FARMERVILLE, La. (AP) — In this conservative corner of northern Louisiana, where respect for law enforcement runs deep and Blue Lives Matter flags often fly next to the Stars and Stripes, the case of five white officers charged with the deadly The 2019 arrest of Black motorist Ronald Greene is seen as anything but a slam dunk.
So even with explosive camera video showing officers stunning, beating and dragging Greene, Union Parish’s predominantly white black district attorney decided to bring in a hitman: a seasoned white special prosecutor with a popular swagger of the law. and order and a three-decade-long reputation for winning tough cases across the state.
But Hugo Holland’s background is also marked by allegations 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 makes no difference what race the offender or the victim is. F——— race has nothing to do with it.
Holland attracted criticism as a local prosecutor for displaying a portrait in his office of Confederate general and early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. He once emailed a fellow attorney joking about chasing “a black guy or a Mexican.” And he wrote to the judge in the 2021 Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial to say he would never charge the acquitted teenager with killing two people during the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, calling it a “good shot.”
In addition to that, Holland served as a reserve police officer in Bossier City for 20 years and was criticized for rarely prosecuting police, deciding in 2018 not to charge two white sheriff’s deputies seen on camera video taking a kick 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 was hired in the Greene case. “It’s part of the problem we have today.”
But prosecutors are betting that Holland’s long conviction record can finally do justice to a high-stakes, politically charged case that has simmered for nearly four years.
Greene’s May 10, 2019 death on a rural road near Monroe was initially blamed by the Louisiana State Police on an automobile accident following a high-speed chase for a traffic violation. After governor officials onward refused for more than two years to release body camera video, the AP obtained and released footage showing white soldiers converging on Greene before he could get out of his car and repeatedly stunning and punching him as he moans, “I’m your brother! I am afraid! I’m scared!” Next a soldier can be seen dragging the burly Greene by his ankle chains and he is left face down for more than nine minutes before he finally goes limp.
Years of investigation culminated in December with four current and former Louisiana State Police officers and a local sheriff’s deputy indicted on various counts ranging from manslaughter to malfeasance and obstruction.
From the outset, Greene’s family and others worried that prosecutors might keep the prosecution in a north Louisiana parish that is nearly 70 percent white and deeply conservative. The same day the officers were indicted, a federal jury in Shreveport deadlocked in a civil rights trial, despite seeing 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, Union Parish’s first black district attorney, said of his decision to hire Holland on the Greene case. “Hugo is one of the top prosecutors in the state and has a history of pursuit of justice, regardless of politics and race”.
In an interview, Holland chafed at accusations of bias he’s faced throughout his career, including the fact that he consistently barred blacks from juries. If those claims were true, he said, then why would an elected black district attorney knowingly “hire a Klansman in hiding?”
Holland added that, while he’s still examining the evidence about Greene’s death, he would have preferred to get involved before the grand jury hands down its charges.
“I’m going to look at this case with a whole new eye,” Holland said. “If I think the grand jury overreacted, I’ll tell the district attorney. If I think something more needs to be done, I’ll tell them too.
“These cases are a bit like prosecuting a parent for cruelty for disciplining their child: where is the limit? That line is blurry. It’s not black and white,” he said. “It’s very unusual for there to be an illegal use of force. It’s extremely rare.”
Of particular concern to Holland are allegations that some officers were involved in the cover-up of Greene’s death. He compared the situation to the Watergate scandal which condemned the presidency of Richard Nixon. “If I can prove the cover-up,” she said, “those people are in trouble.”
Holland’s hiring underscores the lingering uncertainty in the Greene case. The US Justice Department is conducting an extensive review of the Louisiana State Police but has not said whether it will file its own charges against officers or superiors. Meanwhile, a legislative inquiry formed to determine the extent of Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’ role in the case sat idle for months as committee members sought higher office. Belton, the district attorney, is also in this year’s race for attorney general.
Greene’s mother, Mona Hardin, who has traveled the country drawing attention to her son’s death, remains skeptical of the state’s case’s prospects.
“I want so badly to believe that something or someone bigger is waiting to bring justice to Ronnie, but there are question marks everywhere,” said Hardin, who was a guest at the recent State of the Union address when her lawyers told her the “joker” Holland had been hired.
“All I hear is that they don’t like to lose,” she said. “But who is he winning for? Is he doing it for the blue?
Bald and belligerent, 59-year-old Holland is loved and hated in Louisiana for his blatant rhetoric and near-obsession with capital punishment. After an automatic weapons scandal forced him out of his job as an assistant district attorney in Shreveport, he began pursuing high-stakes cases across the state on a freelance basis, driven by a passionate belief in the “lex taglionis”, the law of retaliation.
“It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to see a man executed,” Holland said in a 2017 interview. “I can’t imagine how it is right for you to take another human being’s life and yours is not lost.”
It’s unclear how that mentality will apply to Greene’s violent death in custody, which a medical expert recently called a homicide.
In 2018, Holland ruled that two white Rapides Parish sheriff’s deputies had been justified in kicking Deterrian Simmons after he violently took the black man to the ground. Two “distraction shots” to the man’s face were also okay, he said, in part because they didn’t fracture Simmons’s skull, jaw or eye socket.
“Like nearly every other suspect injured by officers in any way, Simmons’ failure to comply caused the entire incident,” Holland wrote in a memo obtained by the AP. “It’s a waste of time to bring officers before a grand jury.”
Speaking about 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 received an email from Holland in 2017 when he wrote that in observance of Veterans Day he planned to “take the my pickup and find a black guy or a Mexican -Power.”
Holland defended his words as “clearly humorous”.
Holland also sent an unsolicited letter of support to Judge Bruce Schroeder, the Wisconsin jurist who drew criticism over his courtroom comment and unorthodox handling of Rittenhouse’s 2021 murder trial.
“The haters gon’ hate,” Holland wrote, boasting that he too aroused the “ire of the liberal media.”
“I wouldn’t have even bothered to take the Rittenhouse case to the grand jury,” he added. “I would have called it a good shot and I would have done it.”
Holland wrote that he had long since stopped reading the news about himself and that his life had become calmer as a result.
“I recommend this course 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 [email protected].