The trial of a local defense attorney who briefly challenged Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for office last year quickly devolved this week into a morass of courtroom vitriol, with obscenities from the alleged battery victim and accusations of political retaliation.
Lionel “Lon” Burns, who was disqualified from his bid to unseat Cannizzaro last year after failing to show he had filed his taxes, faces a pair of misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident in November.
The woman testified Thursday that Burns arrived late one night at her home in Hollygrove. They had been involved for more than a year after he responded to her Craigslist personal ad. On this occasion, she said, they bickered over another woman, and Burns socked her twice in the face, kicked her in the pelvis and swiped her keys.
Burns claims the woman was the aggressor and that he did not take her keys. His attorney argues that she got caught in a story that she couldn’t back up and ultimately took most of it back in conversations that were caught on tape.
In one recording, the woman said she punched and shoved Burns about three times that night and that the police report on the incident was exaggerated.
Jerry Settle, Burns’ defense attorney, seized on the tape in court and pointed to a note from a domestic violence counselor for the DA’s Office who spoke to the woman shortly after the incident.
The counselor wrote to a prosecutor that the woman acknowledged calling police “because she wanted her keys and thought he had them. After I read the police report to her, she stated that maybe those things did happen due to the fact she was in his face and (trying) to pull him toward her.”
On the witness stand Thursday night, the woman denied ever making the statement and insisted that Burns attacked her.
In a trial before Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, prosecutor Mark Burton tried in vain to keep the focus on the battery allegation, rather than questions about the woman’s credibility.
Officer Terry Baham testified that he arrived at the woman’s door to find her injured.
“She had a busted lip, and she had a scratch on her chest,” Baham said. “She said he took his fist and punched her twice on the right side of her face ... and tried to force her to the table and down to the floor.”
Baham acknowledged never reaching Burns for a statement about the incident.
The victim took the witness stand after 6 p.m., testifying that Burns threatened her “with people he knows to do stuff for him if he needed to. People in prison, people out of prison.”
When they met, she said, Burns first told her that he worked offshore.
The woman grew agitated and started talking over the judge and cursing as Settle tried to cast suspicion on her claims about email accounts she maintained and her Internet dating habits.
The woman acknowledged later telling authorities she had found her keys, but she said the truth was that Burns’ paralegal returned them to her the next morning.
“I was afraid,” she said. “I just thought everything would be settled and he’d leave me alone. I just decided to change my story.”
In a phone interview with The New Orleans Advocate shortly after Burns surrendered to police, the woman said police “went a little too extra, I’m assuming because of who he is.”
But on the witness stand, she insisted that Burns “punched, kicked, tried to throw me back into my dining room table.”
His arrest came three months after Burns, who ran a failed campaign for a Criminal District Court judgeship in 2008, launched a bid to unseat Cannizzaro last year in a DA race cut short when the state Supreme Court disqualified him after a Cannizzaro supporter challenged a sworn statement Burns had made about his tax filings in his qualifying papers.
Burns, who didn’t file taxes for four straight years beginning in 2009, argued successfully before the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal that he had straightened out his tax issues and had sent his returns to the state. But the Supreme Court said that wasn’t enough because the agency never received the returns.
Burns’ clients in recent years have included the family of Wendell Allen, who was shot and killed in his Gentilly home by a New Orleans police officer who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter; and Chelsea Thornton, who faces two counts of first-degree murder in the death of her two young children in their Gert Town apartment.
Settle argued Thursday that Burns’ prosecution was payback for his aborted run for DA.
“This case is about politics and vengeance. God forbid he should run against the great Leon Cannizzaro,” Settle told the judge. “No other DA would have accepted this case. God forbid he run against Leon. But he did.”
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Charbonnet recessed the bench trial about 9:30 p.m. with the alleged victim still on the stand, scheduling it to resume on June 26.