise to pay it while on probation.
When it comes to our most heinous cases, plea bargains will happen only because we have a very strong possibility that a jury could find the perpetrator not guilty, or they might find them guilty of a lesser crime than what was actually committed because there is a lack of evidence or other problems.

Will you consult family members of victims before offering a plea bargain?

Coordination and consent of the victims of these crimes will be of paramount attention to us. Both parishes have a victim impact coordinator who is not an attorney and cannot explain to these people what is going on with the case and why a plea agreement may or may not be acceptable. Keeping in touch with victims of crimes will be of great importance to me.

Do you believe the DA’s office is well staffed?

There are a lot of competent people that are currently working for the district attorney’s office. What is missing is the proper direction and expectations of those staff members. They have the ability to do the work. I don’t believe they’re being directed on the right course and achieving the objectives of service to the citizens of this area.

I also look at the number of attorneys we have in the two offices. At the current time, I don’t believe there are but one or two assistant district attorneys who are full time. We can’t change that overnight but we can work toward having more full-time assistant district attorneys so they can pay greater attention to their cases instead of accepting the lure to get back to their private offices where they are getting paid for the amount of work they produce and not on a straight salary they are getting from the district attorney’s office.
The DA’s office is not just about prosecuting criminals. What programs will your office support and try to move forward?

Bossier Parish has a Young Marines program; Webster does not. I’ve got to try and coordinate with both parishes and their sheriffs to get a program for our children who are almost out of control but we still think that we can bring them back in and direct them in the proper way to exist in our society. Other programs would be trying to rehabilitate through drug and alcohol substance abuse education, especially young people who have gotten in trouble for the first time. That would probably work out of the district attorney’s office on an intense diversion program, where if they pass the diversion program, we can forestall any conviction.

Schuyler Marvin

Schuyler Marvin

Schuyler Marvin

What are the qualities of a good district attorney?

You have to evaluate the facts of a criminal case when it gets to you.

You’ve got to be able to think outside the box. I’m not scared to try anything. If you tried something and it didn’t work to your satisfaction, I’m fine with that. But you’ve got to be willing to try different things. We have a lot of other programs we’ve tried. Teen court for instance, is huge. If you get a kid for a speeding ticket, and you bring that kid up for speeding, you know who’s going to pay the insurance? It’s not him or her. It’s his mama or daddy. So you put him in teen court, punish him to some extent, but he doesn’t end up with a speeding ticket on his record. That’s not what being a DA is all about. You’ve got to help people when you can, and teen court is a hugely successful program. The kids who have been in trouble, actually become the judge and jury in the next kid’s problem. They are way more tough than some of the jurors in my criminal cases.

What is your policy for disseminating information?

We don’t usually give out a whole lot of information while a case is pending. It doesn’t do you any good to taint a jury pull, which is what some prosecutors are accused of doing. Problem is, law enforcement agencies talk to the press, not to intentionally damage a case. When they make an arrest in a bad case, they want to tell you about it, and that’s good. But as far as telling the press information and details of your case, we try to stay away from that. It’s not any effort to try and avoid transparency, it’s just if you do that, the defense lawyers will accuse the prosecutor of tainting the jury pull and creating an atmosphere where his client has already been convicted in the press and can’t get a fair trial.

At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act.

What are your procedures for plea bargains?

We screen cases as they come in. There are times frequently where we will want to make plea offers when the case initially comes in the door. If you read the case file, you know what you’ve got. You can’t try every case, but if you have enough good facts, a good case file developed by the police, then I make plea offers at the time I screen the cases.

The very first thing I do is look at the rap sheet to see what that person has done before. If they were on probation, did they successfully complete it, did they get revoked and if so, where did that happen? Was it a local case? But the rap sheet is hugely critical to me, and before I make any offer in any case, I am going to look at a rap sheet. I don’t disagree with the philosophy of second chances, but if you look at somebody and it’s his third time around, then no.

Do you consult family members of victims before offering a plea bargain?

Absolutely. We have a victim assistance coordinator in both parishes. She is the first one I contact. She sends the victim a letter initially – within a week of when we have a file. She sends them a packet of information. They usually call her back first, and at that time, I meet with the coordinator weekly, and we go over cases. Some victims are obviously irate and want an eye for an eye. Some of your victims will say I don’t want (him) prosecuted, especially if the alleged perpetrator is a family member. So you have to start your balancing act then. The victims that are really interested in the case and in justice, it’s very important that we talk to them about any plea bargains.

Do you believe the DA’s office is well staffed?

Yes, we actually have seven fewer employees than when I took over. Our total budget is still high, but we are operating with less and the volume of work is more. That’s total staff. My ADAs’ (assistant district attorneys) numbers haven’t changed. The volume in Bossier is more, but in Webster we operate a little differently. In Bossier, we have an ADA assigned to a particular judge. In Webster, every ADA goes in front of all the judges. That’s worked great and is not anything I would ever consider changing. The judges like it, the secretarial staff and ADAs like it. I’m happy with our staff.

The DA’s office is not just about prosecuting criminals. What programs will your office support and try to move forward?

All juvenile programs – teen court, truancy. One of the things I’m excited about is truancy. We didn’t have truancy in Webster Parish when I got elected, and I brought truancy here.
It’s been hugely successful. I still need to do more work with the school board, but that’s a big deal. If you keep a kid in school, chances are you’re going to keep him out of the criminal justice system later. Truancy is funded through money from the slot machines at Louisiana Downs. That money fluctuates. We’ve had to make some cuts there, no doubt. Everything’s gone up, including insurance. All of those truancy divergence, juvenile programs are all huge.

Grant money in Louisiana is fallen off the chart. It’s dwindled to almost nothing – it’s almost more trouble than it’s worth.

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