SHREVEPORT, La. — The night before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Tiffany Woods and Emmanuel Scott fled the city, driving 320 miles northwest with their four small children.
The youngest was two months old: Little Emmanuel. A New Orleans hospital discharged the premature infant about three weeks before Katrina struck. He had tested positive at birth for a genetic abnormality, but crucial follow-up testing hadn’t happened before the hurricane hit.
The family stayed in a shelter here, feeding the baby formula they bought with government vouchers.
Baby Emmanuel was extremely sleepy and had trouble feeding, according to both hospital records and his young parents. In October, they ran out of formula vouchers, so they bought organic cow’s milk for the baby instead, they later told police, hoping he might tolerate it better.
Within weeks, Emmanuel died of malnutrition, according to an autopsy.
Prosecutors decided his death was murder in the second degree — which doesn’t require proof that anyone intended to harm him.
A judge found the baby’s parents guilty, and in 2008 sentenced them to spend the rest of their lives in prison, with no hope of parole. Scott was 18 years old when Emmanuel died; Woods was 25.
Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.
Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.
More than half of the people serving life in Louisiana were convicted of second-degree murder, our investigation found, including over three-quarters of the 124 women serving life (parole is forbidden for almost all life sentences in the state).
Pennsylvania is the only other state where a second-degree murder conviction guarantees an automatic sentence of life without parole, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization. Pennsylvania and Louisiana rank among the top five states for lifetime sentences in the U.S., according to the group’s analysis.
Louisiana’s statute is extreme, said Preston Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit Second Look Alliance, which lobbies for changes to the state's sentencing practices.
“The law is so broad that it's leading to things no rational person could have possibly intended,” said Robinson, a former chief of staff for Sen. John Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican.
Supporters of the second-degree murder law say that it is meant to be used only in egregious cases, and that mandatory life without parole provides solace for victims. The child-neglect provisions are “designed to protect those that are the least able to protect themselves,” said Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
Yet data suggests Louisiana may not be applying the punishment equally. More than 70% of people serving life without parole are Black, according to our analysis of state data, while about 66% of those imprisoned in Louisiana are Black. Black people make up a third of Louisiana’s population.
Woods grew up in New Orleans East, where she dropped out of high school a few months before graduating when she gave birth to her first son. She had three healthy pregnancies, but two months before her fourth child was due in 2005, she started bleeding heavily. She had not gotten prenatal care, according to her medical records, and told doctors she had an occasional beer during her pregnancy.
Doctors delivered the baby boy early via cesarean section on June 23. He weighed just over three pounds, according to medical records, and was dehydrated. They had to resuscitate him and insert a tube to help him breathe.
Like all newborns in the U.S., Emmanuel had blood drawn so doctors could screen for genetic abnormalities and diseases, including MCAD deficiency, which makes the body unable to break down certain fats (the abbreviation stands for Medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency). Babies with this condition face an increased risk of sudden death due to low blood sugar, and need very frequent feedings.
Emmanuel’s MCAD screen came back positive. But blood testing isn’t foolproof, so babies with positive results almost always need follow-up testing at a biomedical genetic lab. In the meantime, Tulane Medical Center fed Emmanuel special baby formula on a round-the-clock schedule, according to medical records, trying to help him grow bigger and healthier.
Before the hospital sent the baby home after 41 days in intensive care, staff taught Woods what to do for her premature infant. But his discharge papers said nothing about very frequent feeding, and Woods says hospital staff never mentioned that. The hospital did not respond to requests for comment.
He was released weighing about 5 pounds. A doctor wrote on his chart: “Good luck with this one, he is very CUTE.”
Days later, Woods took the baby to a pediatrician for a follow-up appointment and vaccines. His visit to the Tulane genetics lab was scheduled for Aug. 29 — the day after New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued an evacuation order as Katrina menaced the city.
The family never made it back to Tulane.
Jason Shelton, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who lived in Houston right after the hurricane, published a study in 2009 documenting the resentment evacuees faced.
“They were seen as ‘outsiders’ coming and straining public services, tearing ‘our’ culture down,” Shelton said in an interview.
Woods and her kids were crammed into a sports arena in Shreveport before moving into a motel and, eventually, a rented house. In a video interview last month from her Louisiana prison, she said she sometimes felt the judgment of those who were supposed to be helping her after they evacuated, but she brushed it off.
“I wasn’t worried about what they were saying; I was in survival mode,” she said.
When Woods and Scott ran out of government vouchers in late October, they decided to try organic cow’s milk. Experts say it’s a common mistake, though pediatricians generally advise against giving cow’s milk to children under one year old.
On the morning of Nov. 27, the parents found Emmanuel unresponsive in his crib and called 911.
Police and a social worker sent to the home quickly became suspicious of the couple, they later testified. Woods didn't react the way they thought a grieving mother should, seeming calm and detached rather than crying and hysterical.
Officers noted the house was tidy, but photographed the contents of the fridge, including home-cooked food, cartons of organic milk, and a few large cans of Natural Ice beer.
Police collected partially full baby bottles found in the crib as evidence. Woods told them she had been worried about her baby’s health and wanted to take him to a doctor, but Scott disagreed and she couldn’t drive.
In September 2006, the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office charged Emmanuel’s parents with second-degree murder. Prosecutors needed to prove only that Scott and Woods were negligent for not taking their child to a doctor, because under Louisiana law, cruelty to juveniles is one of the felonies that allows for a murder conviction in accidental death.
“This is a pretty astonishing law,” said Guyora Binder, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who studies murder charges. “This particular child abuse offense would not even be a felony in other jurisdictions.”
Scott and Woods were defended by court-appointed lawyers, who advised them to opt for a bench trial together before Judge Jeanette Garrett.
In his opening statement, the prosecutor, Brady O’Callaghan, argued that the parents should have sought help for the baby. “Ms. Woods and Mr. Scott had the complete custody and care of this child,” he said, “and they watched it die of starvation and dehydration in a city that at that time was doing everything it could to reach out to evacuees and in a place where medical care is available to anyone who needs it.”
O’Callaghan told the judge that a test eliminated the possibility of MCAD deficiency. A letter from a genetic specialist at Tulane filed in court said tests after the initial screening suggested that it may have produced a false positive. But some of the test results went missing, according to hospital records.
A forensic pathologist who ruled the child died of malnutrition testified that the baby’s liver also indicated he did not have a metabolic disorder.
But Dr. Irene Chang, a biochemical geneticist at Seattle Children’s Hospital who has published studies on the metabolic disorder, said in an interview that a pathologist wouldn’t be able to tell if a baby had died of MCAD deficiency by examining his liver — genetic testing is the only surefire way.
The genetic testing was never completed.
The defense lawyers said Emmanuel may have had MCAD deficiency or some other disorder, but that neither parent understood how sick their child was. They also argued that if the hospital had such a hard time feeding Emmanuel, what chance did his parents have as impoverished evacuees far from home?
But prosecutors argued that the infant’s death was 90 days after the storm, so the devastation and trauma of Katrina shouldn’t be factored in.
“Emmanuel did not starve in a hut in a war-ravaged African nation,” O’Callaghan said in closing arguments. “He didn't starve while he was trapped in an attic in New Orleans, surrounded by floodwater. He starved in a house in Shreveport, a house with a refrigerator full of beer and food and baby food and two healthy parents.”
O’Callaghan, now a judge in Caddo Parish, said in an interview that Woods and Scott showed “absolute callous disregard for the child” and lacked remorse.
“As a prosecutor at the time, I never had reservations about the punishment they got,” he said. “If we want to talk about the slow death sentence, then look at the child’s pictures.”
The autopsy photos showed Little Emmanuel with an open mouth, thin arms and a sunken, hollowed stomach.
“The only way I can describe those photos is absolutely haunting,” Judge Garrett said when she found the parents guilty.
In her ruling, she stated the parents had money for beer and cigarettes, so they could have bought formula. There were inconsistencies in their timeline and testimony, she said, and the law required her to sentence both to life without parole. (Judge Garrett did not respond to requests for comment.)
Little Emmanuel’s family says the photos, preserved in the court file, are the only known pictures of him.
The Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences in August 2009, saying: “There is no excuse for what these two people allowed to happen to the infant.”
The current Caddo Parish district attorney, James Stewart, said he couldn’t comment on the case because he was a judge on the Second Circuit panel, which upheld the convictions and sentences.
Eddie Mouton, the lawyer who represented Scott, the baby’s father, said he believes Little Emmanuel was another casualty of Katrina.
“This was a tragic case on every level,” he said. “Unfortunately, the law just didn’t contemplate a situation like this.”
Scott said in an interview that he struggles to stay hopeful and motivated after almost 15 years inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
“When I first got locked up, I woke up in that cell and kept my eyes closed, hoping it was all a dream,” he said.
He was transferred to maximum security housing at the prison in 2017, after being accused of attempted escape. He said he smoked synthetic marijuana, started hallucinating and somehow ended up on the roof. He now spends his days and nights in a one-man cell.
When Woods was arrested, her three remaining children — two sons from prior relationships with men who were later incarcerated, and a baby daughter with Scott — were placed in foster care. She gave birth to her youngest, another daughter, behind bars.
The kids bounced around from foster care to relatives, according to court records and interviews. Eventually, Troy John Woods and his older brother, Nie-John Woods, were sent to live with a cousin, Allen Warrick, in New Orleans.
“I wonder if anyone even considered these children in the process — to take their parents away and leave them hanging in the balance,” Warrick said in an interview. “There was no real hope for them.”
Now adults, Woods’ two oldest sons said their brother’s death defined their childhoods.
Troy John, 21, said some of his earliest memories are of fighting schoolmates who taunted him and called his mother a murderer.
“What is the benefit to society of keeping these people in prison for life?” he said. “My mama does not deserve to die in jail because of an accident.”
Nie-John, now 24, said he wanted more than anything to prove people wrong about his family and himself. He graduated from Southeastern Louisiana University in 2019, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He is stationed in North Carolina.
Tiffany Woods said that she only found out how sick Little Emmanuel was when she was in prison and read court documents and medical records. She has earned a bachelor's degree through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in prison and is working on her master's.
“Because I want to tell my children, even in the midst of struggle and heartache and no matter what situation you’re in,” she said, “you can change yourself for the better.”
She said one question has haunted her: Where was Emmanuel buried?
No one knows. The infant was cremated, the Caddo Parish Coroner’s office told us via email.
“It is possible the cremains were placed in one of the pauper cemeteries,” officials wrote, “but nothing is documented in the file.”
To download the data and see our work, visit our Observable notebook.