In August 1977, Norval Rhodes, the district attorney in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, said he had received word from an informant that Cheryl Beridon had offered to sell heroin to the informant.
Rhodes and an investigator gave money to the informant to purchase the drugs and followed the informant to a motel. The informant left the motel with Beridon and went to a bar. Fifteen minutes later, the informant returned and she gave Rhodes and the investigator several small packets of heroin worth $125 that she claimed the Beridon had sold to her.
In 1979, based on the testimony of Rhodes, the investigator, and the informant, Beridon was convicted in Terrebonne Parish District Court of the unlawful distribution of heroin. She was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison.
Beridon maintained her innocence and claimed that Rhodes targeted her for prosecution in retaliation because she recently ended an affair with him.
After serving 20 years of her sentence, the NAACP helped her convince Governor Mike Foster to commute her sentence to 45 years, making her eligible for parole.
In March 2000, Beridon won a pardon recommendation from the Louisiana Pardon and Parole Board following a hearing during which four witnesses supported her claim of innocence: C. Chris Williams, a former investigator in Rhodes’ office; Jerome Boykin, a former Terrebonne Parish sheriff’s deputy and then president of the Terrebonne Parish NAACP; Kevin Thompson, an assistant attorney for Terrebonne Parish; and Will Abshire, a private investigator from Lake Charles.
According to their testimony, Beridon already had an extensive arrest record in 1977 when she was an informant with Rhodes’ office when she had a relationship with him.
When the relationship soured and Beridon refused to cooperate with drug prosecutions, the witnesses said Rhodes prosecuted her for distributing heroin and urged a judge to give Beridon the maximum prison time possible.
Williams, who by the time of the hearing had become a bail bondsman and was an investigator on Rhodes’ staff at the time Beridon was prosecuted, acknowledged the Beridon-Rhodes affair and the office’s prosecution of her.
Williams told the parole board that the district attorney’s office routinely gave out drugs for undercover purposes.
“We could do anything we wanted,” he said. “She didn’t cooperate and she was embarrassing the DA, so we turned on her. Even though we sent her to prison unjustly, we probably saved her life. She was young and she was messed up in politics involving some heavy people ... We interpreted the law for personal reasons.”
Williams said he was the first black man in Rhodes’ office and had no choice but to keep silent.
“I didn’t think about her for years,” he said. “I turned my back and stayed silent. The DA was a powerful man; I wasn’t going to stand up to him.”
Abshire, who investigated Beridon’s case for free for a year, testified that he determined she was telling the truth.
“I never thought I’d be before the Pardon Board on behalf of a convicted felon,” he said. “But I think she was framed.”
Beridon, who later changed her name to Cheryle Hayes, was paroled in November 2000 and subsequently petitioned the Governor for a full pardon, which was granted in July 2003.
– Maurice Possley