At a moment in our nation's history when men and women of goodwill are looking for ways to reduce mass incarceration and give non-violent juvenile offenders a decent chance at rehabilitation, the Supreme Court of Louisiana recently intead issued an extraordinary ruling that will send a young man back to prison on a technicality, for failing to comply with the terms of a plea agreement he made three years ago — when he was just 16.
This is the sad story of Ernest Cloud, who now must return to prison until he is 21. Cloud's story is a depressing illustration of how hard it is to implement reform within a legal system when those in charge of implementing the change are opposed to it. Four justices of a state supreme court, who did not even have the courage to put their names on their order in this case, disregarded hundreds of pages of independent testimony, two lower court rulings, and common sense to block a young man's chance to quickly redeem his life and perhaps avoid the cycle of crime and prison that has made Louisiana one of the most incarcerated places on earth.
Cloud's story begins in 2009, when he was 14. Along with two others, he was charged with armed robbery and the second-degree murder of Wendy Byrne, a well-known bartender who was shot in the back as she walked the French Quarter one night. But here's the thing: Cloud was never tried for this murder, and he never pled guilty to it. Nor, for that matter, was his case ever assigned to adult criminal court, as are so many other juvenile murder cases in Louisiana.
Instead, prosecutors and Cloud's attorneys reached a deal in 2011 in which the young man, who has a reading disorder, would plead "no contest" to the charges against him, and agree to put in a "good faith effort" to "actively participate to the best of his ability" in vocational schooling and GED work. It's not hard to understand why prosecutors showed such leniency in a case of a young black man charged with murdering a young white woman who was planning for her wedding — they had a patently weak case.
The presiding juvenile court judge, Mark Doherty, noted when he accepted the plea deal that there was no evidence that Cloud "possessed, discharged, or brandished a weapon, or that he made a demand or took any actions towards" Byrne. The two other young men accused of the crime did not implicate Cloud, appellate judges later concluded, and witnesses at the scene told the police there were two, not three, perpetrators. Cloud was with the wrong crowd, no doubt. But he was not nearly as complicit as his older confederates.
So, in April 2011, instead of being given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, Cloud went to the Bridge City Correctional Center for Youth. One year later, in May 2012, his lawyers asked the court to have him released for having complied with his obligations under the plea deal. The juvenile court judge held hearings, heard from eight witnesses, and amassed 900 pages of testimony (far more testimony, I would bet, than most capital murder trials generate in that state). At the end of the process the judge ruled that Cloud had, indeed, complied with the deal. The young man was ordered released from Bridge City with an electronic monitoring device.
Why did this judge, who was intimately involved in the case, reach this conclusion? Because experts and other witnesses testified that despite "significant learning disabilities," Cloud had "attended 84 percent of his tutoring sessions and that his absences were due to court attendance, several physical ailments, such as pink eye, and a disciplinary matter." Judge Doherty found that, 'in general, [Cloud] participated in class and was cooperative," and that was enough for him.
But there were some parts of the deal Cloud did not make good on. His agreement required him to "obtain a trade or skill through a trade/vocations program offered and available at the Facility…. Or to make good faith efforts by actively participating in a trade/vocational program if one is offered and available at the facility upon his confinement." But he had not done so.
Why? Because there were 26 people already on the waiting list for a program that accepted only six juvenile offenders at a time. To the three dissenting justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court who saw this case for what it is, who saw it as an opportunity to not send a young black man back to prison, it was, moreover, "not feasible" for Cloud "to simultaneously participate in his academic courses" as well as a vocational program. And even if this were possible, even if he had put his name on the list, these judges noted that the "chef" of the culinary arts program had told Judge Doherty that Cloud "did not even meet the minimum academic standards for admission."
To the four justices of the Supreme Court of Louisiana who issued their per curiam decision last week, however, the practical realities inside that juvenile detention center did not matter. What mattered, they wrote, was that Cloud had not put his name on that waiting list for a "culinary" class. These four justices were looking for a reason to re-incarcerate this young man.
Here is the link to the majority, unsigned opinion by the Louisiana Supreme Court, the order that defies both law and logic. Here is the link to the dissent written by Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, who candidly labeled the majority's reasoning "unconscionable" and "misinformed." And here is the link to the dissent written by Justice John L. Weimer, who asked, repeatedly, how his colleagues in the majority could under law penalize a "cognitively-impaired juvenile defendant" for failing "to undertake the vain and useless act" of placing himself on the waiting list for a program the experts who evaluated him said he could not complete. It's a good question to ask about a case that has generated a manifestly unjust result, and highlighted the challenges of stemming the tide of mass incarceration that has ruined so many lives like those of Ernest Cloud.