Louisiana Death Sentence Reversed, Charges Dismissed, Lawsuit Filed
by David M. Reutter
Following the reversal of his homicide conviction by the Louisiana Supreme Court in November 2016, death row prisoner Rodricus Crawford, 29, was released on $50,000 bond after serving three years in prison. A new prosecutor reviewed the case and, on April 14, 2017, announced the dismissal of the charges.
Crawford, from Shreveport, was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder in connection with the death of his one-year-old son, Roderius Lott. Attorney Cecelia Kappel, with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, worked on Crawford’s case and recalled his faith that justice would eventually prevail.
“Every time I’d go see him on death row and say we lost another motion, he’d say, ‘I’m going home,’” she observed.
Crawford’s son had what seemed to be a cold when he slept with his father the last two nights of his life. The third morning, Crawford, then 22, found the boy was not breathing. Family members attempted CPR and called paramedics, who pronounced the child dead. They also noticed he had a split lip and bruise-like markings on his hip and head. Crawford later told police that his son had fallen in the tub when he went to get a towel after his bath. Paramedics said he told them the child had fallen from a sofa bed – which Crawford denied saying.
Crawford, who is African-American, went to trial on a first-degree murder charge. His attorneys objected to the fact that prosecutors used five of their seven peremptory strikes to dismiss prospective black jurors, but the judge denied their motion.
There was no dispute at trial that Roderius had fallen the day before his death; his mother confirmed that fact as explanation for his bruising and split lip. To establish that Crawford had murdered his son, the prosecution relied on testimony from two medical professionals.
Louisiana State University pathologist Dr. James Traylor, Jr. testified that his autopsy found evidence of blunt force trauma, leading him to believe the child had been suffocated. Caddo Parish Coroner Dr. Todd Thoma also found evidence that indicated death by suffocation. Neither doctor believed that Roderius’ pneumonia was the cause of death.
Testifying for the defense, forensic pathologist Damel Spitz disagreed, concluding the young boy had died of pneumonia. He added there “wasn’t enough evidence to even put this before a jury. You didn’t have anybody who thought this guy committed murder except for one pathologist who decided it was a homicide on what seemed a whim.”
There was one other person who thought Roderius had been murdered: Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox. Of the 12 death sentences imposed on defendants between 2010 and 2015 in Louisiana, Cox was the lead prosecutor in four of those cases. He once told a reporter, “We need to kill more people.” Following Crawford’s conviction and death sentence, Cox wrote to the Louisiana Probation Department.
“I am sorry that Louisiana has adopted lethal injection as the form of implementing the death penalty [because] Mr. Crawford deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies,” Cox said.
The justices at the Louisiana Supreme Court, however, were seemingly bewildered that homicide charges had been brought against Crawford. Four medical experts submitted reports stating Roderius had died due to pneumonia and his blood tested positive for sepsis, which can be fatal for children.
“Does the record reflect that this father did not love his child?” Justice Jeannette Knoll asked Caddo Parish’s new prosecutor, Tommy Johnson. “Is there any evidence that he occasionally abused the child or was rough with the child?”
“No, your honor,” Johnson responded.
“Then how did the state come about that this was a first-degree murder case – on circumstantial evidence with a child that an autopsy discovered to have sepsis – and ask that this man be put to death on weak circumstances? There’s not even a motive,” Knoll said.
The Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that Cox may have discriminated against black jurors with his peremptory strikes. In a separate opinion, Knoll wrote, “No rational trier of fact could have concluded that the state presented sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the specific intent to kill his one-year-old son.” See: State v. Crawford, 218 So.3d 13 (La. 2016).
Upon remand the state agreed to a $50,000 bond for Crawford, and thanks to funds raised on CrowdRise, he was released pending further court proceedings. But the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office – no longer led by Cox, who did not run for re-election – admitted that it had insufficient evidence to retry Crawford for murder.
“Without any evidence of intentional acts by Crawford that directly caused [his son’s] death, the State faced competing possibilities of neglect by Crawford and potentially other family members in the care and treatment of the child,” the D.A.’s office said in a statement announcing dismissal of the charges.
Now Crawford is left to make sense of it all. Interviewed after his release, he said of the death of his son, “When he left my hands, my whole world changed.”
“When it first happened, I didn’t really want to live anymore,” he added. “Who can deal with that: waking up, your son passed, you go to jail, and they’re saying you did it?”
Over the past five years, about 75 percent of the prisoners on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were sent there by Caddo Parish. Crawford’s case highlighted that fact and received national attention, including a profile in the New Yorker. The infamous Angola prison is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed by death row prisoners alleging “dehumanizing” conditions of confinement.
“You feel like an animal, period,” Crawford said of his time on death row. “It’s all a mind game.... You can go crazy. Not ‘can’ – you’re going crazy.”
On November 16, 2017, Crawford filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Caddo Parish coroner and district attorney’s offices, claiming they deprived him of a fair trial. The complaint also accused Cox of having a “racist world view,” and Caddo Parish of a “well-known history of racism and the arbitrary application of the death penalty.” See: Crawford v. Caddo Parish Coroners Office, U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 5:17-cv-01509-EEF-MLH.
Including Crawford’s case, 158 Louisiana death sentences have been reversed since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nine were outright exonerations.
Sources: www.shreveporttimes.com, www.newyorker.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.nbcnews.com, www.law.umich.edu, Associated Press
Related legal case
Crawford v. Caddo Parish Coroners Office
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 5:17-cv-01509-EEF-MLH.|