I sat patiently in Chief Judge John Boutall’s courtroom waiting to try a small civil matter before him, but first, the easy going, learned jurist had to arraign some folks charged with crimes. The defendants had been brought to his courtroom from the jail next door on a long chain the bailiffs called their “Daisy Chain.”
As I sat studying my own case and paying little attention to the arraignment procedures, I suddenly heard Judge Boutall call my name. “Hey, T. McGee,” as this friendly Judge was wont to call me, “ I am appointing you to represent Henry Chauvin who is here today on arraignment–charged with burglary.”
I asked to approach the bench, which the Judge allowed. To my very mild protest of “But your honor, I do not handle criminal cases,” the good Judge smiled at me and drawled in his rich southern accent, “I am sure, T. McGee, that you will do a fine job for this young man.”
In those days we did not have an Indigent Defender Board in our jurisdiction to represent poor defendants. Our judges in the 24th Judicial District of Louisiana wanting to see fairness done in their courts, and also wishing to avoid successful appeals if defendants pled or were found guilty, appointed whatever attorneys were available in their courtrooms at the time to represent indigent defendants.
So I came to represent the young black man, Henry Chauvin, and got to know the Honorable John Boutall better. I eventually worked out a plea for Henry with Nestor Currault, the Assistant District Attorney, and Judge Boutall then pled Henry to a misdemeanor possession of stolen goods with a value of less than one hundred dollars. Since Henry had no significant rap sheet, Judge Boutall gave Henry six months in jail with credit for time served, which meant Henry would be back on the bricks in about three months.
During this plea bargaining process, I came to know and admire Judge John Boutall. Judge Boutall was a prime example of The Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw immortalized in his book. A young John Boutall served on a destroyer in the Pacific during WWII before returning home to Bucktown, a small fishing community on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain, just upriver from New Orleans. He graduated from Tulane Law School and started a law practice with his classmate Nestor Currault. It was not long before the elderly Judge Fluery had to retire and John Boutall was elected with virtually no opposition to the 24th Judicial District Bench, where he remained for the rest of his career. He had chances to “ascend” to the Court of Appeals bench, but declined the opportunity. He preferred to stay where the action was.
Long before I appeared before Judge Boutall in his court, I had the pleasure of hearing him telling humorous stories at our annual Jefferson Parish Bar Association meetings. Actually, since only one female was admitted to the bar in Jefferson Parish when I commenced practice, these meetings were all male dinners where we guys ate good food, smoked cigars and some of us drank too much. We took the opportunity to socialize with our judges and tell smutty jokes. Having grown up in a family of fishermen, Judge Boutall had some of the funniest stories to tell. He told them in his inimitable style with a slow baritone drawl.
Some years after my first judicial encounter with Judge Boutall, through the intercession of a friend, Ed Collier, who knew our District Attorney, Mr. Frank Langridge, I was assigned the position of fourth Assistant District Attorney. This gave me regular access to Judge Boutall’s court and his steady, easygoing judicial wisdom.
Mr. Langridge preferred to have long lunches, smoke large black Cuban cigars and drink copious amounts of Rob Roys with his old cronies rather than supervise his assistants. This freedom to act and being naive prompted me to do something that did get the boss’s attention. I became weary of trying prostitution cases one by one. I had heard that Jim Garrison in Orleans Parish had used an old state statute to padlock places where prostitution prevailed by showing that at least one criminal offense had occurred on the premises. I gathered up all my prostitution cases and filed proceedings before The Honorable Boutall, requesting the good judge to issue orders to close down about half a dozen houses of ill repute.
When I appeared in Judge Boutall’s court, he called me up to the bench for a very private conference. Being a man familiar with all the intricacies of our local politics, and my boss’s connections, the good Judge who did not want to see me get in Dutch with my boss, so asked me, “T. McGee, does your boss know what you are doing? Have you talked this over with him?”
Naively, I told Judge Boutall, “I don’t see the need to do that.”
With a reluctant gaze at me, the good judge said “Okay,” and signed documents closing down several establishments doing questionable business.
A few days later after one of his three hour lunches, Mr. Langridge called me into his office. While chewing on his large cigar (he never really smoked them), he introduced me to a Mr. Landry, the owner of a motel on Jefferson Highway I had shut down. The boss explained to me that Mr. Landry was “One of our friends,” buzz words for being a staunch political supporter. The boss relieved me of my padlocking businesses and had another Assistant District Attorney obtain orders from another Judge rescinding Mr. Landry’s padlock order.
After several years of trials, I became the First Assistant District under my newly elected friend, John Mamoulides. One day while sitting in my office an angry B. H. Miller Jr., the police chief of Gretna, Louisiana, came to my office in an extremely agitated state of mind. In his usual manner, B.H. appeared impeccably dressed in an expensive dark blue tailor-made suit, silk white shirt and a discreet red tie. As usual, B.H.’s coal back hair slicked down with Pomade was combed straight back. His chalk white skin and ink black eyes made him appear like a well dressed ghost. As was his manner, B.H. hunched his shoulders, twisted his massive head, flayed his arms about, snorted and pranced around my office like a show pony. He told me how two young punks from New Orleans had crossed the Mississippi River bridge and burglarized his residence. The two burglars had departed just before B. H. arrived home, otherwise we would not be concerned about trying them.
The amateurish young burglars were apprehended on the New Orleans Connection bridge across the Mississippi as they fled the scene, after B.H. issued an APB from a description given him by a neighbor.
These two young men did not know that their early departure saved their lives. B.H. had inherited the position of Police Chief from his father B.H. Miller, Sr. While serving under his father, the young B.H. had gained the reputation of being fearless. In addition to being the law in Gretna, the Miller family owned the New Garden Club, a gambling establishment that made the family wealthy until the good Senator Estes Kefauver came to town and shut down all gambling in the free state of Jefferson Parish. So, B.H., Jr. knew how to deal with tough folks.
Once, the young B.H. went into a local raunchy bar room to break up a fight. A bad actor shot him twice in the stomach with a Saturday night special 32 revolver. B. H. pressed forward, wrenched the gun from the man’s hand and damn near beat him to death before the medics could calm down B. H. sufficiently to treat his wounds.
I tried to console B.H. that I would assign his case to one of my best prosecutors. That would not do. He demanded that I personally try the case. After all, these good for nothing punks had burglarized the Police Chief’s house. I tried to explain to the angry B. H. that the young defendants did not know whose house they had burglarized. That explanation went nowhere. Severe justice must be done.
B.H’s case somehow miraculously was allotted to the Chief Judge John Boutall, a man who knew the Miller family’s reputation well.
In preparing for trial, I had B.H. come to my office to discuss his testimony. I also had Elmer Robicheaux, the evidence clerk, come to verify that he still had B. H.’s 38 caliber pistol and his Rolex watch taken from his house and found on the persons of the defendants. Elmer looked down sheepishly and murmured, “I don’t have the gun.”
“What the hell do you mean you don’t have the gun,” I demanded.
At that moment B. H. reared up out of his chair, flipped open his suit coat, and patted the pistol strapped to his right side, advising me. “I went and got my gun back. I need my gun, but I will give it back to Elmer if we need it for evidence.”
Of course, being the Police Chief of Gretna, B.H. should have known better. Nonetheless, I had, much to his irritation, to explain the concept of chain of evidence to him all over again and tell him he had broken the chain; therefore we could not use the gun as evidence. We could, however, use the engraved Rolex watch which bore B.H.‘s name.
The day of trial before a jury and The Honorable John Boutall finally came to pass. B.H. roamed up and down the crowded courtroom like a caged lion. The two young defendants each showed up with hot shot lawyers their middle class parents obviously had mortgaged their homes to retain. Each attorney asked to discuss a plea bargain with me and Judge Boutall. I had no objection to pleas, but I advised Judge Boutall that I was prepared for trial and had a jury on the ready. I also told the judge and the defendants‘ attorneys that B.H. wanted a life sentence for each boy and was as angry as a nest of hornets.
After mulling over the plea request and viewing the rap sheet of each of the defendants, Judge Boutall, in his Bucktown drawl, told one attorney, “I will give your boy five years,’ then immediately addressed the other attorney, “And I will give your boy seven and a half years.” The attorneys went back to their clients with the plea offers then returned with counter offers.
This dickering went on for half a hour. B.H. became more and more agitated. I informed the Judge that I did not know how much longer I could control B.H. and that I had a jury ready to hear the case. As the defendants‘ attorneys approached the judge in chambers one last time, the exasperated Judge Boutall finally looked the two attorneys straight in their respective faces and declared once and for all, “I will give your boy five years, and I will give your boy seven and a half years, or alternatively I will give each of your boys fifteen minutes alone in this room with B. H. Miller.” After speaking with their clients and their parents one last time, the attorneys returned to Judge Boutall’s chambers and and told him they would take the pleas offered.
B.H. told me outside the courtroom after the deals were made that he thought the young defendants should get life sentences. Again, I had to explain to him that the maximum sentence each would have gotten was fifteen years in prison. I think both defendants were well-advised not to get in a room with B.H..
Relatives of Martin Brown had a fish fry and hired Harold Molaison to represent the young man. Martin had been charged with armed robbery. Many years before, Harold had indeed passed the bar in Louisiana and was theoretically and legally entitled to represent Martin. However Harold had restricted his law practice to passing acts of sales of real estate and convincing the good folks of Jefferson Parish to elect him to be one of their council members. Harold only took Martin’s case to appease the boy’s parents, who were reliable political supporters.
Harold, a jovial, Cajun, rotund man in his late fifties, with thick wavy hair and graying sideburns talked incessantly, mostly in English, but sometimes in French. Harold had the good sense to know that because of his limited trial experience and his vague knowledge of the rules of evidence he needed help to properly defend his client, so he called upon his old friend and well known criminal defense attorney.
Sam “Monk” Zelden brawled in the courtroom just as he had done as a young man in the boxing rings about New Orleans. I don’t now where “Monk” got his nickname. He never treated me with any religious fervor the many times I met him in court. Maybe he got this nickname because of the bald crown of his head that stuck out above the fringes of gray hair around the edges of his head.
A bear of a man, “Monk” packed about two hundred twenty solid pounds of muscle into a six-foot frame. He always seemed to lean a bit forward with massive arms slightly bent at the elbows as though he was ready to throw a left jab followed by a right upper cut. His loud voice always boomed out loud and sounded like he had gravel in his bull-sized neck. No doubt, “Monk” came on board to help his friend Harold, for a handsome fee.
Since “Monk” did not believe in plea bargaining and Harold needed a good show for his client and the politically influential parents and relatives, the case was set for trial before the Honorable John Boutall. Judge Boutall well knew the reputations of my two opponents, so I imagine he braced himself for the show the two would put on before the jury.
Judge Boutall and I had much business to dispose of on the morning of young Martin Brown’s trial. We finally got a jury empaneled about three o’clock that afternoon, I gave my opening statement and “Monk” ranted on for about an hour about how weak my case would be. As I presented each of my witnesses, “Monk” worked them over in his usual combative manner. The case droned on and on until dinner time. Judge Boutall recessed the trial so the jurors could be taken over to Whiteside’s Restaurant and be fed a proper dinner. Judge Boutall and all of us who tried criminal cases, except maybe “Monk,” knew that a jury could not make good decisions while being tired and hungry.
When the jury returned from dinner, I called more witnesses and “Monk” continued his endless, pointless cross examinations. About 9:00 p.m., I became sleepy and began to doze off now and then. “Monk” continued to badger witnesses. I noticed that Judge Boutall’s head slumped down a bit.
At some point while “Monk” was asking a specific question of a witness, and for no earthly reason, Harold, came to life after sitting quiet for the whole trial, jumped to his feet and blurted out “I object, your Honor.” This unexpected, totally inappropriate maneuver on Harold’s part jolted me out of my stupor and surprised the Honorable John Boutall, who had been resting his eyes. Of course, the sudden utterances from his co-counsel surprised “Monk” as well.
Judge Boutall, sat up straight on his bench, leaned forward, looked Harold straight in the eye and in a Bucktown southern drawl, observed, “But Mr. Molaison, you can’t object to your co-counsel’s question.”
Looking like a fifth grader who had been admonished by a teacher for disrupting a class, Harold slunk back down in his chair–not to be heard from for the rest of the trial. About midnight, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. I went to Whiteside’s to celebrate with some of the court staff, then got some rest so I could be back in Judge Boutall’s court the next day for some new adventures.
Over ten years as an Assistant District Attorney, I tried many cases before The Honorable John Boutall. I learned something of value each time I appeared before this humorous son of fisher folks who brought his ancestors’ wisdom with him to the bench.