Race record trails ‘wild card’ prosecutor in Louisiana death
Mar 21, 2023, 10:10 PM
(AP Photo/Scott Clause)
FARMERVILLE, La. (AP) — In this conservative corner of northern Louisiana, where reverence for law enforcement runs deep and Blue Lives Matter flags often fly alongside the Stars and Stripes, the case of five white officers charged in the deadly 2019 arrest of Black motorist Ronald Greene is seen as anything but a slam dunk.
So even with explosive body-camera video showing officers stunning, beating and dragging Greene, the Black district attorney in mostly white Union Parish has decided to bring in a hired gun: an experienced white special prosecutor with a folksy law-and-order bravado and a three-decades-long reputation for winning complicated cases across the state.
But Hugo Holland’s background is also marked by accusations of racial bias, including new claims uncovered by The Associated Press, that make him an unlikely advocate for racial justice. In fact, he says the concept has no place in the Greene case or anywhere in the justice system.
“Justice is justice,” Holland told the AP. “It doesn’t make any difference what race the offender or the victim is. F——— race has got nothing to do with it.”
Holland drew criticism as a local prosecutor for displaying a portrait in his office of Confederate general and early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. He once sent a fellow lawyer an email joking about chasing down “a Black guy or a Mex-can.” And he wrote the judge in the 2021 Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial to say he would never have charged the teen acquitted of killing two people during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, calling it a “good shoot.”
Beyond that, Holland has served as a reserve police officer in Bossier City for 20 years and has been criticized for rarely prosecuting police, deciding in 2018 against charging two white sheriff’s deputies seen on body-camera video kicking a Black suspect in the face.
“How can we expect him to fight for us to get justice when he is — and loves — the police?” said Breka Peoples, a Shreveport activist who initially thought it was a joke when she heard Holland had been hired in the Greene case. “He’s part of the problem that we have today.”
But state prosecutors are betting that Holland’s long record of convictions can finally bring justice to a high-stakes, politically fraught case that has simmered for nearly four years.
Greene’s May 10, 2019, death on a rural roadside near Monroe was initially blamed by the Louisiana State Police on a car crash at the end of a high-speed chase over a traffic violation. After officials from the governor on down refused for more than two years to release the body-camera video, the AP obtained and published the footage showing white troopers converging on Greene before he could get out of his car and repeatedly stunning and punching him as he wails, “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!” A trooper can later be seen dragging the heavyset Greene by his ankle shackles and he is left face down for more than nine minutes before he eventually goes limp.
Years of investigations culminated in December with four current and former Louisiana State Police troopers and a local sheriff’s deputy indicted on various state counts ranging from negligent homicide to malfeasance and obstruction.
From the beginning, Greene’s family and others worried whether prosecutors could make the indictment stick in a northern Louisiana parish that’s nearly 70% white and deeply conservative. On the same day the officers were charged, a federal jury in Shreveport deadlocked in a civil rights trial, despite viewing graphic footage of a white police officer kicking and assaulting a Black man in custody.
“A case like this can be complicated. We really needed someone with a lot of experience,” John Belton, the first Black district attorney of Union Parish, said of his decision to hire Holland for the Greene case. “Hugo is one of the top prosecutors in the state and has a history of seeking justice — regardless of politics and regardless of race.”
In an interview, Holland bristled at the accusations of bias he’s faced throughout his career, including that he consistently excluded Black people from juries. If those claims were true, he said, then why would an elected Black district attorney knowingly “hire a closet Klansman?”
Holland added that, while he is still reviewing evidence in Greene’s death, he would have preferred to have been brought in before the grand jury issued its indictments.
“I’m going to review this case with a completely fresh eye,” Holland said. “If I think the grand jury overreached, I’m going to tell the district attorney. If I think something additional needs to be done, I’m going to tell him that as well.”
“These cases are sort of like prosecuting a parent for cruelty for disciplining their child: Where is the line? That line is fuzzy. It’s not black and white,” he said. “It’s very unusual for there to be an unlawful use of force. It’s extremely rare.”
Of particular interest to Holland are accusations that some officers were involved in a cover-up of Greene’s death. He likened the situation to the Watergate scandal that doomed Richard Nixon’s presidency. “If I can prove the cover-up,” he said, “those people are in trouble.”
Holland’s hiring underscores the lingering uncertainty in the Greene case. The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a case has been dormant for months as members of the committee sought higher office. Even Belton, the district attorney, is running in this year’s race for state attorney general.
Greene’s mother, Mona Hardin, who has traveled the country drawing attention to her son’s death, remains skeptical about the prospects of the state case.
“I want so much to believe that something or someone greater is waiting to do Ronnie justice, but there are question marks all over the place,” said Hardin, who was a guest at the recent State of the Union Address when her attorneys told her the “wild card” Holland had been hired.
“All I hear is that he doesn’t like losing,” she said. “But who is he winning for? Is he doing this for the blue?”
Bald and bellicose, the 59-year-old Holland is loved and loathed in Louisiana for his brash rhetoric and near-obsession with capital punishment. After a scandal over obtaining automatic weapons forced him from his job as an assistant district attorney in Shreveport, he began prosecuting high-stakes cases around the state on a freelance basis, driven by a passionate belief in “lex talionis,” the law of retaliation.
“It would not faze me in the least to watch a man executed,” Holland said in a 2017 interview. “I can’t imagine how it’s fair for you to take another human being’s life and yours not be forfeited.”
It’s not clear how that mindset will apply to Greene’s violent in-custody death, which a medical expert recently deemed a homicide.
In 2018, Holland determined two white Rapides Parish sheriff’s deputies had been justified in kicking Deterrian Simmons after violently taking the Black man to the ground. Even two steel-toed “distraction strikes” to the man’s face were lawful, he said, in part because they did not fracture Simmons’ skull, jaw or orbital socket.
“Like almost every other suspect injured by officers in any fashion, Simmons’ failure to comply caused this entire incident,” Holland wrote in a memo obtained by AP. “It is a waste of time to bring the officers before a grand jury.”
Speaking of the case this week, Holland said: “F——— comply and you won’t get a bloody lip.”
Last year, defense lawyers seeking to show bias in the case of a man sentenced to death turned up an email from Holland in 2017 when he wrote that in observance of Veterans Day he planned to “take my pickup and find a Black guy or a Mex-can.”
Holland defended his words as “clearly humor.” But defense attorneys argued the email harkened to the infamous 1998 killing of James Byrd, a Black man dragged from a pickup by white supremacists in Texas.
Holland also sent an unsolicited letter of support to Judge Bruce Schroeder, the Wisconsin jurist who drew criticism over his courtroom commentary and unorthodox handling of Rittenhouse’s 2021 murder trial.
“Haters gonna hate,” Holland wrote, boasting that he too had aroused “the ire of the liberal media.”
“I would not have even bothered to take the Rittenhouse case to the grand jury,” he added. “I would have pronounced it a good shoot and been done with it.”
Holland wrote that he had long ago stopped reading news coverage about himself, and that his life had become calmer as a result.
“I recommend this course to you and remind you that Antonin Scalia said, ‘a man who has made no enemies is probably not a very good man.’”
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.