Monday, January 30th, 2023

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


If you have lived in Louisiana for any length of time, you probably are familiar with the name of international drug runner Barry Seal.  Tom Cruise played the part of Seal in the 2017 movie “American made.”  And Dennis Hopper played the same role in the 1991 film, “Doublecrossed.”  Seal was a larger-than-life character who flew plane loads of cocaine for the infamous medallion drug cartel out of Columbia headed by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.  His drug running days ended abruptly when he was killed in a hail of bullets right here in Baton Rouge in 1986.

Seal was back in the news last week as Governor John Bel Edwards turned down the clemency request of a thug who plotted the murder of Seal. The whole sordid mess will go down in history as a tainted case of drugs, federal informants, killings, and a questionable judicial decision that probably led to the death of Seal.

The hitman who plotted Seal’s assassination, Bernardo Antonio Vazquez, had been sentenced to life in prison with no parole.  The killer has served 36 years in the penitentiary but was hoping the Governor would grant his clemency request.  For good reason, the Governor said no. Vazquez had orchestrated the killing of a valuable witness against the drug cartel, who was helping to bring down a number of international drug dealers. 

It use to mean that the death sentence meant death, and the life imprisonment actually meant life with no chance of parole. If you took a life, you either gave your life or accepted the fact that you would never get out of jail.  But the old rules no longer apply, at least in many federal jurisdictions. But not so in the Bayou State. Despite numerous accolades that Vazquez had found religion and had seen the light, his clemency request was denied.

Before appearing in a Louisiana Federal Court, Seal was facing 10 years in a Florida federal penitentiary.   Many observers felt that even this was a sweetheart deal, considering the fact that Seal was paid $500,000 a trip from Columbia to Louisiana, and made over 50 such journeys. But then a long list of federal agencies lined up to tell the judge how helpful ole Barry had been, and urged that he should only be put on probation. That’s exactly what the Florida judge did. And under then in place Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35, other courts in the federal system were bound by the probation sentence. Or so Seal and his lawyers thought.

Attorneys  for Seal in Louisiana expected federal judge Frank Polozola to honor the Florida agreement and turn Seal loose on probation.  The judge had other ideas. “No one is going to tell me how to run my court,” Polozola told Seal and his attorneys.  The judge imposed the requirement that Seal spend nights of his probation at the Salvation Army Community Treatment Center on US Highway 61 in Baton Rouge.

Seal’s Louisiana attorney, prominent criminal defense lawyer Louis Unglesby, strongly protested that such a sentence by the judge could be a death knell.  Unglesby persuasively argued that Seal was high on the hit list of the drug cartel, and that it would be easy to assassinate him in such a public venue.  But the judge held firm, and Seal had no choice but to spend his nights in the open and easily accessible Salvation Army asylum.

Unglesby was right on the money with his prediction.  Three weeks later, as Seal got out of his car at the shelter, a 45-caliber machine gun opened fire riddling his body with bullet after bullet. Seal never had a chance, either in the courtroom or in the line of an assassin’s fire power.

The orchestrator of Seal’s killing now says he has reformed, and should be turned loose back on the public. Governor Edwards reaffirmed the adage that life imprisonment without parole means just that.  If Vazquez is such a model prisoner, then perhaps he should receive some special privileges or benefits while he serves his sentence.  But that should be about it.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go watch Tom Cruise again. Barry Seal would be pleased at how he was portrayed in the movie.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at You can also listen to his regular podcast at









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