Retiring Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Larson was not sentimental as he wrapped up his last week in office after more than 30 years of fighting crime in Lexington.
Larson said in his years of prosecuting criminals, he’s learned not to dwell on the past. But when he sat down with the Herald-Leader on Thursday, he recounted memories of the triumphs, struggles and frustrations of a career in criminal justice.
Larson, 73, became Fayette’s top prosecutor in 1985, and he was never one to mince words in his years prosecuting the biggest court cases and most notorious criminals in Lexington. His exit interview is no exception. Here’s an edited Q&A from that conversation.
Q: Is this last week making you nostalgic?
A: No. I have learned over the years to move on. My dad was in the military for many years and we moved and moved and moved and moved. I had to learn to adjust immediately. People will go to trial, and they’ll get a manslaughter conviction instead of a murder conviction. They get all down in the dumps, and I’ll ask them, ‘Did you prepare the way you should?’ Yes. ‘Anything that you didn’t do that you should have done?’ No. ‘Anything you’d change about how you prepared?’ No. ‘Then what you say is, next.’ And don’t worry about it, because you’re not going to change it.
I’m very fond of all the people I’ve worked with here, and we have a kind of a family feel. I’m grateful … But, next. That’s how I work. And I’m not nostalgic — I have memories, but I’m not nostalgic.
Q: What drives you in this office?
A: I’ve felt that if someone breaks the law, they should suffer consequences, and right now. And that just is reinforced over and over again after you see people do unbelievable things to victims who are not volunteers for the criminal justice system. The criminals picked them. The unfortunate thing is that the victims frequently have to live with the results all their life, even if the bad guy gets a 10-year prison sentence and gets out and moves on. The victim is stuck with what’s happened to them, particularly survivors of homicide victims.
The criminal justice system, in my opinion, treats victims like dog manure. The criminals have all of the rights, victims have no rights.
Q: One of your focuses has been the care of victims and the families of victims. Could you talk about why?
A. I get mad as hell when I meet (the families of victims) whose sons … were completely innocent and they’re dead because of some jerk … Those people didn’t ask for this. But if you’d ever meet them, the hurt that is still in their eyes at the loss of a child just breaks your heart. The criminal justice system, in my opinion, treats victims like dog manure. The criminals have all of the rights, victims have no rights.
Q: Could you talk about the importance of victim’s advocates?
A: We assign cases here 15 at a time — first 15 go to this lawyer then 15 to the next, and the next, and the next. And as a result, the lawyers are up to their earlobes in preparations and that sort of thing. We have just outstanding people who are victim’s advocates. Their job is to communicate with the victims, to orchestrate meetings with the prosecutors and answer questions and get questions answered.
Trials are awful. Victims think that they’ll go to trial and things are going to be better. They never are. It’s worse. Think about it, they have to sit and listen to bad things about their loved ones at trial. They think all this pain is going to go away, and it never does. Victim’s advocates can help a lot. We created the victim’s advocacy operation in 1986 because I’ve always thought victims are treated badly by the system.
If you ask most defense attorneys, they will tell you, ‘well I didn’t like the little son of a bitch, but he always treated my clients fairly.’ I mean I’ve heard that over and over again since I’ve announced I was going to retire. That’s the legacy.
Q: What are some of the cases that molded you and molded your career?
A: Taquan Neblett is a personification of the failure of the criminal justice system. That hoodlum was from Louisville and he got into a cab in Louisville, a taxi, and robbed a taxi driver, shot him in the back of the head and killed him. He served very little time and was paroled and one of the conditions was that he move to Lexington. Well, thanks a lot parole board. He did and he thought he was kind of a hip-hop, rap star in the making and he went up here to Sami’s record shop, which is up near Euclid and Limestone, and there was a young kid that worked in there with Sami. … Taquan Neblett went in there to rob them, and guess what. He shot the young kid in the back of the head. Now, I hold the criminal justice system and their leniency to blame for that. The guy murdered a cab driver and they paroled him, for crying out loud, to Lexington and he did the same thing. And now he’s in prison for the rest of his life. That’s disgusting.
Q: Why are convictions not necessarily the end of your involvement?
A: If protecting society from dangerous people is our goal, and it should be our goal, then we’re failing at that, too. If you get a conviction in this state, and they get sentenced to 20 years, you know that that person is not going to serve 20 years. It’s a damn joke. If we had truth in sentencing, and if a person gets 20 years because the jury said 20 years is what you deserve, then serve it. That’s what I think. But that’s another example of why the public is losing confidence in our court system. Because we’re faking it. And it’s very offensive to victims who think he got a life sentence. Well, he gets considered for parole in 20 years. ‘What do you mean?’ they say.
That’s the way it is. Then they have to go to the parole board and beg the parole board to do what the jury said. That’s the humiliating part of it. I went over and just lambasted the parole board one time, and I said to the family, ‘I probably screwed it all up for you because I just told them exactly what I thought.’ You know the federal government’s done away with parole, as has Virginia. And that would go a long way in helping the public think the system is working for them instead of the outlaws.
Q: What do you hope your legacy is, what do you hope stays when you leave?
A: The legacy is we treat everybody the same under the same circumstances. Whether you’re the mayor, or you’re a reporter for the Herald-Leader or you’re a homeless person, you’re going to get the same treatment of the same facts. Number two, we think people should be responsible for their behavior. And the other thing is we believe you should suffer consequences if you break the law. And that’s it. If you ask most defense attorneys, they will tell you, ‘Well I didn’t like the little son of a bitch, but he always treated my clients fairly.’ I mean I’ve heard that over and over again since I’ve announced I was going to retire. That’s the legacy. And it’s easy to do this job if that’s the way you do it … you never have to look over your shoulder, and that’s a good feeling.