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The Quiet Lion

Low-key civil rights lawyer Sam Dalton has spent more than 50 years fighting for Louisiana's poor and outcast. At nearly 80, the "old lion" still roars.

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Appearances can be deceiving.

Consider attorney Samuel S. "Sam" Dalton, 79, for example. He strikes an unassuming pose in his gray cap pulled over a genial smile, with a hearing aid in each ear. With his white dress shirt slightly untucked, he looks like any other grandfather in conservative, majority-white Jefferson Parish.

Few would spot Dalton, the dean of Louisiana civil rights lawyers, as a direct descendant of the notorious, bank-robbing Dalton Gang of the Wild West -- let alone a fiery champion of the dispossessed who once convinced the United States Supreme Court to expand constitutional protections for arrestees during police interrogations.

As founding chair of the Jefferson Parish Indigent Defender Board (1976-1999), Dalton has represented poor defendants for more than half a century. He has worked on some 300 capital cases. And he estimates that he has personally saved 15 men from state executions, including three Colombian hit men in a case that was made into an HBO movie. "I consider a 'win' in those types of cases to be walking out with a life sentence," Dalton shrugs over a bowl of coleslaw.

Dalton's reputation for integrity, creative legal theories and compassion for the downtrodden has earned him widespread respect from courtroom adversaries. "He's an icon out here in Jefferson Parish," says veteran felony prosecutor Chuck Credo of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office. Credo has known Dalton since 1976.

Known for his lengthy court filings, rich in constitutional law, Dalton is "always thorough," Credo adds. "Even as he has aged, I don't think he has lost half a step. I wish he would slow down and give us all a break."

That's not likely.

With his 80th birthday just six months away, Dalton is lead attorney in a lawsuit against Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, who recently threatened to have his deputies stop young black males at random -- then backed off the controversial proposal to curb black-on-black crime in Jefferson. Using the federal civil racketeering or "RICO" statute, Dalton seeks to implicate the powerful sheriff in a recent federal corruption scandal that sent two parish judges to prison and resulted in the federal convictions of five former deputies. Lee denies any wrongdoing.

Dalton's own career has seen challenges. He credits his voluntary commitment to a state mental hospital in 1964 with turning his life around.

Since then, he has become a legend in Louisiana legal circles.

Times-Picayune columnist James Gill praised Dalton as the "old lion" of Louisiana courtrooms six years ago. At the time, Dalton had filed an ultimately successful suit to stop the state from imposing extra fees on people released from jail on bond. Gill opined: "There wouldn't be any lawyer jokes if we had more like him."

In 1994, Loyola University honored Dalton with an honorary doctor of laws degree, recognizing his "great heart," "great conscience," "enormous compassion" and "legendary" legal assistance to the poor.

Unlike many attorneys, Dalton actually tries to stay out of the public eye. "He's unpretentious," says Louisiana Chief Justice Pascal Calogero, a former law school classmate.

"He is low key ... not flashy," says U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan, who worked with Dalton on death penalty cases before becoming a federal judge. "Sam doesn't look for accolades."

But he gets them anyway.

Judge James Dennis of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals offers another take: "Sam is low-key -- except when he needs to be seen and heard, then he can certainly make himself that way. He takes people by surprise."

Often in court.

ASKED WHAT LAWYERLY ADVICE HE WOULD GIVE TO YOUNG black males in Jefferson Parish in the wake of Sheriff Lee's tough talk, Dalton does not mince words: "Keep your mouth shut."

Dalton offers that advice not as a way of disrespecting cops or muzzling young men, but rather as a reflection of every citizen's constitutional right to remain silent. If police ask for identification, show them your driver's license, he says. "Don't say anything ... even if they ask you where you are coming from and where you are going -- even if you think you have nothing to hide," Dalton says. "Or, tell them, 'I want to call my attorney now.'"

Dalton offers more advice on police encounters in a colorful "street lawyer's manual," which he authored in 2004 as chair of the Bill of Rights Section of the Louisiana State Bar Association.

Turning the tables, he says the best way for cops to get the support of young black males on the street is "by treating them with respect." Too many police officers still curse citizens, he says, adding that the State Police are good models for police conduct. "State Police are very courteous. When they get your driver's license they address you by your name and put 'Mister' in front of it. That does wonders."

Dalton's advice to young men on street corners may draw critics. But anyone thinking of challenging the self-described "street lawyer" in court may want to think again.

Dalton's most publicized trial involved the murder of Baton Rouge native Adler Barriman "Barry" Seale, a drug smuggler-turned-informant for the DEA and U.S. intelligence. His cover was blown after newspapers published a surveillance photo (leaked by the Reagan Administration) of a Colombian drug lord unloading cocaine to pro-Marxist Sandinista officials at a Nicaraguan airfield. On Dec. 20, 1985, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola of Baton Rouge sentenced Seale to six months probation for drug violations. He was ordered to a spend nights at a halfway house. On Feb. 19, 1986, Seale was gunned down in his white Cadillac outside the hostel.

Three Colombian nationals were convicted of Seale's murder: Miguel Velez, Luis Carlos Quinter-Cruz and Bernardo Antonio Vasquez. Dalton says he had no contact with the convicted trio until he handled the penalty phase of their first-degree murder trial in Lake Charles.

Dalton never argued that his clients were innocent. An adamant opponent of the death penalty, Dalton instead crafted what he says was a "very dangerous strategy" -- that Barry Seale needed to be killed. "I put Barry Seale's smuggling record on [trial]," Dalton recalls. He also proffered the same experts from the FBI and DEA whose testimony had been used to convict the Colombians -- and turned them against the prosecution's case for the death penalty.

As a result, the government's own experts told the jury that Seale had smuggled the equivalent of 12 boxcars filled with cocaine into the U.S., resulting in an estimated 21 overdose deaths. Retired Louisiana State Police Lt. Bob Thomasson has had no contact with Dalton since he testified at the Seale trial nearly 20 years ago. Thomasson, one of three regional drug task force commanders for the State Police then, recalled that Dalton's "multifaceted" defense strategy included a ballistics-intensive argument against the death penalty. Dalton showed how the .45 caliber machine-gun murder of Seale was "more humane than state executions," Thomasson recalls, still incredulous.

The jury voted to sentence the Colombians to life at Angola without parole. Dalton proudly recalls that two of the jurors asked the court if they could change their earlier votes for conviction. (They could not.) Thomasson, who knew Dalton from previous court cases, says that "unlike most attorneys," Dalton's courtroom questioning of witnesses evinced a "search for truth" rather than for witnesses favorable to his client.

"He has unimpeachable integrity," says Thomasson, 58, who is now a federal law enforcement trainer in the Washington, D.C., area. "Sam defined 'outside-the-box' thinking before anybody found [the phrase] to be fashionable."

In 1987, not long after the Seale trial, Dalton, then 60, announced his retirement from the grind of pro bono legal work for the condemned. The Angolite, the prison news magazine at Angola state prison, saluted Dalton in an article titled, "The Old Soldier." Around that time, he received a birthday card signed by 29 death row inmates. Several have since been executed.

Almost 20 years later, Dalton soldiers on.

DALTON'S REPUTATION FOR THOROUGNESS INCLUDES a sometimes-playful work ethic, according to lawyers and judges who know him. "He would say, 'There is a lot of luck out there ... but luck is very mischievous and hides in all kinds of places,'" Judge Berrigan recalls.

In his quest for "luck," Dalton often recreates crime scenes and accidents for cases he is working on. Other lawyers may hire someone else to build models and courtroom exhibits, but Dalton says he gains insights into a case by doing the work himself.

He is a veritable handyman. A visitor to his law office is just as likely to see Dalton cradling a power drill as a law book. Earlier this month, there was a table saw in his conference room. Toy action figures convened atop a bookshelf, and dolls, model cars, and trucks dotted a blueprint on the conference table. Debbie Milam, one of Dalton's three grown children, jokes: "My dad didn't have toys as a kid."

Berrigan, who is now chief judge at federal court in New Orleans, offers a more serious explanation: "Sam tries every case as if it were a first-degree murder."

As an example, Berrigan cites a case in which Dalton said his client -- a white man -- was facing up to 30 years for a fourth DWI conviction. All of his client's prior convictions had been in Orleans Parish, except for one in St. Tammany. His client -- an alcoholic drying out in jail -- could not remember any of his previous convictions.

A friend retrieved the record of the St. Tammany DWI conviction, and the name, birth date and other personal information in the file matched that of Dalton's jailed client. But Dalton went over to the Covington courthouse to inspect the record himself. "Don't take anything for granted, not even a written court entry," he says. "Always go through a record at least three times."

The third time proved the charm. Dalton removed a clip on the St. Tammany file, revealing a notation --- "B/M" -- in the upper right hand corner of the report. "That's the universal abbreviation for 'black male.'" Dalton says, recalling the case.

Dalton and a private investigator found the black man -- with the same name, birth date, height, weight and other characteristics as Dalton's white client. The black man reportedly had been sober for more than a year, and he understood the gravity of a fourth DWI conviction for Dalton's client. The black man agreed to testify in the white man's case in Jefferson Parish.

"My fellow was in the jury box where they put the prisoners ... and I had my other [black] fellow in the audience," Dalton says. He put the black man on the witness stand, and he testified that the third alleged DWI conviction was his own -- and that he was the only DWI offender convicted that day in St. Tammany Parish. Dalton's client was convicted of only a third DWI and received a lighter sentence.

Dalton said he reminded the black man that his DWI record could one day be confused with that of the alcoholic white man. "If it ever comes up, I'll represent you," Dalton promised the witness.

MORE THAN 25 YEARS AGO, DALTON APPEALED A SEEMINGLY mundane armed robbery conviction to the nation's highest court -- and won. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1980 decision in Charles Tague v. State of Louisiana set aside Tague's armed robbery conviction in Jefferson Parish and expanded protections for defendants first set forth in the landmark decision of Miranda v. Arizona in 1966.

Tague, a parole violator from Pennsylvania, and an accomplice (later ruled insane) were arrested for the 1976 armed robbery of a cab driver.

At an evidence hearing, the arresting officer testified that he had read Tague his Miranda rights from a small card. Under questioning by Dalton, however, the deputy could not recite any of those rights, which include the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. The deputy also could not recall if he had asked Tague whether he understood his rights.

A jury found Tague guilty and he was sentenced to 65 years at hard labor. Dalton appealed. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Tague's conviction, stating that an arresting officer is "not compelled to give an intelligence test to a person who has been advised of his rights to determine if the individual understands them." The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the state must prove that an arrested individual understands his rights. Tague ultimately got a reduced sentence -- three years in prison.

In his successful appeal, Dalton used former Justice James Dennis' dissenting opinion in the adverse Louisiana Supreme Court ruling. "Sam opened my eyes to what a lawyer can do and why it's always important to be on your game," says Dennis, who now sits on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. "If a case is important and can be presented greatly, it can be heard [by the United States Supreme Court]."

Each fall, Dalton joins Judge Berrigan and Chief Justice Calogero at the LSU Law Center in addressing the incoming freshman class. "I ask [the students], 'Who can tell me what contributions our convicted citizens give to the majesty of the law?' The answer is: their appeals -- resulting from their convictions. ... The appeals make appellate judges look at the Constitution and lengthen the time the Bill of Rights will survive."

Judge Dennis, of the federal appeals court, agrees.

"It is unfortunate that most of our great constitutional cases come about from very reprehensible people," Dennis says. "But it is the lawyer's duty to try and enforce their rights, and it is the court's duty to uphold them. If we blink at those rights in one case, we are not going to look at them in the next case. It becomes a slippery slope."

After more than half a century of representing criminal defendants, Dalton confides he has a favorite lecture for those who frequent the courthouse as criminal defendants.

"I tell my clients, count backwards from 10 to one. They say, 'Why?' I say, 'Just do it.' They do it. And I say, 'Well, that tells me you're not retarded. So, why would you want to pull the tail of the tiger? The government has got the guns, the police radios -- they even got the nuclear bomb -- why don't you just follow the rules?' They shake their heads and say, 'I never thought of it that way.'

"I tell them, 'You are not going to win in the street. You might win in court. But the government has their share of luck and they're going to catch you.'"

SAMUAL SEVIER DALTON WAS BORN MAY 28, 1927, IN Tuscumbia, Ala. His maternal ancestors included the first governor of Tennessee. His father's ancestors included outlaws who were killed trying to rob two banks at the same time.

Sam was one of three children. His father was a carpenter and a supervisor for Sinclair Oil. His mother was a homemaker. His father, a remote man, was on the road when Sam was born. He returned home to learn that his domineering mother-in-law had named his first son after Sam's maternal grandfather. "He never called me by name my whole life, which I later came to understand," Dalton says of his father. "The more I learned about him, the more I learned respect for him."

When he was in elementary school, the family moved to Atlanta, where Dalton says he learned to fight. He was Catholic; his classmates were Protestant. "They thought Catholics had hooves like the devil's," Dalton laughs. "They were always trying to take my shoes off to see my feet. I learned to fight to keep my shoes on."

The family moved to New Orleans in 1939, then to Jefferson Parish. He racked up 48 suspensions by the time he graduated from coed Jefferson Parish High School (now Riverdale). His violations ranged from smoking corn silk in the schoolyard to toppling the school flagpole. He earned the respect of the school principal for admitting his infractions -- and later represented him as a lawyer. Young Dalton could be an enthusiastic student. "The math teacher let me climb through the window to attend math class while I was still on suspension," he recalls.

Later, Dalton ran laps after school for punishment. He got in so much trouble he made the track team, winning three different events in one night. He served stateside in the Navy Air Corps from 1944-47. Discharged, he attended Loyola University, then enrolled in the law school there.

His law school classmates include Chief Justice Calogero, former Mayor Moon Landrieu and lawyer John Holahan. The three joined other Loyola law grads in reminiscing about Dalton at a lunch meeting earlier this month.

Academically, "Sam was never in the hunt, so to speak, and made no effort at psuedo-sophistication," Landrieu recalled.

"That's a nice way to put it," Holahan said.

However, Landrieu continued, "Sam won the admiration of all of us for the way he represented the underdog in society. There is a lot more to lawyering than academic achievement. A good lawyer has passion and courage, and Sam has both in abundance. He's like a bulldog."

Calogero added, "He's all heart and puts a tremendous amount of dedication into his work."

Dalton also became the target of collegial ribbing for his malapropisms, most notoriously for referring to the Louisiana Civil Code as the Silver Code.

Holahan noted that it was Dalton who taped and transcribed the broken-English lectures of a visiting professor from Italy -- "who no one could understand." Dalton would show the professor the transcripts for clarification. "Sam transcribed 10 or 11 lectures," Holahan said. "We all got copies."

"He's not afraid to take unpopular cases, and no one will outwork him," said lawyer Don Richard, who graduated years after Dalton.

A.J. "Augie" LaNasa, another Loyola graduate, asked about the recent activities of the low-key Dalton.

The answer: Dalton is now suing Sheriff Harry Lee under the RICO statute.

A hush fell over the table.

"Oh, Lord," someone said.

DALTON HAD ALREADY STARTED A FAMILY BY THE TIME he graduated from law school in 1954. He hung his shingle at an office on Jefferson Highway.

In December 1961, Dalton split from his law partner, former Jefferson Parish Sheriff William Coci.

Coci was evicted from the office at 545 Central Ave. but returned later that night. He was shot and wounded by a security guard as he allegedly kicked in a glass door of the office, according to press reports and court records. Coci refused medical treatment and consulted his own doctor. He sued Dalton three days later, but dropped the suit in 1962.

By 1964, Dalton was exhausted. He was overworked and had run for judge twice, losing both times. He checked himself into the state mental hospital at Mandeville, where he underwent shock therapy, a form of treatment the hospital no longer offers. "Back then it was quite rudimentary," says Kathleen Crapanzano, medical director of the state Office of Mental Health.

Dalton smiles and says, "It worked for me."

He later adds, "If I had to go back and choose the best thing that ever happened to me, it would be a choice between law school and Mandeville."

His longtime friend, attorney Mary Howell, says Dalton's four-month stay at Mandeville launched his career as a pro bono lawyer. "[Mandeville] convinced Sam to spend the rest of his life making sure that no one in that kind of helpless position to authority would ever be alone if he could help it," Howell wrote in an 1992 ACLU tribute to Dalton.

Today, Howell says, "He has a real love of the law and he wants the law to do right."

Asked to name the best prosecutor he ever faced in court, Dalton did not have to think long. "I'd have to say Chuck Credo. He's really straight. He doesn't try to hide evidence, [and] if he runs across something in your favor, he delivers it to you."

The best police officer, according to Dalton, was retired State Police Lt. Thomasson. "He did everything by the book. He always played it straight. If the search was f--d up, he would admit it up front. He would be satisfied with getting the drugs off the street."

Looking ahead, Dalton says he enjoys his work too much to retire.

"A lot of lawyers ask me, 'How come you aren't burned out?' I attribute it to my attitude. Your job as a criminal defense attorney is to deliver [the constitutional right to] due process for your client. That means getting everything into evidence that you need to get into evidence for his benefit. And keeping everything out of evidence what should not be in evidence. Then your job is done. The result the jury or the judge brings back is not your concern. If the verdict is "guilty," then you've still done your job. And when you do that, more than likely the system will deliver the form of justice that should be delivered.

"It's not about wins and losses. It's not about that at all."

Sam Dalton as a young man. - SAM DALTON
  • Sam Dalton
  • Sam Dalton as a young man.
Dalton often recreates crime scenes and accidents for - cases he is working on, and uses dolls, action figures - and toy cars and trucks to re-enact the event. - ROMNEY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Romney Photography
  • Dalton often recreates crime scenes and accidents for cases he is working on, and uses dolls, action figures and toy cars and trucks to re-enact the event.
Around the time Dalton turned 60 and retired from pro - bono legal work for the condemned, he received this - birthday card signed by 29 death row inmates at Angola. - Several of them have since been executed.
  • Around the time Dalton turned 60 and retired from pro bono legal work for the condemned, he received this birthday card signed by 29 death row inmates at Angola. Several of them have since been executed.

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