The U.S. Justice Department said Friday that federal prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against Telly Hankton, the reputed former Central City crime don, and several associates charged with him in 2012 in a massive racketeering indictment that includes several counts of drug dealing and retaliatory murders.
The development, which came three days before prosecutors were required to announce whether they planned to seek capital punishment against Hankton and four of his 12 co-defendants, raised questions about whether the government will still be able to strike plea agreements in the case now that death is off the table. Hankton, for instance, is already serving a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole for an earlier murder conviction. That’s the maximum punishment he could receive in the federal case.
New court records filed under seal this week revealed that prosecutors have offered a so-called “global plea agreement” to 10 of the 13 defendants in the case, including Hankton.
A brief notice filed Friday in federal court in New Orleans offered no explanation of the Justice Department’s reasoning on the death penalty decision. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, who personally opposes capital punishment, has authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty sparingly during his tenure, such as in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now on trial in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Earlier this week, prosecutors and defense attorneys filed a motion under seal asking U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman to extend by 30 days the deadline on the death penalty decision because the parties increasingly hoped to resolve the case without a trial. The motion said a month’s delay could potentially spare the public “extraordinary additional costs” associated with a trial.
“The government has made substantial progress toward coming to agreeable terms with each of the defendants,” the motion said, “but the process remains ongoing and unresolved with some of the defendants.”
The government had been considering for months whether to pursue the death penalty. Members of its Capital Crimes Unit met with the defendants’ attorneys in September in Washington, D.C., to discuss so-called mitigating and aggravating factors in the case.
It’s unclear what prompted the Justice Department to make its announcement on Friday, three days before the Jan. 12 deadline that Feldman ordered last summer. The decision automatically triggers a trial date within 160 days, meaning by mid-June.
Hankton, 38, already is serving life in state prison for the 2008 murder of Darnell Stewart, a conviction won by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. He seemingly would have little incentive to plead guilty to any additional federal counts unless he were facing the possibility of the death penalty by going to trial.
The federal racketeering indictment alleges that Hankton and his clan operated a drug ring anchored in Central City that took in millions of dollars and killed its rivals without compunction. It outlines two dozen counts ranging from weapons charges to murder in aid of racketeering and money laundering. Other counts include conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and obstruction of justice.
Several of Hankton’s cousins and associates are charged in the indictment, as is his mother, Shirley Hankton, who is accused of lying to a federal grand jury and laundering money, among other things.
Aside from Telly Hankton, the defendants who had faced the death penalty in the federal case were Hankton’s cousins, Thomas “Squirt” Hankton and Andre Hankton, Walter “Urkel” Porter, the alleged hitman for the Hankton clan, and Kevin Jackson.
The other defendants named in the indictment are Nakia Hankton, George “Black” Jackson, Derrick “Dump” Smothers, Troy Hankton, Netthany Schexnayder, Sana Johnson and Terrell Smothers.
The Justice Department’s decision likely will reduce the number of defense attorneys appointed to the case. Telly Hankton’s lead defense attorney, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann, filed a motion on Friday seeking to withdraw as counsel, saying he had been appointed “because of the prospect of the death penalty.”
“Now that the attorney general has made the enlightened decision not to seek the death penalty, counsel’s work in this case is done,” Lemann wrote, “and like an old soldier, he desires to fade away.”