Criminal Justice

An Interview With Sam Dalton, Now In His Seventh Decade Of Criminal Defense Law


The year 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of two landmark Supreme Court cases in criminal defense law. In Brady v. Maryland, the Court ruled that prosecutors are required by law to turn favorable evidence over to defense attorneys. And in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court ruled that for felony cases, the government is obligated to provide indigent defendants with adequate legal representation.

Earlier this year, I interviewed longtime criminal defense attorney Sam Dalton for a long investigative piece on prosecutorial misconduct. Dalton is something of a legend in Louisiana courtrooms. He has just entered his seventh decade of practicing law. In that time, he has defended more than 300 death penalty cases. Of those, he spared 16 defendants from execution—this in a state that's rather fond of executing people. He has also been a voice for civil rights, he chartered a model public defender system, and he's currently leading a charge to impose some accountability on Louisiana's more egregiously misbehaving prosecutors. My favorite thing about him: Outside his office door there's a "welcome" mat that reads: Come back with a warrant.

Read the interview at The Huffington Post.

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  1. Outside his office door there’s a “welcome” mat that reads: Come back with a warrant.

    I’m-a git me one o’ them!

  2. Just once I would like to see a lifetime defense attorney get appointed to the federal bench instead of the government hacks, con law aspies and idiot cronies who usually get such positions.

  3. I like his idea about reversing priority of parking spaces and chairs, but the real solution is accountability. Get rid of all immunity, qualified and absolute. Make the penalty for perjury equal to the crime at stake — if a corrupt cop or prosecutor sends someone to jail for ten years, then that is the penalty. No exceptions for good faith. If a witness lies on his own, he’s the perjurer. If a witness lies at the behest of a prosecutor, both are perjurers, both get the full sentence.

    There is an interesting exception to this. If a judge’s ruling is overturned on appeal, let the appeals court choose which gets thrown to the dogs, the judge or the law. Either the judge is incompetent or corrupt, or the law is so vague that no one can follow it. One or the other.

    1. I wouldn’t go that far. The law is not always clear. And you want judges to be agressive and think about the law and be willing to rule and risk getting overturned.

      If you kill a judge whenever he is overturned, then no judge will ever make any effort to stretch precedents. That won’t be a good thing for defendants.

      What you will get is a system where judges always make the safest ruling possible. That is not justice. And also, who says the appellate court is right? Maybe the lower court judge did the right thing. Not every appeal goes in favor of the defendant. There are all kinds of things called “interlockutory appeals” where the government appeals a judge’s ruling that effectively settles the case, like if a judge rules the main evidence in the case inadmissible. You want judges making those sorts of rulings with the threat of jail or impeachment over their heads? I don’t.

      1. That’s why you give the appeals court the choice — throw out the judge or the law, one or the other, but one must go.

      2. And also, who says the appellate court is right? Maybe the lower court judge did the right thing. Not every appeal goes in favor of the defendant.

        Exactly. There are plenty of cases where the trial court ruled one way, the appeals court reversed, the appeals court en banc ruled yet a third way, and the final appellate court reversed yet again. This doesn’t even get into the issue of a bunch of opinions where the judges concur in part and dissent in part. In that case, I don’t think you can say what the law is, so much as you can say what the law was that day. I’d like a little more certainty before I start sanctioning people.

        1. Then throw out the law if it is that malleable.

          The rule of law degenerates to the rule of men if interpretations can differ that wildly from judge to judge and day to day.

          Not only would this force legislatures to write simple clear laws, it would reduce the number of laws.

  4. We have a fine, beautiful legal system. But it has been prostituted by bad prosecutors, bad policemen, and indifferent judges.

    It’s a fine legal system except for everyone involved in running it. Really.

    It hasn’t been “prostituted”, this is the logical outcome of a politicized monopoly court system run by the government, for the government, not subject to the checks on excesses that a privatized competitive system would have.

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