Mary was not the first in his office to receive an
Amstutz original. In June of that year, for his 40th birthday,
co-worker Donald Rowan had received a light-gray tie with a grim
reaper painted on it. Like Mary's, it had a label on the back
reading "Made by Diane."
Mary, Rowan and Diane Amstutz's husband, Walter,
work together as prosecutors in the Jefferson Parish district
attorney's office. Over the past year, the noose and the grim reaper
ties have been showing up in parish courtrooms, around the necks of
Mary and Rowan. Then came Friday, Dec. 6, and the ties were destined
for a dresser drawer somewhere.
On that day, local death-penalty defense attorney
Clive Stafford-Smith filed a document titled "Motion to Prohibit
Prosecutors From Wearing Tasteless and Improper Garb in the
Courthouse." It's one of 91 pre-trial motions that Stafford-Smith
has filed on behalf of his client, Lawrence Jacobs Jr., a young
black man charged with first-degree murder.
Stafford-Smith's colleague Billy Sothern wrote most
of the motion, which he drafted after watching a defendant's family
become upset at the neckties during a previous death-penalty
hearing. The text contains allegations of discriminatory practices
-- disproportionate jury selection and overrepresentation of
Jefferson Parish blacks on death row -- mixed with a primer on
racial lynching that goes so far as to cite the lyrics of the Billie
Holiday song "Strange Fruit."
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick says
that he didn't know that the ties were being worn, he agrees they're
inappropriate, and that he immediately instructed Mary and Rowan not
to wear the ties again to work.
"End of story," says Connick, noting that his office
would still respond to the motion, because of its allegations of
racism. "The impression you get at first blush," Connick says, "is
that these guys are wearing these ties into the courtroom and
creating prejudicial issues, racial issues. That has not happened.
More importantly to me, personally and professionally, that is not
what my office is about."
Since The New York Times first broke the
necktie story in its Sunday, Jan. 5, editions, Connick's office has
received inquiries from national media, including the CBS Morning
Show and Connie Chung. The Times-Picayune also ran a
front-page story, as well as an editorial and cartoon condemning the
The reason for this attention may lie in historic
and ongoing events that, according to some observers, link the ties
to issues of justice and racial fairness within the walls of the
Jefferson Parish courthouse and elsewhere.
The noose image can't be separated from race, says
Cassia Spohn, a professor of criminal justice at the University of
Nebraska at Omaha who has focused her research on disparity in
sentencing. Spohn sees a parallel in Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas' comments during a recently heard cross-burning case.
"Justice Thomas said that a burning cross symbolized something to
African Americans and it symbolized only one thing." Given the
history of lynching in this country, says Spohn, "one could almost
make that same argument in regard to the hangman's noose."
The defendant's father, Lawrence Jacobs Sr., a
department-store manager, agrees. He was born outside of Jackson,
Miss., in 1955. "Lynching. Medgar Evers. School integration. Riots.
I came up during that period," he says. "This tie -- something like
this sends me right back there."
His son got a message, too. "Cameron wears that tie
to let people know he is a hangman," says the younger Jacobs. "Why
else wear a tie with a noose on it? It's not like it's in fashion."
Jefferson Parish court insiders are reluctant to
speak on the record about the neckties. They'll tell you that Paul
Connick is an aggressive prosecutor -- but point out that Connick
was also a big supporter of the Louisiana hate-crime statute and is
hiring some blacks into his office. Ask about Donald Rowan and
Cameron Mary and you'll hear about the prosecutors holding the hand
of widows and comforting grieving families -- regardless of color.
Even courthouse regulars who admit they don't care personally for
Rowan or Mary say you can't call them racists.
Connick's right-hand man, First District Attorney
Steve Wimberly, doesn't hesitate. "Cameron Mary doesn't have a
racist bone in his body," he says.
On Jan. 3, Connick's office issued an official
memorandum in response to the necktie motion. In it, the prosecution
team addressed the other allegations and then wrote: "To the extent
that counsel's motion is directed to a grim reaper or a noose tie,
the motion is moot." As a pre-trial motion, it continued, the motion
was premature: "[T]he prosecutors have not yet decided what ties
they will wear for the trial. Indeed, such a choice will only be
made each morning of trial and it will be based on various factors,
none of which, contrary to counsel's repulsive motion, will be based
Yet even if no one had racist intentions, the effect
of those ties remains the same, says David Pilgrim, a Ferris
University professor of sociology who specializes in the study of
racist objects. "At some point we're trying to answer one question,"
says Pilgrim. "If you're a black defendant sitting in the courtroom
and you look over there and see this white guy with a noose on his
tie, what message does that send to you?"
During the past few years, the death penalty has, in
the words of one federal judge, come "under siege." Illinois and
Maryland each has instituted a death-penalty moratorium in response
to questions about innocence and the high percentage of blacks
killed on death row. Other states are amending capital punishment
Last week, the University of Maryland released a
study spanning two decades that concluded, among other findings,
that black defendants who kill whites are most likely to get the
death penalty. Overall, young black and Hispanic males are most
likely to be the target of harsh sentencing, says Cassia Spohn, who
examined 40 of the top studies linking race and criminal sentencing
for her 125-page piece on the topic for a U.S. Department of Justice
"There's so much concern right now about the
fairness of the death-penalty process that I would think that
prosecutors would want to be scrupulous about their behavior in the
courtroom," says Spohn. "Today, any type of behavior that signals a
lack of concern really signals to me [a] subtle or less obvious
discrimination may be occurring."
The Lawrence Jacobs case -- a retrial of a 1998
verdict that was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2001 -- is
filled with hot-button death-penalty issues. Jacobs is black; he is
charged in the deaths of two whites during the course of an armed
robbery. Jacobs was 16 when he was arrested, just old enough in
Louisiana to be eligible for the death penalty. The state will not
consider any sentence but death in Jacobs' case, despite the fact
that they successfully prosecuted an older co-defendant, Roy
Bridgewater, as the shooter.
No current comprehensive study has examined linkages
between race and sentencing in the Louisiana criminal-justice
system. But this past year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation took an
in-depth look at the state's juvenile-justice system. The study
reveals that, even when prior offenses and other factors were taken
into consideration, black youth in Louisiana were incarcerated more
often and served more time, says Joseph Liu, a senior associate for
the foundation. "The disparities are so wide and the differences are
not explained by the number of prior offenses or the severity of the
offense," says Liu.
In 1988, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act
tied federal funding to a requirement that states treat juveniles
equitably on the basis of race. Spohn says that this means there's
much more race-and-sentencing research on juveniles than adults. In
the adult system, it's more typical to form task forces, which
conduct hearings and draw conclusions from testimony. The Louisiana
Supreme Court's Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the
Courts did just that in the mid-1990s. It's final report in 1996
found, among other things, that there was "at minimum a perception
of bias" in Louisiana courts.
The task force held one hearing in the New Orleans
City Council chambers. Denise LeBoeuf, currently the director of the
Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, was there to testify
about her experiences as a public defender in Jefferson Parish. "The
plea bargains were explicitly different when I had a white client,"
LeBoeuf recalls telling the task force. "And sitting judges used the
'n-word' in conversation in the courtroom."
In the early 1990s, when Denise LeBoeuf worked as a
public defender in Jefferson Parish, some prosecutors -- most
notably Ronnie Bodenheimer and Jim Williams -- routinely bought each
other special awards. "They gave plaques called the Big Prick
awards," says LeBoeuf. "Each plaque had half of a mock hypodermic
needle, a big one, along with the date and the name of the defendant
who had been sentenced to death."
At first the plaques hung on the walls of the
district attorney's office on the fifth floor of the Jefferson
Parish courthouse. Then, when Bodenheimer was elected judge and took
the bench in 1999, he moved his awards down to his new digs. This
display, says LeBoeuf, set the tone for the rest of the court. "You
tell me," she says. "If you come into a sitting judge's chambers and
you see the Big Prick awards hanging on the wall, why would you as a
prosecutor think that there is anything wrong with wearing a noose
on your necktie?"
Williams did not return phone calls for this story;
Bodenheimer attorney Eddie Castaing Jr. says that the plaques
"weren't anything official, just an 'atta-boy' kind of thing between
LeBoeuf says that, although she considers Jefferson
Parish a "vibrant and wonderful community," that doesn't translate
to its criminal courts. "Like many white-flight communities, it has
developed a criminal justice system where overwhelmingly the
defendants are people of color," she says. "And overwhelmingly, the
prosecutors, law enforcement, judges, and juries are white."
Sandy Krasnoff disagrees. The former police officer
and longtime victims' rights advocate calls wearing a noose necktie
"flat stupidity." But in terms of overall justice, he would rank
Jefferson Parish at the top of the state and maybe even the country.
"I could understand how defense attorneys probably figure that
Jefferson Parish is the most persistent or vicious in pursuit of
death-penalty cases," says Krasnoff, who heads the group Victims and
Citizens Against Crime. "But most defense attorneys are just opposed
to the death penalty, regardless of the facts and circumstances.
"Let me say this to you," Krasnoff continues. "Their
citizens in Jefferson, particularly their juries, are naturally much
more conservative than in Orleans Parish, where you have a black
majority. Race plays a large part in this stuff. You only got a 23
percent black population out there. And I think that the elected
officials out there, DAs and others, are sensitive to what the
citizens yell and scream about."
David Pilgrim, the Ferris University professor, has
studied lynchings in America. "From a historical standpoint," he
says, "I can see a person making the argument that a noose wasn't
always identified with blacks."
At first, Pilgrim says, white criminals were among
those lynched. "But once you get around the year 1880, lynchings
became increasingly identified with the social control of black
people," he says. "I would say that today, when you think of
American lynchings, you think of a black person being lynched."
Evergreen State College professor Michael Pfeifer is
currently writing a book about lynching and criminal justice and has
presented a paper on what he calls the "lynching frenzy" that took
place in Jefferson Parish during the 1890s. In March 1892, the
New Orleans Picayune referred to that frenzy in an editorial
that decried the "already scarlet record of Jefferson Parish." A
century later, the parish would endure more national notoriety when
former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran for -- and won -- the
state legislative seat for the district.
As a result, it may be nearly impossible to separate
the image of a noose from racial overtones while sitting in
Jefferson Parish court -- or any American courtroom. "Think of how
much more often blacks receive the death penalty, especially in the
South," Pilgrim says. "These things aren't lost on people."
Pilgrim, a native of Mobile, Ala., also curates the
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, an archive of approximately
7,000 items ranging from Whites Only restroom signs to mammy dolls,
lynching postcards, racist salt shakers, fishing lures and computer
mouse pads. He would like to add Cameron Mary's tie to the
"One of the reasons I like it," he says, "is because
it's not clear that it's wrong. To a lot of Americans, if it has the
word 'nigger' in it, then they know it's wrong. But if it doesn't,
they're not sure if it's appropriate or not."