SAM DALTON: STORIES TO TELL
Samuel “Sam” Dalton, the 82-year-old dean of civil rights lawyers in Louisiana, leads a Sunday visitor to the kitchen area of his modest law office on Jefferson Highway. In the kitchen, he holds out a small, red plastic basket filled with pastries. “Would you like a brownie?” he asks. “My sister made ’em. They’re sugar-free.”
Now in his 57th year of practicing law in Louisiana, Dalton’s grandfatherly gait and hospitality belie a rugged, prolific career as a self-described “street lawyer.”
He is the founding chairman of the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board (1976-’99), now a model for public defender systems statewide. He is also a veteran defense attorney of some 300 capital cases. In ’86, he famously convinced a Lake Charles jury to spare the lives of three Colombian “hit men” convicted of gunning down federal drug trafficking informant “Barry” Seale.
A strident death penalty opponent, Dalton told the jury that Seale had to die. Using the government’s own experts, Dalton contended the government informant had smuggled the equivalent of 18 rail boxcars filled with cocaine into the United States, resulting in an estimated 21 overdose deaths. To the astonishment of State Police and DEA agents, Dalton put on a ballistics-intensive defense to support his argument that the murder of Seale with a .45 caliber machine-gun was “more humane” than state executions.
The jury sentenced the three Colombians to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.
In 1987, Dalton announced his “retirement” from the strain of pro bono death penalty work. Around the same time, Dalton received a card for his 60th birthday signed by 29 inmates on Angola’s Death Row, including several who were later executed.
Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, most journalistic profiles of elderly workers are still found in obituaries or “soft” features.
Nearly six months shy of his 83rd birthday, Sam Dalton and his work still make news. Some recent highlights:
The 16th Man
In 2007, Dalton helped other anti-death penalty lawyers get a new trial for convicted killer Walter Koon, who murdered his estranged wife and her parents at their family home in Livingston Parish.
Dalton helped the post-conviction defense team argue that Koon had been denied effective assistance of counsel. The Fifth Circuit agreed in a 2008 decision, vacating Koon’s death sentence, just days before Dalton’s 81st birthday. Koon got off Death Row. He was re-sentenced to life without parole.
He is the 16th Death Row defendant Dalton has helped save from state execution. However, the veteran defense attorney doesn’t spare his client from his personal disdain for his admitted crime.
How could Dalton provide a vigorous defense for a killer like Koon, who bought a case of beer after the shootings, and then invited police to celebrate his murder of an innocent family?
Dalton, a staunch defender of the Constitution, didn’t hesitate to reply: “If we can’t provide the worst of us a fair trial, we can’t provide the best of us a fair trial.”
Dalton and fellow lawyers Rémy Voisin Starns and John Adcock have been planning to sue the state.
The lawyers plan to challenge the constitutionality of a $40 fee public defenders statewide are authorized to charge needy clients for legal services – up front. The state authorized the fee several years ago to help fund public defense offices.
Dalton argues the fee “chills” the right to the constitutional protections the 6th Amendment provides the criminally accused.
“I’ve got a lot of good law that shows they can’t do it,” Dalton says of state officials and fee. “The state can assess an indigent the cost of his defense after conviction, but they can’t put him in jail because he doesn’t have the money to pay a (public defense) lawyer.”
The lawsuit will include a photograph of the office of the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board (I.D.B.) – with a sign taped to the front door requiring $40 “cash” for legal services.
He acknowledges the irony of being at odds with the same I.D.B. he founded and chaired from 1976 to ’99.
“Things fall apart when I leave,” he laughs.
RICO to “Chemo”
On Sept. 29, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle granted Dalton a delay of trial, allowing him to prepare for a six-month chemotherapy regimen of stage C-3 colon cancer.
The continuance gives Dalton until June 30, 2011, to get healthy – and to determine the future of his civil racketeering (RICO) suit against admittedly corrupt competitors Louis M. Marcotte III and his sister Lori Marcotte.
Filed in September 2005 on behalf of Gretna bail bond owner Denise Bartholomew, the suit stems the FBI investigation of the Jefferson Parish courthouse and Gretna jail, which led to 17 federal convictions, including two state judges and several deputies.
“I think we can reach a settlement with them,” Dalton says of the Marcottes.
Dalton is also optimistic about his ongoing chemotherapy treatments. Generally, the five-year survival rate for C-3 stage colon cancer is about 65 percent. He seems satisfied with the odds and his doctor, adding he has discussed his health with his family as candidly as he did with Judge Lemelle.
Suing 15 judges
On Sept. 15, 2009, Sam Dalton filed suit against Edith Jones, Chief Judge of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and 14 other district and appellate judges, accusing them of “wrongfully, unlawfully, illegally and unconstitutionally” firing Rhonda Danos, the secretary of embattled U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr.
The defendant-judges in Dalton’s suit comprised the majority of the internal Judicial Council of the Fifth Circuit, who in a 15-4 vote in 2008, publicly reprimanded Porteous and suspended him from the bench for two years, pending the outcome of congressional impeachment hearings against him for judicial misconduct allegations. The Judicial Council also suspended Judge Porteous’ authority to employ staff, putting Danos out of work.
Dalton’s suit called the Judicial Council suspension a “vengeful” act, ordered for the “sole purpose of ‘firing’ Rhonda Danos,” despite a grant of immunity for her “honest and truthful testimony” at a special judicial hearing of the allegations against Porteous in 2007.
On July 8, a federal judge appointed to hear the case dismissed Danos’ suit. According to the 13-page ruling, the loss of her job didn’t give her the legal standing to challenge authority of the Judicial Council’s suspension.
Sam Dalton is appealing to the Fifth Circuit. “We’re having a little fun with that one,” Dalton says today, then sternly adds, “We’re going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to.”
Dalton has an eager co-counsel on the case, Remy Starns, 39. Starns marvels at his mentor’s work ethic and appetite for the law. “Mr. Sam says the first step in a case is to find the right thing to do, then work as hard as you can to make it come out right,” Starns says. “He’s a wonder to be around.”
Dalton still works seven days a week (six hours on Sundays), filling pleadings with legal citations and occasionally artwork to argue a point. “I get more tired when I don’t work than when I do work,” Dalton says. “If I leave office with a feeling of accomplishment that really relaxes me.”
On a Sunday morning, Dalton opens the back door of his law office. Smiling, he points to the inscription on the doormat: “Come back with a warrant!” “You’ve got to have some fun in this business,” Dalton says, returning to his desk with a homemade brownie.