Residents of Caddo Parish in Louisiana are hoping the election of James Stewart, who won the race for district attorney last November, will slow the number of Black men who are being sentenced to death.
According to an article in The Guardian, from 2010 to 2014, Caddo Parish had the unfortunate reputation of sentencing more people to death that any other place in the United States. The cases were presided over by Dale Cox, who is responsible for a third of the inmates on death row in Louisiana.
District attorney is an elected office and people who hold these positions stake their reputations — and their political careers — on how many people they convict. They have a vested interest in racking up high conviction numbers, even if they might cut corners. According to The Guardian, profiles of Cox done by 60 Minutes and The New Yorker portray him as a callous man who was dismissive of racism. He also worked in a office where a colleague had a portrait of a local KKK leader hanging on the wall.
But if people were expecting the election of a Black DA to change things, they might be in for a rude awakening. Stewart, a former judge, has not announced plans to look into convictions presided over by Cox.
Stewart said mass incarceration was also a problem with the Black community.
“We can’t allow some people who could be saved to be caught up,” said Stewart. “That’s the hardest part of the job, identifying them: the murderers and the rapists, clearly, they are gone. But our closet is getting full and so it is starting to spill back out. Economically, we can’t afford mass incarceration. So we’ve got to deal with the problem, but it is not the DA or the sheriff’s problem. It is a community problem.”
Stewart’s election raised the issue of the racial makeup of the American criminal justice system. According to The Guardian, 95 percent of district attorneys are white, but the majority of incarcerated people are non-white.
One area where more Black DAs could make a difference is in jury selection. The Guardian said the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that Caddo Parish DA’s office was deliberately excluding Black people from juries. According to statistics from Reprieve Australia, an anti-death penalty organization, having Black people serve on juries increases the likelihood of an acquittal.
However Rev. Theron Jackson, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Shreveport, said electing a Black DA wouldn’t solve all of the problems in the Black community, which include poverty, poor education and a lack of economic opportunities.
“A DA can’t save this city. He can do his part, but if you’ve got seven things dysfunctional, you change one, you still got six that are dysfunctional,” said Jackson.