New trial for ex-Louisiana councilwoman in utilities theft
A state appeal court has ordered a new trial for a former Louisiana town councilwoman who was convicted of stealing $39,000 from municipal water bills before her election.
Chris Bowman, the attorney for Patricia Hampton, welcomed the decision involving jury selection at the woman’s trial, saying “we’re encouraged.”
And though he said Monday that prosecutors plan to seek a rehearing by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal, he expressed confidence that the prosecutors will be denied. He noted that the three-judge panel in Shreveport ruled unanimously that prosecutors improperly kept two African-Americans from serving on the six-person jury that convicted Hampton, who is black.
The panel, in its ruling Nov. 14, also said the judge improperly refused a hearing on her lawyer’s objections involving decisions in the jury selection process.
Bowman, of Jonesboro, said in a telephone interview that because the judges had to rule first on the jury selection issue, they never considered a dozen other arguments for overturning the conviction.
Hampton was payment clerk for Arcadia’s Water & Sewer Department when she was arrested and fired in 2011. She was elected to the Town Council in 2014, while charges were pending against her. She was convicted of felony theft by a jury composed of four whites and two blacks in September 2017 and suspended from her post. She did not run in the Nov. 6 election and remained free on appeal.
Hampton was sentenced to three years at hard labor, with all but one year suspended, and two years of supervised probation. Her probation could end early once the town is repaid, Judge Glenn Fallin had said.
The three-judge appeals panel said that even if the jury selection had withstood scrutiny, Fallin would have had to re-sentence Hampton because he never specified how much money she must repay.
Hampton also claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her. But Judges D. Milton Moore, Frances Jones Pitman and Jeanette G. Garrett disagreed, saying in their ruling that there was enough evidence to support conviction.
The opinion written by Garrett said Hampton tried to blame other city hall workers — especially Theresa Burris, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to stealing nearly $50,000 from the town. However, the Water & Sewer Department thefts began two years before Burris and the only other employee who entered water payments into the town’s computer system began working at City Hall, Garrett wrote.
“The defendant alone had unfettered access to the funds and the ability to conceal the thefts,” she wrote.
The trial transcript showed that, after the jury was chosen, the trial judge overruled Bowman’s objections to the dismissal of two black jurors because two other African-Americans had been admitted to the jury and the prosecutor still had the right to strike four potential jurors for no reason, called a peremptory exemption. That, he said, showed “there has been no established systematic exclusion of blacks on the jury.”
Both prospective black jurors rejected by prosecutors had worked as cashiers and understood the responsibility of handling other people’s money, the opinion said.
“It is impossible to discern from the record before us any race-neutral reasons for striking either,” Garrett wrote.