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Louisiana Judge’s Views May Warrant Recusal in All Death Penalty Cases

by David R. Bailey

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton’s self-recusal from hearing “Angola 5” David Brown’s death penalty appeal ensured that Brown’s due process rights would not be compromised. Brown feared he could not receive a fair review by the state Supreme Court following Crichton’s comments made during a radio interview.

Brown was already serving a life sentence for murder when he participated in a December 28, 1999 escape attempt from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola that resulted in the death of Captain David Knapps. Brown and other prisoners incapacitated Knapps and dragged him to a staff bathroom, where he was killed. One of the prisoners who tried to escape, Joel Durham, was fatally shot by guards. [See: PLN, April 2000, p.10].

In 2011, Brown, one of five prisoners charged with first-degree murder, was convicted for his role in the incident and sentenced to death.

On appeal, retired Judge Jerome Winsberg upheld Brown’s murder conviction but vacated his death sentence. The judge explained that prisoner Richard Dominigue had provided a statement claiming that fellow prisoner Barry Edge had confessed to a plan solely between Edge and prisoner Jeffrey Clark to kill Knapps. That statement may have changed the verdict at Brown’s trial, except it was never disclosed to Brown’s attorney or to the jury. Winsberg concluded that due process warranted vacating the capital sentence.

The Louisiana Supreme Court reinstated Brown’s death sentence in a 2016 opinion in which Crichton voted with the majority. The Court noted that Brown was not convicted as the actual killer, but for his participation in a crime that resulted in an intentional murder. It also reasoned that Dominigue’s statement failed to identify the actual killer and did not eliminate Brown as the killer, thus it did not warrant a reversal on appeal.

While Brown’s state appeal was again pending before the Supreme Court, Justice Crichton, 63, appeared on a morning radio talk show on October 23, 2017 where the “Angola 5” death penalty case was a focal point. Crichton and the show’s host openly agreed that failure to impose the death penalty on a prisoner who kills someone while already serving a life sentence would equate to a lack of punishment.

In addressing the death penalty, Crichton admonished, “If we’re gonna have it, use it.” Not only should the court use it, he added, but they should use it expediently and with much publicity if it is to be an effective deterrent. He was outraged that death penalty proponents were successfully harassing pharmaceutical companies that manufacture lethal injection drugs, thereby delaying executions.

Justice Crichton said he detested the idea that a murderer who showed no regard for the victim’s due process rights could dare to complain that his own constitutional rights were possibly being violated. He added that the only rights convicted murderers should be afforded is a right to choose their form of execution – either a lethal injection cocktail, a single drug or the firing squad.

Brown and his attorney, Billy Sothern, cringed at the thought that Crichton could rant so blatantly on the radio show yet still present himself as a fair and impartial judge when hearing death penalty appeals. Sothern filed a motion to recuse, and on the following day, November 21, 2017, Crichton rescued himself without providing an explanation.

Sothern has questioned Justice Crichton’s suitability to hear any future death penalty appeals, and it remains to be seen whether the judge will recuse himself in other cases. Crichton’s term on the state Supreme Court ends in 2025. 

Sources:, Associated Press

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