The Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld the conviction but overturned the death sentence for a Houma man in the killings of a Lockport woman and her two children.
On Nov. 4, 2012, David Brown, 41, of Houma, stabbed 29-year-old Jacqueline Nieves, and her daughters, Gabriela, 7, and Izabela, 1, raped Jacquelin and Gabriella and set the family’s apartment on fire.
After unanimously convicting Brown on three counts of first-degree murder Oct. 30, 2016, a Lafourche Parish jury decided two days later he should receive the death penalty.
District Judge John LeBlanc of Thibodaux formally sentenced Brown to death June 22, 2018.
It marked the first death sentence handed down in Lafourche in over 40 years.
Attorneys representing Brown appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments from both sides in May.
Cecelia Trenticosta Kappel, an attorney with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, argued her client’s conviction and sentence violate his constitutional rights because he didn’t have an attorney when the jury decided he should die.
In a ruling Sept. 30, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Brown’s convictions but reversed his death sentence in a 7-1 opinion.
Retired Justice Jeannette Knoll, appointed to sit in for Chief Justice John Weimer of Thibodaux, who recused himself in the case, cast the dissenting opinion on the death penalty issue.
The case now goes back to the trial court in Lafourche for resentencing.
Lafourche District Attorney Kristine Russell said while prosecutors are pleased the high court upheld Brown’s convictions, they are reviewing their options regarding the sentencing.
“We are pleased that the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld David Brown’s convictions on all three counts of first-degree murder,” Russell said. “Regardless of the sentence that will eventually be imposed, our most important objective was to protect the community from this predator. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the validity of the convictions will keep this man where he belongs for the rest of his life.”
“Our focus now is to make sure the victims’ families have a voice in the decision-making process and do what we can to vindicate the efforts of the jurors who invested so much in this case to see that justice was done,” Russell added.
Writing for the majority, state Supreme Court Justice Scott J. Crichton said the trial judge erred when he granted Brown’s request to waive his right to an attorney during the sentencing portion of the trial.
According to court records, Brown’s trial attorney had planned to present evidence regarding the defendant’s mother’s abusive childhood to the jury during the sentencing phase. However, Brown objected because “he wanted to protect his mother and not require her to relive the past.”
Following a hearing, the court granted Brown’s request to waive his right to an attorney and proceeded with the rest of the trial.
The defendant later argued the trial judge forced him to choose between allowing his attorney to introduce evidence concerning his mother or waive his right to an attorney during the penalty phase. Brown said in court papers that he would have preferred to proceed with an attorney on the condition that that particular piece of evidence not be presented.
Rather than permit Brown to dismiss his attorney, the trial judge could have prohibited the defense attorney from introducing the evidence about the defendant’s mother, Crichton said.
A capital defendant like Brown is permitted to instruct his appointed attorney not to present certain kinds of evidence during the trial, Crichton said.
“In this case, the record reflects that during the … hearing the trial court made several incorrect statements of law to defendant in regard to his right to limit counsel, informing defendant that defense counsel was ‘required’ to present all the mitigating evidence that counsel believed would make the best case in defense’s favor,” Crichton wrote.
Because the trial judge told the defendant he was not entitled to limit his evidence, the Supreme Court found Brown’s waiver of his attorney to be “unknowing and unintelligent.”
Meanwhile, Russell said her office will continue to seek justice for the victims’ families.
“A death sentence should never be carried out, nor set aside, without exhausting every means of review to ensure that justice is satisfied,” the district attorney said. “This is a long process, and we will continue to play our part in seeking justice for the victims.”
There are 68 death row inmates in Louisiana, but only one has been executed in the past 11 years. Gerald Bordelon, convicted in 2002 for killing his 12-year-old stepdaughter in Livingston Parish, was executed in 2010 after waiving his appeals.
In her dissenting opinion, Knoll said the majority of her fellow justices are “setting a dangerous precedent for an overly liberal interpretation” that combines trial strategy with error and disregards evidence.
“In this instance, the reversal of the sentence and remand for a second penalty phase will needlessly cause the victims’ family to again relive the horrific murders of Izabela, Gabriela and Jacquelin,” Knoll wrote. “In my view, this is a travesty because defendant intelligently, voluntarily and vigorously waived his right to counsel and to the presentation of any case in mitigation.”
A new court date for Brown has not yet been set.
— Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 448-7639 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.