Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 6 News List

US death-row inmate asks French for help

C'EST LA VIE Michael Legrand admitted to the murder of a Cuban immigrant, but he hopes his adoption by a French uncle will clear a diplomatic path to a reduced sentence

AFP , NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

A confessed murderer on death row in the southern US state of Louisiana has asked France, a country he has never seen, to recognize his claim to citizenship and perhaps help him beat a death sentence.

Michael Legrand, 30, was born of US parents and has never visited France. Yet, a slim hope for survival rests on his adoption by a Frenchman and whether diplomacy could help commute his sentence to die by lethal injection.

Legrand murdered Rafael Santos in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans in May 1999 during a drug-hazed robbery.

His lawyers say the trial was flawed and appealed his sentence. If next week's appeal fails, lawyer Ben Cohen said he will petition the French government for help.

France's Vice Consul in New Orleans, Eric Bayer, said Legrand's adoption documents were before a French court, which will determine his citizenship.

"The matter is taken seriously and the consulate hopes the tribunal will act quickly," Bayer said.

Legrand was born Clarence Michael Myers in 1973, while his drug-addicted parents were in prison. He was taken in by his mother's sister, Donna Legrand, and her husband, Paul, a Frenchman who settled in the US after World War II.

In 1977, Judith Myers was released from prison and her son was returned to her. She divorced Michael's father in 1980 and married his former cell mate, Jose Raiford.

Raiford brutally beat and sexually abused Michael, Michael's sister and mother testified.

At age nine, Michael told his sister that his stepfather had been raping him. When the sister told their mother, she abandoned her son to state custody.

Paul Legrand found the boy after a two-year search in a state home for emotionally troubled children. His personality had completely changed from the happy toddler Legrand had known.

"You couldn't touch him, you couldn't hug him. You couldn't put your hand on his head," Legrand later testified before the court. Still, Legrand adopted him in 1986.

"By the time Michael is 14 or 15, he is not an easy person to deal with. He is starting to use drugs, gets upset easily, is hospitalized several times, is homeless on and off," Cohen said.

On May 17, 1999, Michael Legrand, on cocaine, killed his friend Rafael Santos, a Cuban immigrant, while robbing him of his CD collection. He stabbed Santos more than 40 times with a plastic knife, a screwdriver, and a pencil.

Three days later, Michael Legrand confessed to the killing. He insisted that he had not gone to Santos' apartment to kill him, but was charged with capital murder.

Paul Legrand testified at his stepson's trial, but died in January 2001, just before his son was sentenced.

Cohen said Michael Legrand should never have been charged with capital murder.

"It was politically motivated. It allows [officials] to appear tough on crime," he said.

"The [prosecutor] wanted to send a white man to death row to even out their numbers," he said, adding that most death row inmates from Jefferson Parish are black.

The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's office declined comment.

On Oct. 23, Legrand's lawyers will argue before Louisiana's State Supreme Court that he should receive a new trial for second-degree murder.

If the appeal is denied, the French government could help take the case before the International Court of Justice.

"Broadly speaking, every French citizen who is imprisoned or involved in criminal matters abroad can ask for consular protection and the French consulate's obligation is first of all to make sure the person who is tried benefits from all due process of law," Vice Consul Bayer said, but he would not comment on the likelihood that France would help.

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