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Outside donor to alter Caddo sentencing policy?

Northwest Louisiana is in the midst of an interesting electoral experiment – dump a lot of national money, from just one donor, into backing a local candidate, and see if that translates into policy change that a majority of its citizens likely oppose.

The First Judicial District Attorney’s contest – which is Caddo Parish – is the office in question. With no incumbent running, as its previous holder Charles Scott died earlier this year, these kinds of races usually have an onslaught of candidates as historically, like judges, this office does not often see incumbents defeated. Win this time, and chances are good that victor keep the job as long as he likes.

Several candidates came out of the woodwork to fight for it, including former Second Circuit Courts of Appeals Judge James Stewart. That created controversy as he announced for the office prior to resigning his position, leaving it just before qualifying for office. In a subsequent lawsuit challenging that, a visiting judge ruled a matter like this properly should go before the state’s Judicial Commission, not a court, and declared the suit frivolous.

Then attention on the race mushroomed further when campaign finance documents revealed that liberal billionaire political activist George Soros had donated over $400,000 to a political action committee that supported Stewart in the election. Observers speculated the donation came out of Soros’ desire to see the number of capital sentences reduced coming out of the First District, which disproportionately metes them out and disproportionately to black defendants. It more than doubled the impressive at least $192,000 he raised since the beginning of August.

Stewart hasn’t made any public statements about the issue of capital sentencing, but to be a front-runner in the contest he didn’t need that outside cash working on his behalf. A former prosecutor and long-time judge in the district, the black Democrat is running in a district where 36 percent of registered voters are black Democrats, where 46 percent of registrants are black and where Democrats have just below an absolute majority of registrants. Another black Democrat and white Democrat opposed him, along with two Republicans and a no-party candidate.

In isolation with these dynamics but without the outside help, Stewart would have been expected to run first in the general election and he did, picking up 41 percent of the vote to put him in a runoff with Republican prosecutor Dhu Thompson, who with 37 percent easily outdistanced the other candidates to join him in the runoff. Thompson, who identifies as Hispanic, has not made direct reference on the campaign trail to the alleged racial disparity in and frequency of capital cases, although Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, long-time confidant of Pres. Barack Obama and a death penalty opponent who is skeptical that blacks receive equal justice in the U.S., accused him in print of implicit racism and eagerness in prosecuting capital cases.

Of significance, 12 percent of the vote went to other Democrats running, two-thirds of that to the other black candidate. Looking more closely at supermajority precincts – the 17 where at least 95 percent of registrants are black and the 8 where at least 95 percent of them are white or at least 60 percent are white Democrats or at least 60 percent are Republicans, where these serve as proxies for racial and partisan voting – Stewart and the other black candidate got 93.7 percent of the votes in the supermajority black precincts and 16.2 percent in the other supermajority precincts. Using these metrics and unofficial turnout figures of the 25 precincts in question (25.8 percent for the 17, 36.2 percent for the 8), Thompson wins by around 1,650 votes. But if black turnout ends up with only half that racial gap, Stewart wins.

A couple of hundred thousand bucks probably won’t do a whole lot to convince voters to cast their lots with Stewart at this point. But it could get a significant number of likely voters for him out of the house and to the polls, and thereby make a difference. If so, this infusion of outside cash may act in concert with the larger strategy of death penalty opponents to kill it by a thousand cuts. Instead of trying to repeal it in jurisdictions that favor it, instead they find indirect means to obstruct it, such as pressuring providers of the chemicals used in it not to supply these, or in stringing out appeals on procedural grounds … or by electing officials who pledge publicly to voters or privately to special interests that can donate much to PACs that they will avoid seeking such indictments and penalties where it comes into play.

In the final analysis, of certainty is that Caddo will elect its first minority district attorney. Less certain is whether national dollars flooding the contest now will affect sentencing of murderers in the future apparently in a way contrary to what a majority of the population desires.

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