An Orleans Parish jury acquitted a Baton Rouge man early Friday morning in the 2010 slaying of a Bay St. Louis man in the French Quarter, ending a three-day trial that featured allegations that defense attorneys in the case improperly met mid-trial with the defendant’s indicted friends in jail.
The jury deliberated for about 2 1/2 hours before rendering its not guilty verdict for Donovan Carter, 27, who was accused of gunning down 37-year-old Thomas Jessie at 6:38 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2010, following Halloween night revelry on Bourbon Street.
Carter and four neighborhood friends - Philip Francois, Michael Johnson, Lamarcus Murray and Tavoris Smith - had driven south that night in Francois’ Dodge Dakota to join the partying hordes after the Saints scored a win in the Superdome that night.
Though the crime occurred nearly six years ago, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office only last fall secured an indictment charging the four friends with the murder, along with Carter.
Police had detained all five, but only booked Carter in Jessie’s killing after the friends all gave statements over what they saw that night.
Each of them testified during the trial, claiming they were afforded no immunity and no deals for their testimony, while facing murder and armed robbery conspiracy counts.
And late Wednesday, Francois and Smith were visited by Carter’s attorneys, John Fuller and Gregory Carter, who is no relation, in what prosecutors described as at minimum an ethical breach. The attorneys had not sought permission from lawyers for the two witnesses.
According to testimony Thursday, Fuller had questioned the men about whether they received any promises for leniency or release from custody in exchange for their testimony.
One of the witnesses, Tavoris Smith, got into an altercation with Donovan Carter after being summoned to speak with Fuller. Smith testified Thursday that he repeatedly told Fuller he wanted his lawyer present, but that Fuller continued questioning him.
Fuller said told the inmate that he knew people in the District Attorney’s Office and had caught wind of a secret deal that the prosecution had failed to disclose during Carter’s proceedings, Smith testified.
“He just kept asking me about a deal,” Smith said. “I told him I don’t know anything about a deal.”
The Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct bar attorneys from communicating, without consent, with “a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter.”
Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue expressed outrage at Fuller’s conduct.
Francois, also called back to the witness stand Thursday, denied that the prosecution had promised him an early release.
The controversy came to light after the inmates were transported to court Thursday and quickly complained about wanting to see their attorneys.
One of them said he had spoken to “the other side” the night before. Sheriff’s Office officials soon determined that Fuller and his co-counsel had visited Smith in an attorney client room.
Rodrigue suggested that Fuller may have violated the state attorney rules and perhaps even committed witness tampering, a crime.
The trial went on, however, as Rodrigue and prosecutors Tiffany Tucker and Alexandra Serpas portrayed Jessie’s killing as an armed robbery gone bad during a struggle after Donovan Carter and his friends had contemplated robbing another man earlier that night.
They said police tied DNA on the gun to Carter, whose attorneys argued that he had handled the murder weapon beforehand and that no one actually saw him shooting Jessie.
The Mississippi man was killed alongside his gold Buick Century outside the Corner Pocket Bar at Conti and Burgundy Streets.
Jessie, who was was shot multiple times in the back, had only spare change in his pockets when police found him shortly after the shooting. Within two minutes off the fatal shooting, Rodrigue said, police corralled the five friends on Basin Street, where they had fled in search of their car.
Adam Beckman, one of Carter’s four defense attorneys during the trial, said only that the team was “very pleased” with the acquittal.
Carter, who has remained behind bars since the morning of the shooting, does not appear to have further charges pending in Orleans Parish, court records show. He remained jailed, however, as of Friday morning.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office did not immediately respond to the verdict or whether prosecutors plan to maintain the murder and armed robbery charges against Carter’s four friends.
Little is known of Jessie, who was buried in Holt Cemetery, a potter’s field on City Park Avenue. No family attended the trial.
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