Harry Riggins went to court Thursday morning to face a jury of his peers. By 11 a.m., he’d made other plans.
Riggins, 29, rose from the defense table while his attorneys, the judge and prosecutors were discussing an issue in the judge’s chambers. He walked past a bailiff and several New Orleans police officers who were there to testify against him in a gun-possession trial.
Riggins stepped into the narrow third-floor hallway of the Criminal District Courthouse, and then he was gone.
The lawyers and Judge Byron C. Williams returned to a courtroom drama missing its lead actor.
Williams excused the jury for a while as authorities went searching for Riggins in the courthouse, but he was nowhere to be found.
Records show he’d been free on $20,000 bond on the 3-year-old charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He also faces other pending charges — including two counts of bail jumping.
The jury had been picked on Wednesday and was set to hear opening statements in the gun case before Riggins bolted. He was described as wearing a goatee, with a fleur-de-lis tattoo on his temple.
Williams convened the lawyers shortly after 11:30 a.m., telling them he would recess the trial until Wednesday, the final day of service for several jurors.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Danon asked instead to try Riggins in absentia — to continue the trial without him — but a peeved Williams refused.
“Deny, deny, deny!” the judge intoned, standing at the bench.
Williams then called the jury back in, asking them to return Wednesday but not telling them the reason for the delay.
Williams asked if the jurors wanted to stay behind for lunch, which was on the way. A few raised their hands.
The judge issued an arrest warrant for Riggins, who also faces pending marijuana possession charges. In 2003, he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and received a six-month suspended sentence.
The gun charge stemmed from a prior burglary conviction for Riggins in Texas, said John Fuller, one of his defense attorneys. Police found him in May 2014 with a gun at a house in New Orleans, Fuller said.
He said Riggins had made no mention of wanting to leave the courtroom. Riggins had a cellphone, and Fuller said he suspected some type of family emergency prompted him to leave.
Fuller said early Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t been able to reach Riggins.
He acknowledged that prosecutors could try Riggins whether he shows up or not on Wednesday.
“His history would not make you believe he’d do that. He came to court yesterday and was actually there today. That’s why I think some type of emergency occurred,” he said.
Fuller said he hopes not to have to defend an empty chair.
“I would like for him to be there, because I don’t know what type of effect his absence may have,” Fuller said.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office is appealing Williams’ refusal to continue the trial Thursday without Riggins.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.