Tony Clayton’s Calling

The DA/PI attorney reflects on three decades of criminal prosecution

Published in 2024 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine

By Kathy Finn on December 13, 2023

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The search for a man who had stalked and murdered seven Louisiana women over the course of a decade had frustrated local police in 2003. Then Tony Clayton, an assistant district attorney, realized they had made a fundamental mistake: They were limiting their search based on the assumption that most serial killers are white. So investigators widened their DNA analysis, and soon linked Derrick Todd Lee, a Black resident of Baton Rouge, to several of the victims—including two in Clayton’s jurisdiction—which led to his arrest.

At trial, Clayton won the conviction that sent Lee to prison for life, and in the years since, he has repeated that success in hundreds of violent crime cases. “I was just waiting for a case like that to come along,” he says.

In his youth, Clayton hadn’t imagined that he would one day stand in a courtroom facing down serial killers. Growing up in small towns that line the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge, he figured he’d follow in his father’s footsteps and work for a railroad. But Clayton’s parents urged him to think beyond his immediate horizons, and he became the only Black student in his high school class to attend and finish college. After falling in love with a classmate who had her sights set on a legal career, Clayton also began to envision himself in a courtroom.

Soon after Clayton graduated from Southern University Law Center, a friend and mentor, Jesse Stone Jr., suggested that Clayton interview for a job with the district attorney’s office in East Baton Rouge Parish. At first, Clayton was wary. He asked himself: “Why would I want to prosecute people who look like me?”
But Stone, a lawyer, civil rights advocate, and the first Black justice to serve on the state Supreme Court, helped the younger man see that the job would not simply pit him against Black defendants, but would enable him to fight for those who are harmed. “Nobody hates crime more than Black people, because they’re often the victims,” Clayton says.

As Clayton learned the ropes by prosecuting misdemeanors, he realized he wanted to take on the most serious cases. An opportunity arose when a murder case landed on the DA’s desk at a time when the office was short-staffed. Clayton snagged the case, took it to trial and won. It led to a promotion. “The DA made me a felony assistant, where I could get more murder cases,” he says.

During his next few decades as a prosecutor, Clayton would become chief of felony trials for the 18th Judicial District DA’s office, just across the Mississippi River from East Baton Rouge Parish, and would rack up a nearly perfect conviction record against a range of violent criminals.

One such case arose soon after Derrick Todd Lee had gone to prison and local investigators realized that a second serial killer was at work. Once again relying on DNA evidence, Clayton prosecuted Sean Gillis, who had raped, killed and dismembered eight women during a period that overlapped Lee’s murder spree. He sent him away for life.

Part of what has made Clayton successful in the courtroom is his ability to speak effectively to a jury. “The fact that I look like some of them helps them to trust in the evidence I present,” he says.

He’s also known for his flair for the dramatic. In the case of a 17-year-old girl murdered by her boyfriend in 2004, Clayton brought a shovel into the courtroom and slammed it hard on a board, startling the jury. “That is how the murderer killed her,” he told them. “He hit her so hard that paint from the shovel was embedded in her skull.”

In 2020, he decided to seek election to the top job in the 18th Judicial District. Voters handed him a six-year term as DA serving Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupee parishes.

He then took steps to increase coordination between his office and the local police. Clayton established a network of “liaison officers” who are trained in evidence collection. By working closely with local investigators, these intermediaries help ensure that Clayton receives cases his office can run with.

Reflecting on his 30 years of public service, Clayton says, “I didn’t know it in 1990 like I know it now, but prosecution was my calling.”

The skills he acquired over those years also prepared him well to represent clients in civil matters. Since the DA position is considered a part-time job, Clayton started a private practice in 1991 focusing on personal injury cases. Noting that criminal charges must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt,” he says that meeting the “preponderance of evidence” requirement in civil cases is a welcome change of pace. “Proving a civil case is a lot easier,” he says.

When possible, Clayton likes to spend time in the community spreading the message that holding criminals accountable is a key to reducing crime. “I often go to African American churches where I tell people what I see in our jails and courtrooms, and talk to them about accountability,” he says. Clayton views it as a way to reinforce his mission of serving the public.

“For me,” he says, “it’s a way to keep skin in the game.” 

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