In December, The Lens published the story of Erin Hunter, who was sentenced to life without parole for a 1987 murder he claimed to know nothing about. Hunter’s trial took place in a single morning in front of Judge Frank Shea in Section G of the Criminal District Court in New Orleans. This four part series looks at the controversial thirty-three year career of Judge Frank Shea.

“This is not just a voting lever. It is an IGNITION SWITCH,” an ad in The New Orleans States-Item read.Turn it… and just watch what happens!” 

It was 1963, and in his campaign for judge of Section G of the New Orleans Criminal District Court, Frank Shea positioned himself as a change agent, a political outsider who would bring independent thinking to the bench. He would be “a new kind of judge,” his ads promised. “Young enough to make the changes you need, mature enough to face the public, dedicated to change … and hard work.”

He blasted his opponent, Guy Johnson, for receiving money from the political establishment and for Johnson’s endorsements from The Times-Picayune and The Louisiana Weekly. Shea suggested he had been bought. “Are you, the people, going to elect your own officials, or are you going to let the old-time politicians or the newspapers pick them for you?” Shea asked in a speech.

Shea, for his part, turned down all official political endorsements, and even dared to put himself at odds with some traditional New Orleans proclivities. “No Bands. No Rallies. No Free Beer,” another campaign ad in the States-Item read. “NO OBLIGATIONS.”

Shea had the support of one prominent political figure, however — his boss, District Attorney Jim Garrison. After graduating from Loyola University with a law degree in 1955, Shea worked for a brief period at the Legal Aid Bureau — an early public defense organization — and then as an assistant district attorney under Leon Hubert, Jr., before becoming Garrison’s executive assistant when he was elected DA in 1962.  Along with Garrison, Shea had sparred with the judges, and claimed they took too many vacations and did not try cases fast enough.

Shea’s platform in the Times-Picayune:  In favor of the elimination of political influence on judges. Opposed to excessively long judicial vacations. In favor of encouragement of investigation of organized crime by the District Attorney’s office. In favor of jail sentences for vice offenders. Recognition of the right of any American citizen to criticize public officials, including judges.

When the votes were counted, Shea had defeated Guy Johnson and was elected to Section G of the Criminal District Court. On September 19, 1963, Frank Shea was sworn in as a judge, a person whose job it is to determine years of people’s lives in a matter of days and minutes.

‘He was the fastest

At 36, Shea was the youngest judge elected in the history of Louisiana criminal courts, and the metaphor of his campaign literature — the ignition switch — turned out to be apt. For 33 years, until two years before his death in 1998, Shea presided over a courtroom that ran with machine-like efficiency.

“He was the fastest,” said Franz Zibilich, who worked as an indigent defender in the ’80s in front of Shea and is currently a judge in Section L. “He was the fastest in the history of this building.” 

It was a point of pride for Shea. In the newspapers, he was written about under headlines like “‘Speedy’ is his name,” “Justice is swiftest in Shea’s court,” and “Verbose lawyers beware.” 

In order to keep things moving in his courtroom, Shea is said to have done things like bar certain lawyers from representing clients in front of him, not allowing attorneys to fully question jurors during jury selection or entering jury deliberation rooms to tell them to hurry up. 

In 1990, a man was convicted of murder in front of Shea in a trial that lasted 90 minutes from jury selection to sentencing. The Times-Picayune noted that it may have been the fastest murder trial in modern history. (Still, the paper gave it only four paragraphs in a broader criminal justice round-up column. The brief quoted the prosecutor, who said the case redefined the meaning of “speedy trial.” No one else was quoted.)

Shea’s time on the bench coincided with both a national and local shift in criminal justice policy that led to a massive increase in the prison population. The country declared a war on drugs. Louisiana’s sentencing laws became increasingly punitive. In New Orleans, District Attorney Harry Connick made it a point to use the habitual offender bill as often as he could to lock away what he saw as “career criminals” for as long as possible. 

During Shea’s career, Louisiana went from having the 13th highest incarceration rate in the nation to the second highest. The overall prison population in the United States increased by nearly a million prisoners, and Louisiana locked up over six times as many people in 1996 as it did in 1963.

To lawyers and defendants who practiced or were tried in front of him, Judge Shea was an outsized representation of that era of criminal justice. His insistence on speed, along with his extended tenure on the bench, amplified the impact he had not only on those who appeared in front of him, but the broader approach to justice in the New Orleans criminal court and the city as a whole. 

“Because Judge Shea of Orleans Parish Section G wanted to try cases quickly, often at the expense of defendants’ rights, the problems that occurred in many cases of his era were exacerbated in his courtroom,” said Richard Davis, Legal Director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “Many people are still in Angola as a result of rushed and unfair trials from Section G. The harmful legacy that Judge Shea left behind has never been adequately addressed.” 

Shea’s demeanor on the bench, and what he was able to get away with, also shows a tolerance for behavior that would be seen as unprofessional and unethical today. He veered toward belligerence. He cursed at and berated lawyers. He allowed very few women to practice in his courtroom, and a number of lawyers recall overtly sexist behavior. In 1994, he reportedly pulled a gun on a shackled defendant while on the bench.

Shea endured a tragic personal life, particularly in the 1980s. His epileptic eleven-year-old son drowned in a canal in 1981. Then, his wife and daughter were killed in a house fire in 1987. Shea and another son escaped without injury. The cause of the fire was listed as “careless smoking.”

Talking to people about Shea works as a sort of Rorschach test. Some look at him as the natural response to a different era, when the crime rate was high, the city demanded swift justice, and the culture of the Criminal District Court was able to absorb a greater degree of eccentricity. Shea, they believe, was an unsparing but ultimately conscientious judge, a sharp legal mind who demanded competence from those who stepped into his courtroom. 

For others, Shea was emblematic of the punitive, cruel, and racist ethos of the New Orleans Criminal District Court during the rise of mass incarceration. 

“The vast majority of the people who worked in that building were white men,” said Calvin Johnson, who in 1990 became the first black judge elected to the Criminal District Court who had not been previously appointed. “This is what that building was. And the judges that worked there, and specifically Frank Shea, operated from that cruelness of worlds that resulted in mass incarceration. This is how we created mass incarceration.”

“Judge Shea’s courtroom was a slaughterhouse for young, poor black males.”

Erin Hunter

When Johnson was elected, he was the only black judge in the building. In 1990, the city was over sixty percent black. Eighty percent of the jail population was black. In Louisiana as a whole, there were three times as many black people in prison as white. 

“Judge Shea’s courtroom was a slaughterhouse for young, poor black males,” Erin Hunter wrote in a letter to The Lens from Angola not long before his death. “His trial record speaks for itself.”

In 1988, Hunter was convicted of murder in Shea’s courtroom. The judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole in a trial that lasted a single morning. Shea cut him off during his testimony, which lasted around ten minutes, and had him removed from the witness stand. 

While Hunter was never able to gain his freedom, a number of other defendants who were handed life sentences before Shea were later released when questions were raised about their guilt. Isaac Knapper was exonerated in 1991. Calvin Duncan, George Toca, and Elvis Brooks were all released on plea deals after the Innocence Project New Orleans investigated their cases. All had been charged with murder in front of Judge Shea and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. All continue to maintain their innocence. 

‘When a judge does all these things, he is himself in contempt of court’

The defining features of Shea’s decades long judicial career — political pugilism, an obsession with speed, and contempt for lawyers and defendants who challenged the pace of his courtroom — were evident during his first term. In 1966, Shea subpoenaed then-New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro “to appear before the grand jury in an attempt to cool things off in the courtroom,” The States-Item reported. In 1969 he had an 18-year old defendant gagged with tape for speaking during jury selection. 

By 1972, Shea was up for reelection, and his opponents were already accusing him of undermining defendants rights by moving too fast. One of them, Edward Baldwin, claimed that he ran “an Angola express” and failed to study cases in detail. Another, Salvatore Panzeca, made a sweeping indictment of Shea, claiming that he had allegiance to the clock over justice, changed the presumption of innocence to the presumption of guilt, pressured attorneys to plead clients guilty in order to keep his docket clear, and took phone calls from the bench during trials. 

“When a judge does all these things,” Panzeca concluded, “he is himself in contempt of court and forfeits his right to be a judge.” 

Shea, however, pointed to his time with the Legal Aid Bureau and claimed to have been instrumental in establishing a public Indigent Defender Program just a year prior, to replace the privately administered Legal Aid Bureau’s criminal defense division. Shea easily won re-election. 


In 1973, Harry Connick was elected District Attorney after running on the promise of instituting more rigorous case screening, cutting down on plea deals, increasing the use of the multiple offender bill, and taking more cases to trial. Other changes were under way in the Criminal District Court as well. In 1974, Louisiana passed a new constitution that mandated women be in the jury pool. Prior to then, women had to volunteer to be selected for a jury. Around the same time, Connick received funding from the federal government to start a Career Criminal Bureau — a group of DA’s tasked with identifying and prioritizing cases involving multiple offenders, with the goal, according to Connick, of putting “career criminals in the penitentiary for a long, long, long, long time.”

“It was an exciting time,” remembers Ernest Chen, who started as a prosecutor in Section G in 1974. “There was a lot of enthusiasm.” 

The entire building upped its trial pace, but Shea was the most prolific.  “Shea was very active. He was a nervous kind of guy, and he always wanted action. …He didn’t want to sit in his office like some of the judges, and work deals in the chambers, and try very few cases.”

Shea was not just holding trials in quick succession, Chen said, but many at the same time.  “He was known to have tried three jury trials all at once,” he recalled. “He rotated the juries in and out. Shuffled them between the jury deliberation rooms, the jury box, and other courtrooms—other judges jury deliberation rooms. And he was just moving them along.”

Another prosecutor assigned to Shea was a man named Kurt Sins, and in a retrospective of Connick’s first year in office, the States-Item described Sins rushing through trials and “sometimes struggling to remember three different sets of facts and nearly as many opening and closing arguments in a single day.” 

“I’ve never seen him deprive anybody of a fair trial.”

Ernest Chen

Chen doesn’t believe that anyone was denied justice because of Shea’s pace. He said that unlike some judges, Shea wouldn’t punish defendants for going to trial instead of taking a plea deal.

“I never saw incidents or even heard of incidents in which somebody was prevented from putting on his defense,” said Chen. “He wouldn’t put up with a bunch of shenanigans, but I’ve never seen him deprive anybody of a fair trial.”

The first case brought by Connick’s Career Criminal Bureau, however, was the prosecution of a man named Newton Brown. The trial was held in front of Shea, and Chen prosecuted it. Brown was part of a drug rehabilitation pilot program administered by the state. He was arrested outside of the treatment clinic with a Coke bottle that contained methadone. Brown was charged with attempted possession of a controlled dangerous substances, and because he had previous convictions, was sentenced to nine years in prison (he faced the possibility of a life sentence, according to a news article from the time.) 

When Brown appealed his case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, they found that while he had violated the rehab program’s regulations by taking methadone from the clinic premises, he had not broken any laws. Therefore, the arrest was unlawful, and the evidence that was seized should have been suppressed during trial — which Shea failed to do. 

“The defendant’s motion to suppress should have been granted,” the Supreme Court ruled, “and his conviction and sentence which were based on the illegally obtained evidence must be reversed.” 

After four years in prison, Brown’s conviction was overturned.

In 1976 the Louisiana state legislature passed a resolution commending Shea for conducting speedy criminal trials “by silencing long winded, redundant attorneys” and for “handling four jury trials in the same day.” The resolution also suggested that Shea was “an excellent model for other judges and lawyers in the state of Louisiana to bring about an interest in developing a more efficient method of disposing of criminal cases.” 

Speed has long been a measure by which some entities measure the functionality of a criminal justice system. That tradition has been maintained in recent years by some New Orleans organizations, like the Metropolitan Crime Commission and CourtWatch NOLA, which have both issued reports on which judges move their dockets the fastest, and which have backlogs of outstanding cases. 

Getting to trial quickly can serve defendants’ interests, especially if they are sitting in jail. But critics of the measure argue that speed alone is not a good way to determine the efficacy of a justice system, and that there should be greater consideration given to making sure defendants are provided proper defense, as well as efforts to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place. Over the past few years, CourtWatch NOLA has moved away from a focus on case speed, and has turned its attention to other aspects of court procedures and politics, including judicial ethics.

In a newspaper article reporting on the 1976 legislative resolution commending Shea, there was speculation that Shea had arranged the honor on his own behalf: “Shea, who has never taken kindly to national publications praise of Dist. Atty. Harry Connick for bringing about speedier trials here,” an article in the States-Item noted, “swore he didn’t put Opelousas Rep. Steve Dupuis up to authoring the resolution.”

Despite Shea’s productivity during Connick’s tenure, the two did not get along. Shea resented Connick for the national attention he was receiving, and repeatedly and publicly made his dislike for Connick known. He blasted Connick for opposing a Juvenile Offender diversion program. He claimed that Connick took up too much space in the Criminal District Court building, and slammed him for not allowing jurors to use the parking lot in front of the DA’s office. 

‘It hadn’t changed. That is reality’

Retired Judge Calvin Johnson. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

In the contested election of 1972, Shea’s opponents leveled accusations of racism against him, claiming that he adjusted his sentences based on the race of the defendants. Shea denied it. He dismissed such allegations of racism as “fashionable,” according to a news report. 

But if the accusations of racism were fashionable, they did little to diversify the court. With some notable exceptions, such as Israel Augustine, who was appointed to the bench in 1969, the judges at Criminal District Court were often all white. 

In 1988, however, a federal judge ruled that the judicial districts were drawn in such a way throughout Louisiana that they diluted black voting strength, and threatened to do something about it. At the time, there were no black Louisiana Supreme Court justices, a single black judge in state appellate courts, and five black district judges out of 192. There were no black judges on the New Orleans Criminal District Court bench. 

The white New Orleans judges, including Shea, feared the court decision would make it impossible for them to win re-election by doing away with elections for individual court sections. 

“That latest word is that the judge is leaning toward an election in 1990 where the eleven candidates with the most votes would be elected,” Judge Patrick Quinlan told The Times-Picayune. “That’ll be in a New Orleans that’s 58 percent black and 42 percent white, which would effectively end a number of careers.”

In 1989, they made a group trip to the state Capitol in attempt to come up with a solution that could both satisfy the feds while simultaneously maintaining their employment in a more diverse courthouse. “This is the close of an era,” said Frank Marullo in the Capitol hallway. “Something has got to happen. Now we’re just trying to protect the incumbents.” 

The following year New Orleans was dropped from the federal suit because the judge determined the city had previously elected black people to judgeships and other city-wide positions, and therefore was “a level playing field for voters of both races.” 

In 1990, when Calvin Johnson was elected, he was the only black judge at the Criminal District Court. At that time the city was over 60 percent black, and had already elected two black mayors. 

Johnson had thought about making a run for the bench once before. In fact, in 1984 when he was working as the criminal division of the Loyola law clinic, he qualified to run against Shea in Section G. 

“That was not necessarily the smartest of moves,” recalled Johnson, “but I was never known for smart moves.”  Johnson ended up deciding to drop out of the race before the primary ballots were even cast. The reason, he said, was that Judge Shea sent the Sheriff of Iberville Parish to his parents house and told them “that it would probably be good if I got out of that race.” 

“With all respect to whatever one might think about what had changed since nineteen sixty-fucking-three, this is 1984 and no, it hadn’t changed. That is reality.”

Calvin Johnson

“True story. I ain’t making it up,” Johnson said recently. When asked if he took it as a threat, Johnson replied: 

“Abso-fucking-lutely. This is 1984 Louisiana. When the high sheriff comes knocking at your door, and says some shit to you — this is Iberville Parish, in Louisiana, in 1984. With all respect to whatever one might think about what had changed since nineteen sixty-fucking-three, this is 1984 and no, it hadn’t changed. That is reality.”

Following the incident with the sheriff, Johnson said he had a meeting with the Lieutenant Governor, Robert Freeman, Jr., who also encouraged him to get out of the race, and offered him political support in the 1990 election if he agreed to do so. But by that point Johnson had already made up his mind to drop out, and when he ran for Judge in 1990, the political support never materialized. 

‘I couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle.

In 1994, according to the Times-Picayune, Judge Shea pulled out a gun on a shackled defendant in his courtroom. The defendant was a man named Carl Taylor, who had been arrested on drug charges. When he was unable to make payments on a $600 fine, Shea ordered him sent to jail. 

“Man, I’m getting tired of all this,” Taylor said to Shea, according to witnesses who spoke to The Times-Picayune. “Why don’t you get out from behind that bench and come back in this cell?” Shea pulled a blue-steel semiautomatic from a drawer and responded, “You want me to come back there with this?”

Keith Detweiler, an attorney who was in the room during the incident, said from what he saw, Shea never actually pulled the gun out, but that he opened a drawer and insinuated it was there. In a letter to The Times-Picayune, Shea later denied the reported version of the story.

“At that time, it was my belief that I was in imminent danger. I quickly unlocked the drawer and looked to see if Mr. Taylor was coming up the steps. I removed the pistol and held it in my hand close to my lap in an almost reflex action,” he wrote.

“If he would have come up here, I would have been in real trouble,” Shea told a reporter. “I don’t know how to fire it.” 

“I don’t even fool with guns,” Shea continued. “I couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle.”

The story picked up media attention. Times-Picayune columnist James Gill wrote a piece suggesting that the Judiciary Commision investigate Shea’s conduct on the bench.  “You could make a pretty strong case that Shea violated the state code of judicial conduct…. Take, for instance, the requirement that judges be ‘patient, dignified and courteous.’ Shea’s out on strikes right there.”


(Gill and Shea had a working relationship, apparently, and in his column Gill noted that Shea had “been known to refer to your correspondent as ‘that morphadite.’”)

Two years later, in 1996, Shea announced his retirement from the bench, citing health concerns. “My doctors advise me against undertaking the rigors of a political campaign and the responsibilities inherent in serving an additional term,” he told the Times-Picayune. “I have made this decision with reluctance because I have enjoyed my tenure serving the people.”

An attorney quoted in the piece, who asked to remain anonymous, reflected on Shea’s courtroom. “It was a very bad atmosphere,” they recalled.

For some, looking back decades later, the bad atmosphere is still palpable.  

“In terms of his behavior in court, he was as nasty, as insulting, he was obviously racist—he wasn’t alone, but he was obviously racist—he was sexist, obviously sexist, he had such a disdain for people who came into that room,” recalled Calvin Johnson recently. “It was like a disease, or a cloud, in his court. You felt it when you walked in the door. You felt it, ok? You felt this overburdening weight that would come over you when you walked through this man’s door. Especially when you were a person of color, ok? When you walked in that door, you felt it.”

Madeline Aruffo contributed research to this story.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...