A billboard catches a driver’s eye on Interstate 10 during a recent reporting trip to Baton Rouge: “It’s On All of Us to Stop Sexual Assault.” The sign is part of a new rape prevention campaign backed by the Obama White House and 10 colleges and universities in Louisiana (ItsOnUs.org).
It is also the only noteworthy scenery en route to the first state pardon board hearing for a convicted child rapist – a former 13-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department.
Romallis Stukes, a beefy former NOPD robbery detective, is seeking freedom after serving 27 years of a life sentence. He has been locked up since August 1987 by detectives of the NOPD Child Abuse Section. Following a non-jury trial that year, he was found guilty as charged of one count of aggravated rape of a child under 12. The alleged victim: his own daughter, then age 4.
Stukes’ only hope for an early release from prison is a reduction of his life sentence. His application for clemency must first be vetted by the five-member state pardon board and approved by the Governor.
As a reporter for The Louisiana Weekly, this columnist covered Stukes’ rape trial. I also covered the aftermath of the 1985 incident that resulted in his dismissal from the NOPD. Stukes admitted torturing handcuffed motorist Patrick Ledet, 21, with an electronic “stun gun.”
Today, Stukes continues to deny ever sexually assaulting any of his children.
From a hearing room at state Department of Corrections headquarters at Baton Rouge, Pardon Board member Henry “Tank” Powell grills Stukes via a live teleconference call to the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, a medium-security state prison in the piney woods of north Louisiana.
“Are you saying you did not commit the crime?” Powell says. “I did not,” Stukes replies.
Pardon Board member Cornel Hubert: “You said what your daughter said was not true.” “Not true,” Stukes repeats.
“What about your son?” Hubert says. At the 1987 trial, Stukes’ 12-year-old son testified that his father attempted to sodomize him years earlier as a younger boy, telling him to keep the sexual assault as “our secret.”
Stukes laughs, dismissively. “I was never hardly home,” Stukes tells the board.
Throughout the hearing, Stukes depicts himself as a hardworking police officer, toiling long hours on off-duty security details to support his family. Stukes blames his ex-wife, her alleged drug habit and her family for turning the children against him, resulting in his criminal conviction and life sentence. “It just goes back to the old adage – ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’”
Board member Powell notes Stukes has taken the prison’s sexual offenders program class.
Stukes doesn’t attempt to explain his enrollment – and the apparent contradiction with his denials of rape. Rather he emphasizes his marketable skill set. “I have some carpenter skills, some electronic skills.” Wade prison Warden Jerry Goodwin addressed the pardon board on Stukes’ behalf.
“I’ve known him since 1988; he’s a model prisoner,” the warden says. “I can’t say anything bad about Romallis Stukes in his time at Wade Correctional Center.”
Stukes is housed in a protective unit of the prison, limiting his access to a variety of programs available to other prisoners. Goodwin says.
If the board recommended that Governor Bobby Jindal free Stukes, board member Powell asks Stukes: “Where would you live?” “New Orleans,” Stukes replies.
On the night of Dec. 17, 1987, Stukes wore a gray suit as then-Criminal District Court Judge Leon Cannizzaro explained his guilty verdict to a hushed courtroom.
The trial judge said he was persuaded by the testimony of the child, who described a sex act with her father using anatomically correct dolls. “For a child that age, the cross-examination was extremely extensive (but) she consistently said she was sexually assaulted,” the judge said.
The judge was also impressed by Stukes’ young son, who testified twice at trial. “I was moved.”
The judge concluded police became involved only after two hospital physicians reported the girl’s injuries to NOPD, as required by law. The child’s maternal grandmother brought her to the hospital, after a 16-year-old baby sitter alerted family members to the child’s complaint of an injury resulting from sexual contact, court records show.
The courtroom was closed to the press during the children’s testimony. They were seated in an anteroom of the court as the judge read the verdict to their father. As the judge spoke, I wrote, “The children’s chorus of ‘Silent Night’ was clearly audible.”
Courtroom spectators wept. Others were visibly shaken.
Judge Cannizzaro told Stukes: “The State has removed all reasonable doubt you are guilty of aggravated rape.”
Stukes was sentence to life without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.
A three-judge panel of the state Fourth Circuit Court rejected Stukes’ appeals, including the father’s claims the girl had been coached. The panel found the daughter’s testimony “remarkably direct and consistent. Her ability to understand the importance of telling the truth was also apparent.”
According a transcript of the girl’s trial testimony, the child was asked what her mother told her to say in court. The girl replied: “She said, ‘Be sure to tell the truth.’”
Today, Stukes’ children are adults. The son and daughter he allegedly victimized didn’t attend the hearing; they said they didn’t oppose their father’s bid for freedom, according to statements by Pardon Board Chair Sheryl Ranatza. A second Stukes daughter wept before the board as she begged for his freedom. “My father is innocent! ” This daughter, whose family lives in Texas, says she wants her father to be free to enjoy his grandchildren.
At 12:15 p.m. the pardon board announces it will briefly leave for “executive session.” Five minutes later, they return. “We do have a letter in opposition from the District Attorney in Orleans Parish,” Ranatza says. D.A. Cannizzaro cited Stukes’ “inability to accept culpability.”
The Pardon Board votes to deny Stukes, 4-1, citing “insufficient time” served and “the serious nature of the crime.”
“My vote today would have been to give you a chance,” says Ranatza, the lone dissenter.
Experts say sexually abused children often struggle with anger, substance abuse and other symptoms as adults.
In 2006, a judge sentenced Stukes’ son to 10 years in prison following his conviction for shooting two men outside a New Orleans area bar in ’03. The shooting left one man a quadriplegic. Prior to sentencing, an uncle of the younger Stukes discloses that Romallis Stukes sexually molested his son at age 5. The trial judge says child abuse doesn’t justify the adult son’s “vicious, unprovoked attack” with a gun.
A pre-sentencing report shows the younger Stukes had a history of violent behavior, including five arrests for battery. He once hit his wife with a flashlight and shoved his grandfather to the floor when he tried to intervene. He appealed his sentence as “excessive” and lost.
The boy who once sang “Silent Night” with his little sister, whose testimony of an unspeakable family secret helped to rid New Orleans’ streets of a powerful, sadistic detective, left court as a victim and a convicted violent felon.
The drive back to New Orleans takes longer than usual when you’re looking for a billboard with a message.