Louisiana high court to decide if suicide erases conviction

February 8, 2022 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Supreme Court said Tuesday that it will decide whether a white man’s conviction for killing a Black man should be thrown out because he killed himself in prison while appealing the verdict.

Prosecutors want the high court to reinstate Kenneth Gleason’s conviction for first-degree murder, The Advocate reported.

Gleason, 27, was found hanging in his cell in September 2021, two days after beginning his life sentence for the apparently random killing of Donald Smart in 2017.

A state district judge threw out the conviction in November under a common law doctrine requiring courts to do so for defendants who die while their appeals are pending.

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The justices should either overturn the doctrine or allow for a suicide exception “so that a convicted defendant cannot circumvent the fact of conviction and obtain a de facto acquittal by electing to kill himself,” East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors said in court papers.

The court could call for judges to note in the trial court record that a conviction removed a defendant’s presumption of innocence but was appealed and had not been decided when the defendant died, prosecutors said.

Katherine Franks, who is handling Gleason’s appeal, has said the Baton Rouge-based 1st Circuit Court of Appeal correctly followed the doctrine.

Gleason was unanimously convicted of shooting Smart, who was walking to work at a restaurant on Sept. 14, 2017.

A first-degree murder charge can be brought when there are multiple killings. Gleason also was accused of fatally shooting another Black man, Bruce Cofield, 59, two days earlier at a bus stop and of firing into the home of a Black family on his street.

The Supreme Court has given prosecutors until March 7 to file their written arguments and Gleason’s lawyer until March 25. The justices said they will hear oral arguments on the court’s next available docket.

Law enforcement officials have said they believe the two killings were random. Both men were on the side of the road at night when they were shot. Officials said Gleason approached them both in the same manner — shooting them first from inside his car, then exiting the vehicle and continuing to fire while standing over them.

Gleason, an Eagle Scout and honors graduate from an elite high school, pleaded not guilty in December 2017.

He wasn’t charged with a hate crime, but an FBI agent testified that he had searched the internet for topics including Nazi propaganda and white nationalism. Officers who searched his home found a handwritten copy of an Adolf Hitler speech, law enforcement told The Associated Press.