John Fitzgerald Kennedy Belton told scores of Grambling State University students said their decision to pursue an education would make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proud. Belton, the new district attorney for the 3rd Juridical District in of Lincoln and Union parishes, told the crowdof about 200 that putting Jesus Christ first and making positive choices would serve them well during the annual MLK observance in the Black and Gold Room of the Favrot Student Union.
As northeastern Louisiana and the nation celebrated the life of the King on the official U.S. government holiday Monday, the Favrot Student Union Board was joined by GSU Campus Ministries and others to make sure that King is remembered.
Belton put King’s life and death in context with a variety of specifics from King’s days and his own experiences. His father, now 81, was a civil rights activist in southern Louisiana. When Belton was growing up, his mother would take him to see the doctor and sit in the colored waiting room, but his father would take him and sit in the white waiting room — daring anyone to say anything. Belton said King would be proud about lots of things that have happened, including the election of the nation’s first black president but he would be saddened by so many young black men killing other black men.
Standing behind a large portrait of King and a photograph from the historic “I Am A Man” Memphis sanitation protest, Belton urged the students to have a “board of five or six people” as advisers and counselors, “people older than you” rather than sharing all of their business on social media. He said his office frequently looks at social media for background when investigating cases, “so be careful.”
Belton said the character, traits and principles King possessed and that others saw in him 40 years ago are just as valuable today.
Daryl Riley, 20, of Saginaw, Michigan, was happy to be a part of the program, saying he “loved it” and it made him “proud to be black.”
Lyrical Quest poet Christopher Shaw, 21, of Pittsburgh, shared his poem “Loaded with Dreams” with the audience, including a line that says “there’s a surplus of boys but there’s a scarcity of men.” The audience roared.
As he ended his remarks, Belton asked the students to “keep dreaming.”
Published 1/19/15 - The News Star Prem Burns recalls decades as prosecutor, continues work on post-conviction cases - Recent retiree to continue work on post-conviction cases
Three days after retiring from the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office, veteran prosecutor Prem Burns sat alone Thursday in a City Hall office with an old photograph of Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers and her six children and boxes of files with the name of Kevan Brumfield, one of two men on death row for the 1993 ambush slaying.
“I’ve been with this family for 22 years,” Burns said, holding the photo that was taken several years before Smothers’ death.
As it turns out, the 65-year-old Burns will be with the family of the slain officer a while longer. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court announced on Dec. 5 — the same day District Attorney Hillar Moore III announced Burns would be retiring Jan. 12 — that it would hear arguments in March dealing with Brumfield’s mental retardation claim. Burns, who spent more than 34 years with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, has agreed to continue working with the office as special counsel on behalf of the victims in her remaining capital post-conviction cases, including Brumfield’s.
In all, Burns secured death sentences against five men while prosecuting in Baton Rouge: Jeffrey Cameron Clark, Allen “Lil Boo” Robertson Jr., Brumfield and co-defendant Henri Broadway, and Gregory “Boo” Brown.
“It’s not a deterrent, but it’s the proper punishment for what you have done,” Burns said of the death-penalty verdicts she won.
Robertson was twice sentenced to death in the New Year’s Day 1991 stabbing deaths of Morris Prestenback and his wife, Kazuko, in their north Baton Rouge home. Clark, whose sentence in the 1984 killing of Studebaker’s nightclub assistant manager Andrew Cheswick was later reduced to life, now is on death row for the 1999 murder of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola prison guard David Knapps. Burns did not prosecute the prison murder.
Burns’ work as special counsel will involve the cases of Brumfield, Broadway, Robertson and Brown, who abducted and killed a Clinton couple — William and Ann Gay — in 1998.
Burns is researching and preparing to argue in front of the nation’s highest court in Brumfield’s case. For someone who holds the distinction as the first woman felony prosecutor in East Baton Rouge, first woman criminal section chief and first woman named first assistant district attorney, this will be Burns’ first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“That, to me, is something you always think about. It’s the carrot that’s over your head,” she said. “This, to me, is a golden gift to go out on. It’s beyond any expectation and gift.”
Burns’ prosecutorial experience also includes 2½ years with the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office and 1½ years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge. She began her legal career in 1974 at the Legal Aid Society.
“I wanted to be the best lawyer in any courtroom I went into,” she said. “I always overprepared.”
In 1989, two years after her successful prosecution of three Colombian nationals who were sentenced to life in prison in the 1986 slaying of federal drug informant Adler “Barry” Seal outside a Baton Rouge halfway house, Burns landed on the cover of Parade Magazine as one of five “Women Who Could Be America’s Toughest Prosecutors.”
Burns, who prosecuted more than 100 felony jury trials, said what she will miss most in her retirement is interacting with juries.
“Probably standing in front of a jury, doing an opening and closing argument. I adore that, doing justice for that victim,” she said.
Burns, who trained numerous lawyers while teaching at LSU as an adjunct professor and trial advocacy faculty member, said she would love to teach again.
As first assistant district attorney the past seven years, Burns also served as chief of litigation, grand jury legal advisor, asset forfeiture counsel and police incident prosecutor.
Tracey Barbera is the new first assistant, and Dana Cummings is chief of litigation.
A self-confessed child killer will walk out of state prison Jan. 22 and there’s nothing his victim’s family can do about it. Phillip DeSelle has served the required percentage of his sentence for killing Averie Grace Evans, an 11-year-old student he snatched while she went door-to-door in her Natchitoches neighborhood selling candy for a school fundraiser.
Averie was reported missing Nov. 5, 1990. Her family agonized for 12 weeks until law enforcement investigators had information to arrest DeSelle in January 1991.
“He’s an evil man. He never showed any remorse or regret,” said Averie’s aunt, Erin Keyser, who created a Facebook page, Justice for Averie (facebook.com/justiceforaverie) on Friday just days after being notified of DeSelle’s release. “Our only recourse is to warn people.”
Keyser made sure close family members were informed before making the public aware DeSelle soon will be a free man. “The main thing is to protect the children; that no family will have to go through this devastation,” Keyser said.
Since she was registered in the system as a victim, Keyser was notified by the Louisiana Department of Corrections. DeSelle, she said, will report to the Ville Platte Probation and Parole Office.
He’ll be on supervised parole through July 30, 2040, according to Pam Laborde, DOC communications director. His early release after 24 years served is a “result of diminution of sentence (applicable good time statutes),” Laborde said in an email to The Times.
Qualifying offenders have the ability to reduce their sentences by earning so-called good time credits in exchange for good behavior and participation in self-improvement programs. The Legislature changed the law in 1997, requiring violent offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence. DeSelle was sentenced under the old law.
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association pushed for the new law to remedy the early release of violent offenders. “We had people sentenced for violent crimes and up until then they only had to serve one-third of every sentence,” said Sabine District Attorney Don Burkett, who was active with the association in seeing the law changed.
“At the time we thought he would be in his 80s or 90 when he got out. You get some sense of peace with that,” Keyser said.
MANY – When Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett receives the oath of office during a swearing in ceremony set for 2 p.m. Friday, he’ll hold many distinctions as far as his public service to the parish and state. Burkett, elected in 1984, is the longest serving district attorney in Louisiana and the elected official with the most tenure in Sabine Parish. His six terms also mean he’s held the DA’s spot longer than any of his predecessors in the history of the 11th Judicial District.
A hands-on district attorney who’s often in the courtroom, especially when it comes to prosecuting high-profile murder cases, Burkett credits his longevity in public office to others.
“Any success that I have enjoyed as district attorney is due in large part to the support staff and assistant district attorneys with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with throughout the years. I have been blessed to have been surrounded by competent, dedicated people who work tirelessly for the good of the parish. It is definitely a team effort. I look forward to serving the next six years and will continue to strive to achieve justice for the victims of crime in Sabine Parish,” said Burkett, who until 2009 also served as DA of DeSoto Parish prior to the district split.
Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott J. Crichton of Shreveport will administer the oath of office to Burkett and assistant district attorneys Ronald D. Brandon, Anna L. Garcie, Russell L. Busby and Richard DeVargas. Former state Rep. Joe Salter, of Florien, will serve as master of ceremonies. Refreshments will be served under the heated tent immediately afterward. The ceremony is open to the public.
During his 30 years in office, Burkett has seen great improvement in operations of the office. When first elected, there were no computers, fax machines or cell phones to aid in getting the work done. As DA of DeSoto and Sabine for 24 years, Burkett spent many an hour between the offices in Many and Mansfield. “In the early days when I would leave Many on a two-lane highway going to Mansfield, I was out of communication with both offices during the one-hour drive. The last segment of the four-lane Highway 171 was completed in December of my last year serving both parishes.”
Burkett has been actively involved in the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, having served as president and a member of the board of directors. He has been appointed to commissions and boars related to law enforcement, and he is serving as secretary of the North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory Commission, a position he’s held for years. An accomplishment during that time is reaching the current construction phase of the new crime lab scheduled for completion this fall.
Swearing in ceremonies
Caddo District Attorney Charles Scott: No formal ceremony planned.
DeSoto District Attorney Gary Evans: No formal ceremony. Will receive oath of office from his son, Clerk of Court Jeremy Evans, at 8 a.m. Monday.