Hearing set for March 2023 for man convicted in 1994 murder of Rita Rabalais

Hearing set for March 2023 for man convicted in 1994 murder of Rita Rabalais
Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 2:51 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 21, 2022 at 4:28 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - A Rapides Parish judge has set a hearing for March 20-22, 2023 for one of the nine defendants who was convicted in connection with the Oct. 24, 1994 beating and stabbing death of 82-year-old Rita Rabalais.

Daveon McCullough, who is now 45 and at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, was 17 years old when Rabalais was killed in her Kelly Street home in Alexandria.

In October 1999, McCullough was convicted of the lesser charge of second-degree murder and automatically sentenced to life in prison without the benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. He had been charged with first-degree murder.

But, in 2012, the law changed. The U.S. Supreme Court in two landmark cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, ruled that juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison must have a meaningful chance at parole. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the decision was retroactive in another landmark case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, putting McCullough’s case back in the spotlight. The ruling meant that McCullough was entitled to a chance to be resentenced.

The Rabalais family has been pushing for a special hearing, called a Miller/Montgomery hearing, to determine if McCullough is among the “worst of the worst” who should not be resentenced.

On Wednesday, all parties were back in court for Judge Patricia Koch to hear several motions related to the case, and for Koch to decide if that special hearing would be granted.

Before arguments began, both the State and McCullough’s post-conviction attorneys met to hash out some legal matters. They agreed to stipulate that there is an absence of DNA evidence connecting McCullough to the offense. The State also agreed to provide McCullough’s attorneys with information on his co-defendant’s sentences and their current status. The State also made available the production of any favorable evidence to McCullough’s attorneys, which is standard practice.

One of McCullough’s attorneys, Allison Coffin with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP out of Washington, D.C., said that information on the case that they received involving a jailhouse snitch “may raise Brady concerns,” and indicated that they would consider bringing that up in the future. A Brady violation is when the prosecution hides or fails to disclose evidence that would be favorable to the defendant’s case.

Arguments were heard on two matters - one pertaining to a McCullough motion to vacate his sentence as illegal under the 8th Amendment, another pertaining to excluding gang-related evidence.

“A jury decided he was not among the worst of the worst [...] when they didn’t convict him of first-degree murder,” argued Coffin, who was trying to avoid the “worst of the worst” hearing and have McCollough be resentenced outright. She also argued that, compared to some of his co-defendants, “he was not the most culpable.” Coffin also indicated that, compared to some of his co-defendants who initially received harsher sentences, McCullough is now serving a harsher sentence than others as a result of post-conviction proceedings.

“This is not the worst case,” said Coffin, who also noted that because he was a juvenile at the time, McCullough’s culpability was “reduced.”

Assistant District Attorney Brian Mosley disagreed with Coffin’s arguments, stating that the sentence was not illegal at the time it occurred because it was allowed under the law.

“The sentence at the time was the current law [...] I think classifying it as an illegal sentenced is not correct,” he said.

Mosley also pushed back on language Coffin used earlier when she stated that a jury “acquitted” McCullough of first-degree murder, instead choosing to convict him of second-degree murder.

“I disagree with the language. He was not acquitted of anything,” said Mosley, who argued that the jury simply found that the elements of the crime were more in line with a second-degree murder conviction.

Ultimately, on this matter, Koch sided with the State and granted the special hearing in March.

“I’m not willing to vacate the sentence based on the argument,” she said. “This requires the Miller hearing. Lets move forward with the Miller process.”

McCullough’s attorneys next argued their gang evidence-related motion.

Attorney Madeline Bardi, also of the same law firm in Washington, D.C., said she believed that evidence of any gang affiliation that McCullough may have had was “improper and prejudicial,” both at the time of the trial and would be again if brought up.

“Mr. McCullough was not charged with being a member of a gang or a gang offense,” Bardi told the court.

Mosley believed it was up to the judge to decide that evidence’s weight, arguing that Koch is “able to distinguish anything an untrained person might consider prejudicial.”

Koch wanted to hold off on making a decision until she heard the actual evidence. She scheduled a Daubert hearing to evaluate that evidence for Feb. 1-3, 2023.

Rabalais’ family, who have attended nearly every legal matter pertaining to the nine defendants over nearly 30 years, said they were relieved that Koch agreed to the Miller hearing and didn’t decide to outright resentence McCullough.

“It’s what we wanted to hear from the very beginning after the original trial when everything started going south,” said Sharon Yarbrough, Rabalais’ niece. “The Miller hearing was our next opportunity to see justice come true for Rita Sybil Rabalais, my aunt, who was murdered brutally. It has been a rough go, a long time coming. But, we’re very thankful that the judge did rule in favor of the hearing today.”

McCullough is also represented by attorneys Abigail Kohlman, Charles Connolly, and Carol Kolinchak. According to clerk of court records, the case with originally prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Monique Metoyer. Kenneth Rodenbeck and John Michael Lawrence initially represented McCullough. The original judge was Rae Swent.

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