Priest Murder Case Shows Leniency Of Louisiana Crime Laws

| April 1, 2010

Father Hunter Horgan was a popular Episcopal priest in the small South Louisiana town of Thibodaux, Louisiana. He was severely beaten and then stabbed to death in the office of St. John’s Episcopal Church where he was rector. After 18 years of searching, the alleged killer, one Derrick Odomes, was caught, and bound over for trial. But last week, a district judge in the case ruled that Odomes committed the heinous crime as a juvenile, and under Louisiana’s convoluted law, he does not have to serve any time. What kind of justice is that?

The murder of Fr. Horgan took place back in 1992, when Odomes was 14 years old. Under the Louisiana law at that time, a juvenile under 15 could not be charged as an adult, even for first degree murder. So, if Odomes had been arrested at the time of the crime or shortly thereafter, he could only have been jailed until he was 21. Then he would have been set free. The legislature changed the law in 1994 to allow for a convicted murderer to serve time up until his or her 31st birthday, but only for the length of time that ran from the time of the murder until the convict was 21.

In Odomes’case, that would have been a seven year sentence. Still too short for such a vicious crime, but at least he would have been forced to spend some time behind bars. But the “ex post facto” rule kicks in. One cannot be charged with a crime under rules that were not in place when the crime took place.

The law was again changed by the Louisiana legislature in 2008. A juvenile like Odomes who commits a murder at 14, could serve a term of up to 17 years, or until he or she was 31. Many would argue, and I agree, that murder is just too heinous a crime to let even a juvenile get away with such a short sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision any day as to whether a juvenile can be given a life sentence for murder, as is the case in a number of states. So even now, Louisiana, after twice “toughening up” the law, seems to be on the more lenient side of the criminal spectrum.

Let me converse a bit about this special Episcopal priest whose life was taken so tragically. I knew Fr. Horgan. He presided over the marriage ceremony of my wife and me back in 1982 at Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Avenue in New Orleans. He was friendly, quite funny, and definitely my kind of priest.

As in many marriage ceremonies, the pastor visits and counsels with the couple before the ceremony. Fr. Horgan wanted to visit with us, but I keep finding an excuse to put off the session. He was younger than me, and I did not anticipate any words of wisdom from who I considered to be this “a bit wet behind the ears” preacher. Boy was I wrong.

When our counseling session finally took place, Fr. Horgan, bless his soul, did not hold back. He told my bride to be, in no uncertain terms, that she should work hard to please her husband (me), have a tasty dinner waiting each night, and be sure to “look good for him” when I came in the door from work. My fiancée was livid. I was ready to give Fr. Horgan a high five.

It would be a real miscarriage of justice for this alleged killer, if convicted, to walk free because of prior glitches and way too much leniency in Louisiana criminal law. A few weeks ago, a judge in Baton Rouge sentenced a fellow convicted of financial fraud to 309 years in prison. So the system allows Fr. Horgan’s killer to walk free of cold-blooded murder, but the same system sticks it to the guy who bilks your savings. Where are the fairness and the equal protection? Are our core beliefs in what is righteous so out of whack?

It’s been many years since there was a comprehensive review of Louisiana’s criminal code. Cases like Fr. Horgan’s – and there are many – ought to give the legislature impetus for a complete review of the current law. The public desires it. Certainly the family of Fr. Horgan does.

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