January will bring a different life for District Attorney Richard “Ricky” Ward, who is retiring after 30 years of being actively involved in major criminal case prosecutions on a daily basis. Newly elected District Attorney Tony Clayton will be sworn in at the West Baton Rouge Courthouse on January 7.
Ward was first elected in 1990 and took office in January, 1991. He has served as the District Attorney for Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee Parishes ever since, being re-elected twice and having no opposition for election twice. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Sam Cashio, who served as District Attorney for 21 years and retired in 1981.
“There is a lot more to being District Attorney than just prosecuting criminals, especially in rural communities, where we also represent numerous public bodies,” Ward said. “I have enjoyed every facet of it. I’ve enjoyed talking with people daily, and being hands-on with cases behind the scenes.”
While managing some 50 employees across three parishes and navigating the very different politics in each parish can be difficult, Ward said he has been fortunate to work with so many good people.
“I have a really great staff, many of whom have been with me the entire 30 years that I have served,” Ward said. “In all fairness I should really mention all of them by name, but I know that’s not possible here, but I think I’d really be remiss if I didn’t say ADA Scott Stassi has been such a tremendous asset for me and this office.”
Ward’s office has handled some very high-profile cases, including putting away two serial killers - Derrick Todd Lee and Shawn Gillis. “Both of those were very interesting cases to prosecute,” Ward said. Another was the Monique Kitts murder case. “This case was built almost totally on circumstantial evidence, but we managed to get a conviction because we had so much circumstantial evidence,” he said.
He also recalled the prosecution of another murder. Considered a “cold case,” the unsolved murder was 10 to 12 years old when they got information and it was revived. Ward left the courtroom prosecution of these cases to in-coming District Attorney Tony Clayton, who was unopposed for the District Attorney position. But Ward was making all the major case decisions behind the scenes.
“Although we struggled a little in the courtroom early on in my tenure, when Tony came on board as my Chief Felony Prosecutor, with his expertise in jury selection and courtroom trial abilities, the office really has become very successful and efficient at prosecuting and obtaining convictions. Presently I have many very good assistant DAs who work very closely with the great support staff I have” Ward said.
He has seen major advancements in criminal case prosecutions, mainly because of the widespread use of DNA evidence, cell phone, and social media tracking technology. He added that video surveillance, which is common now, has also helped them get convictions in many cases. “When I first took office none of this was available to law enforcement,” he said. “Now we have so many more resources to gather evidence and make cases.”
Commenting on Ward’s leadership as DA, Clayton said, “I have prosecuted cases for Ricky Ward for almost 20 years and I can say he is by far one of the best teachers and mentors I have ever had. His player/coach approach to prosecuting cases led us to a nearly flawless conviction record over this 20-year period. As his top trial assistant, I never walked into a courtroom battle without him by my side.
District Judge Elizabeth Engolio said, “Working with DA Ward fulfilled a dream of mine, but moreover, taught me to be a fair and effective public servant. The Constitution gives the District Attorney unparalleled power, yet he remained a discerning leader who listened before he spoke and prepared before he acted. I pray he has the enriching and peaceful retirement he deserves.”
Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi noted, “When you think about the qualities and attributes a district attorney must have, a few things come to mind. A district attorney must be wise, he must have a keen understanding of the justice system. He must be fair-minded and unbiased. He must be compassionate. Most importantly, he must have the courage to implement all those attributes. Ricky Ward demonstrated those qualities and character for all his years as District Attorney.” He added, “His temperament was so well suited for the position of District Attorney. I consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to work for him before I became Sheriff. The life lessons I learned from him have no doubt led me to the successes in my career. The ups and down, laughs and tears we have shared over the years will not soon be forgotten. I will always cherish these memories, but most of all I will cherish his friendship.”
Ward decided about three years ago to retire now, and strongly endorsed Clayton for his position. “I think I am leaving the office with the perfect person, considering the issues presented in today’s political environment,” he said. “I know Tony can navigate through the challenges. He’s a super trial lawyer, very intelligent and big hearted and most of all he has a tremendous sense of fair play, which I think all DA’s must have. I will be leaving the DA’s office in great hands.”
Ward said he hopes to stay in touch with the DA’s office in the future and assist with some cases from time to time, in addition to practicing law, fishing, hunting, gardening and enjoying time with his grandchildren.
“It’s been a very interesting, enjoyable and rewarding job, and I am grateful to the residents of the 18th District for trusting me in this position for so many years,” he said. “and of course, I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my wife and family members for supporting me and standing by me for the last 30 years”