Out of Order
The Death Penalty Election: A Louisiana Parish Is Ground Zero for the Capital Punishment Debate
In Caddo Parish, Louisiana, a white incumbent squares off against a black challenger, with a billionaire and right-wing provocateur looming in the shadows.
For a county of around 250,000 residents, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has attracted an outsize share of attention of late: long-form articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times, a Super-PAC funded by billionaire George Soros, and Saturday’s closely watched election for the office of district attorney, now headed for a runoff.
Why? Because of Dale Cox, Caddo Parish’s interim district attorney (his predecessor was found dead in a Baton Rouge hotel of natural causes) and a Bible-quoting, revenge-seeking prosecutor who singlehandedly, and proudly, was responsible for a third of Louisiana’s death row inmates—the vast majority of them African Americans.
Cox was not on the ballot; even Cox’s fellow conservatives said that he had brought “bad press” to Caddo Parish—home to the last capital of the Confederacy, with a Confederate monument in front of the county courthouse, where lynchings used to be held. “Our community does not need any more controversy,” Cox told the Shreveport Times when he decided not to run.
That controversy has focused on a few of Cox’s most notorious cases.
There’s the murder conviction of Rodricus Crawford, which Cox secured despite thin evidence and racist appeals to the all-white jury. (Crawford was convicted of murdering his 1-year-old son; Rachel Aviv’s long article in the New Yorker last summer suggested the death was likely an accident or a result of pneumonia.) Last Monday, a group of 100 religious leaders filed an amicus brief in Crawford’s appeal, protesting Cox’s use of Biblical quotations to support his argument for death.
Then there’s the case of Glen Ford, another black man sent to death row by Caddo Parish. He spent 30 years on death row, much of it in solitary confinement, before a court declared him innocent in 2014. Ford died of lung cancer within a year of being released.
Cox defended the prosecution—on 60 Minutes, no less—and has said that Ford’s heirs aren’t entitled to compensation because Ford didn’t tell police about the robbery which led to the murder he didn’t commit.
At the same time, it’s possible that Cox didn’t run for office because he has his sights set higher. A bit like Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, Cox has already become a right-wing media celebrity precisely because the left-wing finds him so odious. He’s justified the death penalty as an expression of “revenge”; he’s said “we need to kill more people;” he’s said of racism, “I don’t get this discrimination business, I really don’t.” And he has a portrait of a Confederate general turned Ku Klux Klan leader hanging in his office.
So it’s quite possible we have not heard the last of Dale Cox.
But he wasn’t on the ballot. Six other people were, including James Stewart, an African-American judge who would represent a sea change from Cox and all he represents.
That, presumably, is why George Soros gave a quarter of a million dollars to a Louisiana Super PAC, which began running ads on Stewart’s behalf.
The blowback was predictable. All five of the other candidates—joined by the parish’s Republican Party chairman and a local African-American radio host—held a press conference on the courthouse steps to denounce Soros.
“George Soros reflects an anti-American sentiment that does not reflect the values of Caddo Parish,” said the Republican chairman, Louis Avallone.
Stewart, meanwhile, distanced himself from Soros.
“My campaign knows nothing about where the funding for this PAC comes from,” he said. “Just like my campaign cannot force a PAC to stop a negative ad, my campaign cannot stop a positive ad.”
Hardly a grateful embrace—but now that the results are in, it seems like the money must have helped, or at least didn’t hurt. Stewart, who entered the race last, finished first with 42 percent of the vote. His main Republican challenger, Dhu Thompson, finished second with 35 percent.
The two will now be headed for a runoff election.
Both are experienced prosecutors: Stewart served for 35 years as a prosecutor and a judge, and Thompson has served as a Caddo Parish prosecutor, leading the prosecution of a number of high-profile cases.
But Thompson is essentially an incumbent, having worked for Cox as an assistant district attorney and having garnered the endorsements of the Republican Party of Louisiana. Announcing his candidacy, he said he would “keep Caddo Parish safe from violent criminals”—precisely the “law and order” messaging that, studies have shown, leads to over-prosecution and a bias toward convictions over fairness.
This is not to single out Thompson, or to taint him by association with Cox. But it is to say that Thompson represents the status quo, while Stewart represents a significant change in the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office. Fairly or not, the election is largely a referendum on Cox and his race-tainted, law-and-order approach to criminal justice.
Which is why Soros has gotten involved in the first place: because this small Louisiana county has become a symbol of mass incarceration, the racialized nature of prosecutorial power, and capital punishment. There are other places in America where prosecutors exclude blacks from juries, prosecute blacks more severely than whites, and have a fondness for the death penalty. But Cox’s statistics are so severe, and his comments so outrageous, that he has become a symbol of all of them.
In a sense, then, the two most important players in this race—Soros and Cox—are not on the ballot, but their competing visions of criminal justice are and now they’re headed for a runoff.