Unmasking the Motives

It’s a frequent occurrence during legislative sessions – lawmakers and others offering opinions and testimony about bills try to “thread the needle” by couching their objections in terms that mask the real reasons for their opposition. Sometimes it works. Other times it results in big reveals of those ulterior motives. Wednesday, in the House Criminal Justice Committee, the results were not one, but two spectacular unmaskings. When Senator J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) brought his anti-bestiality bill (SB 236) up on the Senate floor, he tweeted about the floor notes sent out by the Louisiana Family Forum, urging a “no” vote on the legislation. Although ten senators complied with that Christian-advocacy group’s request, the bill retained sufficient support (25 yea votes) to head over to the House. It came up in the lower chamber’s Criminal Justice committee Wednesday. And LFF’s executive director Gene Mills spoke against it. “We are compelled to caution and committed to defending our faith,” Mills began. “We oppose striking Louisiana’s bestiality clause from its place in the current statute, where it has been state law for generations. We oppose changing the crimes against nature law because we need to preserve Louisiana’s current statute intact, which spells out community standards of morality.” Part of SB 236 strikes the language “or with an animal” from the state’s original “crimes against nature” statute, as part of setting up a new statute specific to bestiality. Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) offered an amendment to keep the original law intact, saying she feared there might be “unintended consequences” resulting from the new law. “It says those convicted of bestiality are thereafter prohibited from contact with live or dead animals,” Hodges said, reading from the text of the bill. “But we have no vegan jails to house these offenders.” Morrell answered Hodges, even as he pointed out Mills’ ill-concealed motive for opposing the bill – fear that removing the animal language from the crimes against nature law is a prelude to repealing it in its entirety. Mills has previously been unequivocal in his condemnation of homosexuality. “Our current bestiality law is in an unconstitutional statute, literally tied to the sodomy law struck down by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas,” Morrell told the committee. “I am removing bestiality from the unconstitutional statute and giving it its own statute – much more expansive, much more detailed. Some individuals want dual bestiality laws on the books, but I will not agree to not delete the previous one. If we create a new armed robbery law, we don’t keep the old one on the books while we test drive it.” Hodges’ amendment failed, and the bill itself was reported favorably – without a single committee member objecting. Morrell’s SB 243, a proposed constitutional amendment to do away with non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana, stripped away the masks (and hoods and sheets) that often obscure Louisiana’s profound institutionalized racism. “In our lifetime, we will never have as good an opportunity to repeal a 138-year-old law that dates back to Jim Crow days,” explained former Grant Parish district attorney Ed Tarpley. “This seeks to restore the full protection of trial by jury in Louisiana, something that was the law in this state from its founding in 1803 until 1880, when whites regained control of state government in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Rep. Joe Marino (I-Gretna) added that Louisiana currently has a three-tiered jury system: “For less serious felonies, we require unanimous jury verdicts – six out of six. For capital punishment cases, we require unanimity from 12 of 12 jurors. But for cases in between — major felonies carrying penalties up to and including life in prison – not so much. We only require 10 of 12 to agree.” Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) made an early motion to report the bill favorably “at the appropriate time”. He was joined, somewhat surprisingly, by the committee chairman Sherman Mack (R-Albany) “You beat me to it,” Mack said. But there was opposition, as two district attorneys from western Louisiana came to the witness table to make their objections known. “You hear a lot about this being a vestige of slavery,” Calcasieu Parish DA John DeRosier said. “No doubt that is true, but it is what it is, and that was 138 years ago. We have had three constitutional conventions since then, one as recently as 1974, and they did not change this. They left it alone. The issue here is not about the way something started. Should we not have driven Volkswagens in the 60s, if we held to concept that they were ordered, designed and manufactured by Adolph Hitler? I don’t think so. “Whenever you get ready to vote on this, just remember – one person on a jury can mess up the whole process. That is a fact. That is reality.” DeRosier was followed by Don Burkett, who has served as the Sabine Parish DA since 1985. “I’m going to address the white elephant in the room, straight up,” Burkett said. “Up front, I’m not a racist: I have fought racism all my life. I may be the only person in this room that put a white man on death row for killing an African-American. I prosecute criminals. They come in all flavors. I’ve tried hundreds of cases and know how difficult it is to get unanimous verdicts. Please don’t confuse unanimity with ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.” Rep. Ted James was livid. “Mr. DeRosier, I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is’. I wish you would look at me while I’m speaking with you, because I think I deserve that kind of respect. You know, we take a lot in here, and a lot of things don’t offend me because I have tough skin. “But for you to admit that this started in slavery and say that ‘it is what it is’? I think you need to think about that, long and hard. You are elected to represent everybody, and I hope the people that elected you are listening because if they aren’t, I’m going to make sure that they know what you said today. I’m going to promise you that! I just cannot believe… “And you!“ James then turned to Burkett. “You want a trophy because you prosecuted one white man for killing a black? You know, that proved the point!” That sparked applause from some committee members and more than a few of the audience. “I want to know why the DA’s Association hasn’t taken an official position on this bill,” Rep Nick Muscarello (R-Hammond) then said. “Are you aware why they haven’t done so?” “Yes, sir,” Burkett replied. “We as an organization never take positions when we have one or two members, three of four that are opposed. When we don’t have 100%, we don’t take a position.” “So, the DA’s Association did not take a position because y’all couldn’t get a unanimous decision, is that what you’re saying?” Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) asked pointedly. She was rewarded by nearly unanimous laughter and applause, as well as the decidedly uncomfortable expressions on the very red faces of DeRosier and Burkett. Once the chuckles subsided, Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) commented, “This law obviously has a huge racial component. I’ve not heard there’s one good reason to keep it, other than that the purpose it serves is to make your job easier.” And after noting that there were 164 cards submitted in support of the bill, Chairman Mack called on Senator Morrell to close. “Under the current system, allowing 10-2 verdicts, I would argue that one sixth of a jury differing in opinion is the definition of ‘reasonable doubt’,” Morrell said. “You shouldn’t get to benefit from something that was born in racism — in hate – not when our country is founded on liberty, and unanimous juries are the protection of that liberty. We seldom have the chance to make history. I ask for your favorable report.” There was no objection, but there was applause.
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.