When a Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, man was gunned down in the French Quarter on Nov. 1, 2010, it took just hours for police to get their man, they said.
Donovan Carter, then 21, had driven down with a group from Baton Rouge for the revelry in the Quarter on a Halloween night when the Saints beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Superdome.
Police quickly detained all five men after finding 37-year-old Thomas Jessie’s dead body at Conti and Burgundy streets.
The other four pegged Carter as the instigator of an armed robbery attempt turned deadly, though some said they never saw him fire a shot, according to a police report. Detectives let them go, booking only Carter in the killing. A few months later, a grand jury issued an indictment charging Carter alone with murder.
Yet those four witnesses suddenly face murder charges themselves along with Carter, in what defense attorneys describe as a heavy-handed delaying tactic by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
Jessie was gunned down at 6:38 a.m. near his gold Buick Century with Mississippi plates, according to a police report. His assailant fired six shots from a revolver. One bullet entered Jessie’s upper back and exited his right chest, slicing a lung and his liver. Another exited his left chest — near his Playboy tattoo — piercing his liver and spleen. Police found $1.06 in Jessie’s pocket and a Saints cap in the street by his right hand.
“Give it up!” Carter shouted during a scuffle that preceded the gunfire, Philip Francois told police.
Carter was scheduled to finally stand trial last month after numerous delays. But with jury selection set to begin on Nov. 10, Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue balked.
She accused Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier of “piecemealing this case,” with a trial that would have paused for Veterans Day and possibly spilled into the weekend.
“It’s the state’s position that it’s against the interest of the family members to proceed in that way in a murder trial,” she said.
Rodrigue announced she was dismissing the case and would file new charges “including five defendants and several additional counts.”
Rodrigue left the courtroom, and Carter’s attorney, Gregory Carter, urged the judge to release his client, arguing that the time had run out on his motion for a speedy trial. But the new charges prevented that, and two days later a grand jury indicted Carter and four others — Francois, Michael Johnson, Lamarcus Murray and Tavoris Smith — each on charges of second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
“We just think it’s bogus,” Gregory Carter said. “There’s no new evidence. I imagine it has something to do with witnesses not being as cooperative as they would like, and that’s how they ended up with murder charges.”
Francois’ attorney, Jerome Matthews, said prosecutors secured a warrant to detain his client on a material witness bond some time ago, but that Francois never learned about it.
“He didn’t know they were looking for him,” said Matthews, adding that Francois “didn’t remember what he said” when he spoke with police five years ago.
“I’m guessing the other three guys, they couldn’t get them, so they just decided to charge everybody,” Matthews said.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment on the case, citing office policy. Generally, though, he said that “often in the course of preparing for trials, new evidence is disclosed, new information, and sometimes that evidence results in a change in trial strategy.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court has granted prosecutors wide latitude to dismiss charges against a defendant and then reinstitute them, even if it’s done to skirt a judge’s refusal to continue a trial, unless the DA is found to be “flaunting his authority at the expense of the defendant.”
Lately, though, a few Supreme Court justices have expressed unhappiness with how frequently Orleans Parish prosecutors exploit that power.
“While I respect the discretionary authority of the district attorney to dismiss and reinstitute indictments, I do not condone its abuse or its persistent and unabated use in Orleans Parish,” Justice Scott Crichton wrote in a recent opinion.
Justice John Weimer has joined in that lament. “Disappointingly, the state’s tactic in this judicial district of dismissal and then reindictment has continued since concern was expressed over a decade ago,” Weimer wrote.
Just how often Cannizzaro’s office employs the tactic is uncertain, but appeals courts have frequently overturned rulings by Orleans Parish judges seeking to limit the practice.
The result is a new start to a prosecution.
Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich set bail at $1.5 million for each of the five defendants named in the new indictment. Carter and Francois, 27, have pleaded not guilty. Johnson, 29; Smith, 24; and Murray, 26, are slated to be arraigned Jan. 5. Only Carter and Francois were in custody in Orleans Parish as of late Monday.
John Fuller, Carter’s other attorney along with Adam Beckman, called it a “strong-arm tactic” by the DA’s Office.
“Whenever they have their back against the wall, they dismiss a case, kick the case back up, and the speedy trial (time clock) has to start all over. This is the only parish in the state that abuses that,” Fuller said. “All of a sudden when your witnesses aren’t where you want them to be, suddenly they’re co-defendants. I guarantee if they hang a life sentence over your head, you’re going to remember something, or feign memory. Whatever they want you to say.”
Fuller pointed to a bright side for Carter: “As far as my client goes, it helps us with our misidentification theory,” he said.
A small carousel of lawyers over the years may account for Carter’s remaining in jail for so long. His earliest trial date was in early 2012. Attempts to reach Jessie’s family were unsuccessful.
His killing outside the Corner Pocket Bar received scant public notice, and no obituary was written for him. Mortuary and city records show that he was buried at Holt Cemetery, a city-owned potter’s field on City Park Avenue. A marker for Jessie’s grave could not be found at the cemetery.
Michel Milot, the man who directed his corpse to be buried there, could not be found either.
A caretaker at Milot’s home in Bay St. Louis, a fenced-in compound protected by large geese and a small dog, said Milot is Jessie’s father.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.