NEW ORLEANS -- Todd Juluke was a star basketball player at St. Augustine High School, part of the 1982 team that reached the state semi-finals. He was talented enough to earn a college scholarship at Florida Memorial University in Miami. Chosen as a team captain for his senior year, he even had a chance at the pros.
Then the Miami nightlife derailed his season, his career – and his life.
“I was like, bleep basketball, I'm going to get loaded and try to hustle,” Juluke recalled. “It was all about the drugs and the money and the women. I was in the fast lane, moving kilos between Miami and New Orleans.”
Like Juluke, Lynell Desdunes' drug of choice was cocaine. He got hooked after graduating from small-time pool hustling to stealing cars to selling weed, then coke. But Desdunes didn't get caught with drugs; he got caught trying to support his addiction through forgeries and check scams.
“When you roll the dice you have to accept the outcome,” Desdunes said.
For both men, the outcome was prison. Juluke was sentenced to 10 years as a multiple offender. Desdunes also was sentenced as a repeat offender, getting hit with a 25-year sentence after being convicted of two counts of forgery and 71 counts of attempted forgery.
In prison, both men turned their lives around. And each vowed that if they ever got out, they would help others avoid the same mistakes.
They have done exactly that.
Desdunes, 59, now works as a disciplinary hearing officer for inmates at Orleans Parish Prison. He is currently taking a break from his second year at Loyola Law School to get an MBA.
“I tell the guys (inmates) who come before me that they don't have to let their lives be defined by what's on the rap sheet. That they can turn those lives around,” Desdunes said.
Juluke, 52, will be awarded a master's degree in social work next week from Southern University at New Orleans. At the same time, he'll receive a full pardon from Gov. John Bel Edwards.
State Sen. Wesley Bishop, a SUNO vice-president, was instrumental in helping Juluke get his pardon.
“It was just running through my mind that if anyone deserves a pardon, this guy does,” Bishop said.
At SUNO, Bishop got to know Juluke and his background. When Gov. Edwards was giving the school's graduation speech a year ago, Bishop cornered the governor so he could meet the star student.
“I called him (Juluke) into a back room where we were holding the governor to give him a five-minute one-on-one, because I figured if the governor heard what I heard, that he would act accordingly,” Bishop said.
But there was another official – a very unlikely one – who played a key role in the turnaround for both men.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was the judge who sentenced both men to prison. Cannizzaro also was the key to giving Juluke and Desdunes their second chances, running counter to his public image as a throw-the-book-at-em judge and even tougher prosecutor.
“I never thought I'd be in this spot,” Cannizzaro said during a recent reunion of the two men at his office. “I never thought these men would be standing here.”
“Look, this man could be a lawyer. He should be a lawyer!” Cannizzaro added, ribbing Desdunes about his decision to take a hiatus from law school to get an MBA.
While Cannizzaro hit Desdunes hard at sentencing, he remembered how impressed he was by how well the inmate handled himself acting as his own attorney. Desdunes, who had a reputation as one of the state prison system’s slickest self-taught jailhouse lawyers, decided he could do a better job than the public defender’s office.
“Even at the trial, throughout the proceeding, he was extremely impressive,” Cannizzaro recalled. “He connected with the jury, he knew the rules of evidence, he knew how to handle witnesses. I remember thinking, ‘What a waste of potential.’”
Juluke caught Cannizzaro's attention for different reasons.
“Todd had opportunities that he literally squandered,” Cannizzaro said. “When you look at him, he's a big man. He was an athlete. He had charisma. But Todd was into the (drug) game. In my opinion, a very, very serious and dangerous game where it can turn violent very, very quickly.”
After they were sentenced, both Juluke and Desdunes kept in touch with their sentencing judge.
Desdunes wrote Cannizzaro a letter from prison. The judge was so impressed, he brought Desdunes back to court and reduced his sentence down to five years, which paved the way for his immediate release a short time later.
“As a judge you receive literally hundreds of letters from people who are in the penitentiary. And his letter struck me,” Cannizzaro said. “He wasn’t asking for a break, but instead he accepted responsibility for what he had done and talked about his plans going forward.”
“And I remember what I had said to him when I sentenced him,” Cannizzaro recalled. “I remembered this is a young man who had potential.”
For Juluke, it was about five years ago when he returned to see with the man who sent him to prison. Cannizzaro wasn't sure what to expect.
“He's a big man and I'm not nearly as big as him, and a guy like this would sort of walk up to me and said, ‘Judge Cannizzaro, you sentenced me. You sentenced me to 10 years.’ And I'm kind of saying, 'Uh-oh.’ Is this guy going to box in my ears or something?” Cannizzaro recalled. “Instead, he thanked me. He said, ‘You saved my life.’ And he gave me a big hug.”
But for both men, Cannizzaro went one step further. He didn’t just cheer their rehabilitations.
He offered them jobs.
Lynell was the first to get hired, as a paralegal. He worked at the DA’s office for about seven years, until he moved to his sheriff’s office position in 2016.
“He rolled the dice and took a chance with me, and I refuse to let him down,” Desdunes said.
“He turned himself around,” Cannizzaro said. “And it proved to me that it could happen to anyone. If Lynell Desdunes can do it, anyone can do it.”
Todd Juluke was hired next. Cannizzaro hired him in 2013 as a diversion counselor. With a degree in counseling, Juluke also works as a resident support specialist at Odyssey House, an in-patient drug treatment center.
“My mom told me before she passed to stick with Mr. Cannizzaro because he gave you a lane to get your life back. And that's what he did and I'm overwhelmed,” Juluke said.
Bernard Griffith, one of Juluke’s coaches back at St. Augustine, said he was proud of Juluke as a young basketball player, but he’s even prouder now to see him overcome addiction and criminal temptation.
“When you stop hearing from them, that’s when you know they’re not doing the right thing,” Griffith said. “That’s what happened to Todd, the Miami fast life caught up with him. But I’m so glad to see him get back to his roots. He was always a good kid, always willing to put in the hard work. Now he’s giving back the lessons we tried to teach him when he was a teenager.”
Cannizzaro admits that hiring Desdunes and Juluke was something of a gamble.
Now he sees it as a gamble that isn't just helping the criminal justice system, but paying off for an entire community.
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