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Ties That Bind

For courtroom observers, recent reports of grim reaper and noose neckties in Jefferson Parish courtrooms are knotted up in issues of race and history.

By Katy Reckdahl

noose Illustration by Rhett Thiel

For Christmas 2001, prosecutor Cameron Mary received a red necktie from Diane Amstutz. Handpainted on it was a white noose outlined in black.

Mary was not the first in his office to receive an Amstutz original. In June of that year, for his 40th birthday, co-worker Donald Rowan had received a light-gray tie with a grim reaper painted on it. Like Mary's, it had a label on the back reading "Made by Diane."

Mary, Rowan and Diane Amstutz's husband, Walter, work together as prosecutors in the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office. Over the past year, the noose and the grim reaper ties have been showing up in parish courtrooms, around the necks of Mary and Rowan. Then came Friday, Dec. 6, and the ties were destined for a dresser drawer somewhere.

On that day, local death-penalty defense attorney Clive Stafford-Smith filed a document titled "Motion to Prohibit Prosecutors From Wearing Tasteless and Improper Garb in the Courthouse." It's one of 91 pre-trial motions that Stafford-Smith has filed on behalf of his client, Lawrence Jacobs Jr., a young black man charged with first-degree murder.

Stafford-Smith's colleague Billy Sothern wrote most of the motion, which he drafted after watching a defendant's family become upset at the neckties during a previous death-penalty hearing. The text contains allegations of discriminatory practices -- disproportionate jury selection and overrepresentation of Jefferson Parish blacks on death row -- mixed with a primer on racial lynching that goes so far as to cite the lyrics of the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit."

Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick says that he didn't know that the ties were being worn, he agrees they're inappropriate, and that he immediately instructed Mary and Rowan not to wear the ties again to work.

"End of story," says Connick, noting that his office would still respond to the motion, because of its allegations of racism. "The impression you get at first blush," Connick says, "is that these guys are wearing these ties into the courtroom and creating prejudicial issues, racial issues. That has not happened. More importantly to me, personally and professionally, that is not what my office is about."

Since The New York Times first broke the necktie story in its Sunday, Jan. 5, editions, Connick's office has received inquiries from national media, including the CBS Morning Show and Connie Chung. The Times-Picayune also ran a front-page story, as well as an editorial and cartoon condemning the neckties.

The reason for this attention may lie in historic and ongoing events that, according to some observers, link the ties to issues of justice and racial fairness within the walls of the Jefferson Parish courthouse and elsewhere.

The noose image can't be separated from race, says Cassia Spohn, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has focused her research on disparity in sentencing. Spohn sees a parallel in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' comments during a recently heard cross-burning case. "Justice Thomas said that a burning cross symbolized something to African Americans and it symbolized only one thing." Given the history of lynching in this country, says Spohn, "one could almost make that same argument in regard to the hangman's noose."

The defendant's father, Lawrence Jacobs Sr., a department-store manager, agrees. He was born outside of Jackson, Miss., in 1955. "Lynching. Medgar Evers. School integration. Riots. I came up during that period," he says. "This tie -- something like this sends me right back there."

His son got a message, too. "Cameron wears that tie to let people know he is a hangman," says the younger Jacobs. "Why else wear a tie with a noose on it? It's not like it's in fashion."

Jefferson Parish court insiders are reluctant to speak on the record about the neckties. They'll tell you that Paul Connick is an aggressive prosecutor -- but point out that Connick was also a big supporter of the Louisiana hate-crime statute and is hiring some blacks into his office. Ask about Donald Rowan and Cameron Mary and you'll hear about the prosecutors holding the hand of widows and comforting grieving families -- regardless of color. Even courthouse regulars who admit they don't care personally for Rowan or Mary say you can't call them racists.

Connick's right-hand man, First District Attorney Steve Wimberly, doesn't hesitate. "Cameron Mary doesn't have a racist bone in his body," he says.

On Jan. 3, Connick's office issued an official memorandum in response to the necktie motion. In it, the prosecution team addressed the other allegations and then wrote: "To the extent that counsel's motion is directed to a grim reaper or a noose tie, the motion is moot." As a pre-trial motion, it continued, the motion was premature: "[T]he prosecutors have not yet decided what ties they will wear for the trial. Indeed, such a choice will only be made each morning of trial and it will be based on various factors, none of which, contrary to counsel's repulsive motion, will be based on race."

Yet even if no one had racist intentions, the effect of those ties remains the same, says David Pilgrim, a Ferris University professor of sociology who specializes in the study of racist objects. "At some point we're trying to answer one question," says Pilgrim. "If you're a black defendant sitting in the courtroom and you look over there and see this white guy with a noose on his tie, what message does that send to you?"

During the past few years, the death penalty has, in the words of one federal judge, come "under siege." Illinois and Maryland each has instituted a death-penalty moratorium in response to questions about innocence and the high percentage of blacks killed on death row. Other states are amending capital punishment statutes.

Last week, the University of Maryland released a study spanning two decades that concluded, among other findings, that black defendants who kill whites are most likely to get the death penalty. Overall, young black and Hispanic males are most likely to be the target of harsh sentencing, says Cassia Spohn, who examined 40 of the top studies linking race and criminal sentencing for her 125-page piece on the topic for a U.S. Department of Justice research compilation.

"There's so much concern right now about the fairness of the death-penalty process that I would think that prosecutors would want to be scrupulous about their behavior in the courtroom," says Spohn. "Today, any type of behavior that signals a lack of concern really signals to me [a] subtle or less obvious discrimination may be occurring."

The Lawrence Jacobs case -- a retrial of a 1998 verdict that was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2001 -- is filled with hot-button death-penalty issues. Jacobs is black; he is charged in the deaths of two whites during the course of an armed robbery. Jacobs was 16 when he was arrested, just old enough in Louisiana to be eligible for the death penalty. The state will not consider any sentence but death in Jacobs' case, despite the fact that they successfully prosecuted an older co-defendant, Roy Bridgewater, as the shooter.

No current comprehensive study has examined linkages between race and sentencing in the Louisiana criminal-justice system. But this past year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation took an in-depth look at the state's juvenile-justice system. The study reveals that, even when prior offenses and other factors were taken into consideration, black youth in Louisiana were incarcerated more often and served more time, says Joseph Liu, a senior associate for the foundation. "The disparities are so wide and the differences are not explained by the number of prior offenses or the severity of the offense," says Liu.

In 1988, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act tied federal funding to a requirement that states treat juveniles equitably on the basis of race. Spohn says that this means there's much more race-and-sentencing research on juveniles than adults. In the adult system, it's more typical to form task forces, which conduct hearings and draw conclusions from testimony. The Louisiana Supreme Court's Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts did just that in the mid-1990s. It's final report in 1996 found, among other things, that there was "at minimum a perception of bias" in Louisiana courts.

The task force held one hearing in the New Orleans City Council chambers. Denise LeBoeuf, currently the director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, was there to testify about her experiences as a public defender in Jefferson Parish. "The plea bargains were explicitly different when I had a white client," LeBoeuf recalls telling the task force. "And sitting judges used the 'n-word' in conversation in the courtroom."

In the early 1990s, when Denise LeBoeuf worked as a public defender in Jefferson Parish, some prosecutors -- most notably Ronnie Bodenheimer and Jim Williams -- routinely bought each other special awards. "They gave plaques called the Big Prick awards," says LeBoeuf. "Each plaque had half of a mock hypodermic needle, a big one, along with the date and the name of the defendant who had been sentenced to death."

At first the plaques hung on the walls of the district attorney's office on the fifth floor of the Jefferson Parish courthouse. Then, when Bodenheimer was elected judge and took the bench in 1999, he moved his awards down to his new digs. This display, says LeBoeuf, set the tone for the rest of the court. "You tell me," she says. "If you come into a sitting judge's chambers and you see the Big Prick awards hanging on the wall, why would you as a prosecutor think that there is anything wrong with wearing a noose on your necktie?"

Williams did not return phone calls for this story; Bodenheimer attorney Eddie Castaing Jr. says that the plaques "weren't anything official, just an 'atta-boy' kind of thing between colleagues."

LeBoeuf says that, although she considers Jefferson Parish a "vibrant and wonderful community," that doesn't translate to its criminal courts. "Like many white-flight communities, it has developed a criminal justice system where overwhelmingly the defendants are people of color," she says. "And overwhelmingly, the prosecutors, law enforcement, judges, and juries are white."

Sandy Krasnoff disagrees. The former police officer and longtime victims' rights advocate calls wearing a noose necktie "flat stupidity." But in terms of overall justice, he would rank Jefferson Parish at the top of the state and maybe even the country. "I could understand how defense attorneys probably figure that Jefferson Parish is the most persistent or vicious in pursuit of death-penalty cases," says Krasnoff, who heads the group Victims and Citizens Against Crime. "But most defense attorneys are just opposed to the death penalty, regardless of the facts and circumstances.

"Let me say this to you," Krasnoff continues. "Their citizens in Jefferson, particularly their juries, are naturally much more conservative than in Orleans Parish, where you have a black majority. Race plays a large part in this stuff. You only got a 23 percent black population out there. And I think that the elected officials out there, DAs and others, are sensitive to what the citizens yell and scream about."

David Pilgrim, the Ferris University professor, has studied lynchings in America. "From a historical standpoint," he says, "I can see a person making the argument that a noose wasn't always identified with blacks."

At first, Pilgrim says, white criminals were among those lynched. "But once you get around the year 1880, lynchings became increasingly identified with the social control of black people," he says. "I would say that today, when you think of American lynchings, you think of a black person being lynched."

Evergreen State College professor Michael Pfeifer is currently writing a book about lynching and criminal justice and has presented a paper on what he calls the "lynching frenzy" that took place in Jefferson Parish during the 1890s. In March 1892, the New Orleans Picayune referred to that frenzy in an editorial that decried the "already scarlet record of Jefferson Parish." A century later, the parish would endure more national notoriety when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran for -- and won -- the state legislative seat for the district.

As a result, it may be nearly impossible to separate the image of a noose from racial overtones while sitting in Jefferson Parish court -- or any American courtroom. "Think of how much more often blacks receive the death penalty, especially in the South," Pilgrim says. "These things aren't lost on people."

Pilgrim, a native of Mobile, Ala., also curates the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery, an archive of approximately 7,000 items ranging from Whites Only restroom signs to mammy dolls, lynching postcards, racist salt shakers, fishing lures and computer mouse pads. He would like to add Cameron Mary's tie to the collection.

"One of the reasons I like it," he says, "is because it's not clear that it's wrong. To a lot of Americans, if it has the word 'nigger' in it, then they know it's wrong. But if it doesn't, they're not sure if it's appropriate or not."

Katy Reckdahl, a New Orleans-based freelance writer, contributed reporting to the Jan. 5
New York Times article about the neckties.