Greensburg — Within the small Greensburg courtroom, Frank Ricard implored judicial officials to press forward with the case against one of the men accused in his son’s murder.
“The victim’s father was present in open court and states that he would like to see this matter move along,” according to the minutes filed in the St. Helena Parish Clerk of Court’s Office.
“Court states that out of an abundance of caution, this matter will be continued and that this matter will not be set for trial for the summer but will be set for trial in the fall. Court advises the victim’s family that it is better to try this matter one time correctly than rush through a trial and possibly have to try it twice. The victim’s family states that they understand.”
Those minutes were recorded Feb. 20, 2009. The trial didn’t occur that summer or that fall. Ricard was back in court Friday, nine years after his son was gunned down. Three men have been indicted on second-degree murder charges. None have been brought to trial. New trial dates have been set for later in 2016. Ricard and his family are waiting to see if, this year, they finally hold.
“This has been drug out long enough. It’s time for something to be done,” said Mary Ann Hughes, mother of murder victim Myron Hughes, in a phone interview.
“We live in a bad parish, a pitiful parish, up here. ... St. Helena, it’s just about the worst of the worst.”
The prosecutor has called the case “a nightmare.”
There are three defendants, each with his own attorney. Physical evidence has been hard to come by. Witnesses have given conflicting statements, then fled the state before being called to the stand. Defense attorneys have vigorously advocated for their clients, piling on motions and objections. The District Attorney’s Office has dismissed charges and reindicted two of the defendants in the case.
Litigation has gone on so long that judges and public defenders have taken new jobs and had to be replaced, further delaying the proceedings. District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said during the past year, the Public Defender’s Office has appointed lawyers who later found out they had previously worked for another defendant or witness and finally hired the current attorney on contract.
A metropolitan court could absorb these types of setbacks. But St. Helena has one courtroom for all legal matters. The parish shares its judges with Livingston and Tangipahoa, and they don’t go to Greensburg often. Each case is assigned a specific judge who visits every other month and schedules two dates for jury trials per year. Every delay is compounded by the schedule, and victims’ families wait while men accused of murder are free on bond.
“As long as we have three parishes, it’s going to be tough,” to speed up proceedings in St. Helena, said 21st Judicial District Judge Doug Hughes, one of the jurists currently overseeing the murder cases. He is not related to the victim’s family.
“Logistically, it’s tough,” he said, adding that the current setup is likely “as good as it’s gonna get.”
Ricard says the wait to try his son’s accused killers has become intolerable.
“This is just plumb, you know, ridiculous. It’s upsetting,” he said Friday. “A murder should be handled a lot differently than the way they’re handling this.”
Two groups clash
Lawyers dispute how Myron Hughes died, but all sides can generally agree that the 21-year-old was shot dead in a gunfight involving multiple people on Calmes Road, just north of the Livingston Parish line, on Oct. 8, 2007.
Shortly after the shooting, police pulled over Fitzpatrick Williams, now 38, driving a wounded Jesse Thomas III, now 36, to a hospital. Detectives later caught up with Samuel Williams, now 28, and all three were arrested.
Mary Ann Hughes said Samuel Williams and Thomas are related to each other and more distantly related to her son. One document refers to Samuel and Fitzpatrick Williams as cousins, but Mary Ann Hughes said they are not related and that the same last name is coincidental.
Shortly after the incident, a pair of detectives from the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office and the State Police were called to testify in a preliminary hearing for Fitzpatrick Williams. They generally described a clash between two groups of men. However, witnesses gave conflicting statements about when certain people arrived at the scene, who pulled out a gun and who fired first. There are several references to shots coming just from a bushy area, without a specific shooter named.
Prosecutors turned to physical evidence. However, as explained by attorneys and court documents, investigators did not test anyone’s hands for gunshot residue, the State Police Crime Lab was unable to pull DNA evidence off the gun or cartridges, and the shot that killed Myron Hughes was a “through-and-through,” making ballistics interpretation difficult.
In the transcript of a cross-examination of State Police detective Michael Neal, defense attorney Devonna Ponthieu laid out some of her concerns with the case:
“So, even though there were shots being fired everywhere, there were several people involved, nobody really knows who did the shooting because of the fact that there was no gunpowder residue; I mean, you couldn’t test for gunpowder residue on anybody’s hands. You just know that Thomas was shot, (Myron) Hughes is dead, and (Fitzpatrick) Williams, after two hours of being in a room with y’all, finally said he pulled a gun out and returned fire. Correct?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Neal responded.
A different plan
Initially, Fitzpatrick Williams was indicted on second-degree murder, while Samuel Williams and Thomas were indicted on one count each of principal to second-degree murder. However, each was arrested and charged separately and would go to trial on their own.
“Whoever went first would just say, ‘No the other guy did it,’ ” said Assistant District Attorney Richard McShan.
The prosecutor decided on a different tack. In 2011, his office dismissed the principal charges, called a second grand jury and reindicted the group so all three now face murder charges.
A jury can find a defendant guilty of murder even if he or she did not deliver the fatal blow, as a person might be found guilty of armed robbery even if he or she only drove the getaway car, McShan explained.
Fitzgerald Williams and Thomas were both armed at the time of the fatal encounter, and Samuel Williams had given one of them his weapon, he said. However, he identified Fitzpatrick Williams as his “priority.”
There is still some time to discuss a plea deal, McShan said. According to 2011 court minutes, Fitzpatrick Williams was offered a 15-year sentence if he pleaded guilty to negligent homicide.
In addition to pointing the finger at the other two, McShan said, the defense attorneys may try to claim their clients acted in self-defense.
“I don’t really have to buy that,” he said.
Current defense attorneys Summer Vicknair and Wayne Stewart said the District Attorney’s Office is not to blame for the case proceeding so slowly. Vicknair, who represents Fitzgerald Williams, pointed to the turnover in the Public Defender’s Office. Stewart, Thomas’ lawyer, pointed to himself.
“I am the absolute, total cause of all the delays in this case. ... I have filed every conceivable motion. I have filed every conceivable objection,” he said. “I want a damn win.”
After the defendants were indicted the second time, Stewart fought to have the cases separated again so his client could attack the other two, as the prosecutor assumed they would. “(Thomas) intends to use an antagonistic defense by placing blame on one of his co-defendants,” Stewart wrote in an undated memo.
Samuel Williams’ attorney, Mike Nunnery, declined to comment when approached after court Friday.
McShan remarked in court that he knew The Advocate had been reviewing the lengthy case and stated that he intends to try all three defendants this year. Samuel and Fitzpatrick Williams are scheduled for trial March 21. Jesse Thomas is expected to go to trial in June. He has a pretrial conference on Friday.
“The state has every intention of trying the case,” McShan promised.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.