St. Charles Herald-Guide

From Senate president to D.A.

Kyle Barnett - June 14, 2012

The St. Charles Parish District Attorneyís office is in a period of transition.

The receptionist desk is the first thing visitors see when entering the office. Natalie Hymel, who has been with the office for 35 years and is now working under her third D.A., greeted visitors from behind a raw plywood desk with exposed nails holding it together.

Around the corner, Joel Chaisson sat at a small desk in the center of an otherwise bare room, the walls empty, baseboards stripped away. He had two cell phones, a desk phone and a laptop in front of him in addition to numerous askew papers.

Sounds of construction emanated from adjoining offices as multiple construction projects took place through the eastern wing of the second floor of the St. Charles Parish Courthouse.

"Pardon the noise," Chaisson said.

Chaisson said the D.A.ís quarters were in definite need of a makeover after his predecessor 69-year old Harry Morel, who was first elected in 1979, held the position for 33 years.

"This office has outgrown itself over that time," Chaisson said.

Chaisson was on the job for five days when notified a suspect was arrested in the parishís first murder in 13 months.

"The sixteen-year-old who was arrested for murder," Chaisson said. "He turned himself in–he just turned himself in last night."

Part of a vanguard taking over as elected legal representatives in the parish, Chaisson joins recently elected Clerk of Court Lance Marino and Division E Judge Michele Morel.

Chaisson was more recently known for serving in the Louisiana Legislature first as State Representative for the 56th District from 1992 to 2000 and then as State Senator for the 19th District from 2000 to 2012 where he served as the Senate president from 2008 to 2012.

Returning to the St. Charles Parish Courthouse brings Chaisson full circle to the beginning of his political career where he was elected as a councilman the same year he graduated from law school at LSU in 1983 at the age of 23.

The now 51-year-old Chaisson said being elected as the district attorney for St. Charles puts him on the other side of criminal law.

"Itís my first prosecutorial job," Chaisson said. "Iíve been a lawyer for nearly 30 years now and I have been involved in the criminal defense side of things for practically all of those years. But as far as prosecuting, this is my first opportunity to get elected.

"Iíve worked with the district attorneyís association throughout my entire legislative career to help pass criminal justice measures and criminal laws, particularly when it comes to cracking down on drunk drivers. While I donít have the prosecutorial experience, I do have a lot of experience when it comes to criminal justice issues that I have gathered through making the laws for twenty years."

Though Chaisson does not have prior experience as a prosecutor, he has faced off against many of the assistant district attorneys who he now manages.

"Everybodyís got a job to do and the criminal defense bar has their job to do and the prosecution side has its job to do and you canít take any of that personally. You just do your job and try to do it as best you can," Chaisson said. "Iíve got a different hat now and my staff understands that my past experience as a criminal defense lawyer is not going to have any real role in the way in which I run this office. It certainly gives me experience to know what the other side is thinking, which is a good thing, but first and foremost I am a prosecutor now and in charge of making sure this office runs smoothly and efficiently and that justice is served for the people of this parish."

As part of the goal to keep the office on the right path Chaisson has decided to retain former D.A. Morel in a limited capacity.

"Heís got a pretty big knowledge base after being here for 33 years about the operations of the office and I intend to call on that, of course. (Morel) is in a reduced role, heís no longer here in the courthouse but in the annex, but he is providing a valuable service to me in going forward," Chaisson said.

One of his first goals in taking over the office is building and maintaining a strong relationship with the Sheriffís Office.

"Iíve been meeting with the sheriff on a regular basis since I got elected to talk about ways that we can improve on the working relationship between my office and his," Chaisson said. "Heís committed to it and Iím committed to it and itís important that we all work together to achieve the ends of justice and we have a strong commitment to doing just that."

Chaisson said his end goal is to provide good service to the community and work hard for the parishís citizens.

"Iím going to focus on doing a good job," Chaisson said. "There are so many aspects to running a D.A.ís office this size that require attention on a daily basis that Iím one of the first ones to work here in the morning and I work hard every day trying to find ways that we can make this office the best it can be and thatís my No. 1 priority and I intend to focus on doing that."