Let us start by stating that most police officers are decent, hardworking people who make good faith efforts to fulfill their sworn duty to protect and serve. On a daily basis, they face dangerous, and often fatal, risks as they try to fulfill these parallel objectives. We respect and admire their constant willingness to exhibit courage under fire in order to maintain law and order.
Something is Wrong in Law Enforcement
However, whether it is a problem deeply rooted in the historical psyche of the institution, a lack of modern training techniques and cultural awareness or hidden racial prejudices of the individual officer, something continues to be seriously wrong with the institution of law enforcement.
Police misconduct has deep roots in our criminal justice; in point of fact, it has reached epidemic proportions threatening the very fabric of law and order. Louisiana police are a prime cause of this epidemic—and they are protected by prosecutors who are just as corrupt and lawless as they are.
The Case of Arizona Baptist
Several of these rogue police officials were and are members of the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office. Zack Kopplin, writing in the August 9, 2016 edition of The Daily Beast, chronicled their misconduct that has led to Arizona Batiste spending the past 23 years in the Louisiana prison system for a crime he most probably did not commit.
Batiste killed Leonardo Alexander shortly before midnight on December 20, 1993. He was 19 years old at the time he shot the 27-year-old Alexander three times with what Kopplin described as a “Cobray ‘Street Sweeper’ semi-automatic shotgun.
One of the first police officers to arrive at the scene of the shooting was Deputy Paul Schnyder, the victim’s first cousin.
“[Batiste] killed my cousin,” was the first thing Schnyder said, a witness would later recall.
That became the focus of the investigation at that precise moment. A relative of a police officer had been killed. It could be nothing but murder.
Killed in Self Defense
Batiste told the officers after he surrendered the following day that he indeed shot Alexander but that he did so in self-defense. Apparently the two men had a dispute over some baseball caps stolen from Batiste’s home. Alexander said the caps had been given to him by Batiste’s mother. Batiste didn’t believe him. There was a fight between the two in front of several witnesses and friends. Batiste and four of the witnesses said Alexander was armed with a pistol when Batiste grabbed the shotgun and shot Alexander in the leg. Batiste fired twice more, striking Alexander in the arm and shoulder. The shot to the shoulder struck an artery causing Alexander to bleed out.
Schnyder’s partner, Detective Allan Wayne Schaeffer, took over the investigation several hours later. The detective interviewed four witnesses, all of whom said that Alexander had a handgun. In fact, Kopplin said that “every person who saw the [shooting] and spoke to deputies before noon the next day described Alexander holding a silver gun.”
Police Obtain Retractions After Intense Interrogations
Then a strange thing happened. The police questioning of witnesses intensified with Schnyder participating in the interrogations and, except for Batiste, all the witnesses retracted their initial statements about Alexander having a gun.
In recent months, two of the witnesses have retracted their second statement, saying they were threatened by the police into saying Alexander did not have a gun.
The police recovered Batiste’s shotgun but did not disclose to the court that they had recovered a handgun. This despite the fact that Batiste maintained throughout his trial that Alexander had a gun while sheriff’s department witnesses said his statements about the gun were “self-serving” because the witnesses had told investigators Alexander did not have gun.
This police testimony was given notwithstanding that all the witnesses said the victim had a handgun before they were threatened into retracting their initial statements by investigators.
The jury did not buy Batiste’s self-defense claim, finding him guilty by a 10-2 vote. He is currently serving a life sentence.
In 48 states, this non-unanimous verdict would have resulted in a mistrial. But Louisiana and Oregon does not require unanimous verdicts in non-capital cases.
Last fall, Kopplin reported, Batiste’s appeals attorney, Gwynn Brown, filed a public records law request with the St. John The Baptist Parish District Attorney’s Office seeking access to its entire evidence file.
In that file, Ms. Brown discovered a letter Schaeffer had faxed to an assistant district attorney just before Batiste’s 1995-96 trial saying that a silver handgun had been recovered and was being held for “safe keeping” by the sheriff’s department.
The district attorney’s office is now saying this particular gun had nothing to do with the Alexander shooting; that it was a weapon recovered from Batiste’s residence as part of a separate investigation. Yet the DA’s office has not presented any evidence to substantiate this claim.
Case Files Lost
Ms. Brown has confirmed that the sheriff’s department still has possession of the handgun. This has spurred her to try and get all the Batiste case files from the sheriff’s department only to be told they were destroyed in 2005 in the floods wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
The problem with this story is that St. John The Baptist Parish was not flooded during Katrina; in fact, it had served as a staging area for recovery efforts into flooded Orleans Parish.
Lead Investigator Guilty of Sexual Assaults
While running into these lies and inference from both the DA’s office and the sheriff’s department about the “lost” investigation files, Ms. Brown learned that Detective Schaffer pled guilty in 2008 to sexually assaulting two women. His credibility is down the drain.
A sidebar question has also arisen during all this procedural wrangling about whether Batiste’s two attorneys knew about the existence of the second gun before the trial started.
The DA’s office says it informed one of Batiste’s attorney on the morning of the trial about the gun. That attorney, who is now a district court judge, said he told Batiste’s second attorney about the existence of the gun. The second attorney says he knew nothing about the second gun either before or during the trial.
Court Critical of Timing of Disclosures
The judge presiding over Batiste’s current post-conviction efforts to get a new trial has expressed open criticism of the DA’s office about withholding the gun evidence until the morning of trial. He has also indicated that defense attorneys should have sought, and probably would have granted, a continuance.
This case is sordid. It involves police coercion to prevent witnesses from telling the truth about the victim having a gun; the DA’s office being aware of the gun in the possession of the sheriff’s department but failing to disclose it; the sheriff’s department lying about the investigation files being destroyed by Katrina flood waters; and two defense attorneys pointing accusatory fingers at each other about not developing the second gun evidence.
Batiste Deserves New Trial
Had the jury heard evidence about the second gun, other jurors besides the two who voted for a not guilty verdict may have also reached a not guilty verdict. Kopplin summed up his exhaustive analysis of the case this way:
“The only two answers to this conundrum seem to be that either the state suppressed evidence or Batiste’s counsel was too stupid to use it. Either way, it would appear he deserves a new trial.”
The only reasonable, rational way to deal with these kinds of cases is for a reviewing court to step in and grant a new trial. We will never know what the now convicted sex offender, Detective Schaeffer, did to the witnesses to make them retract their original statements or what pressure Deputy Schnyder exerted to make sure that the person who killed his relative was charged and prosecuted for murder. And we will never know to what extent the DA’s office cooperated (or at the very least ignored) the police misconduct in this case. Nor will we ever know to what extent, if any, Batiste’s lawyer’s acquiesced to all this misconduct by making sure the jury never heard the second gun evidence.
This case not only begs but demands a new trial.