Faubourg Marigny homeowner Merritt Landry will not face criminal charges for shooting Marshall Coulter in the head last year after he spotted the teenager inside his gated yard in the wee hours of the morning and fired from a distance that police pegged at about 30 feet, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro announced Thursday.
After Coulter’s recent arrests on a pair of burglary counts, “any case that this office had against Landry was irreversibly damaged,” Cannizzaro said in a written statement.
An attorney for Landry, an inspector with the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission, praised the decision.
“Anybody that knew Merritt Landry and his family and the facts of this case would have known ultimately it would have to have been refused,” Roger Jordan said. “We’re very grateful for Mr. Cannizzaro’s decision in the case, and we hope that Merritt Landry and his family can go on from here.”
The decision, in a case that prompted outrage on both sides, came nearly 10 months after New Orleans police booked Landry, 33, on a count of attempted second-degree murder in the shooting.
It came 11 weeks after a state grand jury deadlocked after Cannizzaro’s office presented it with the evidence against Landry and 13 days after Coulter was arrested for entering a residence on Royal Street, just blocks from Landry’s home in the 700 block of Mandeville Street.
Coulter — who underwent numerous medical procedures after he was shot — also was booked the following day on an arrest warrant for aggravated burglary from an incident in 2012, when he allegedly broke into a home on Frenchmen Street and wrested a gun away from a resident.
Though police said Coulter was 15 when police arrested him this month, his age remains in dispute. Juvenile Court records show his birth year as either 1998 or 1999, according to a source,
A source in Cannizzaro’s office who reviewed the case said the office conducted its own probe of the July 26 shooting, reviewed state laws that say people who shoot to protect their property are presumed to be innocent, and considered the implications for the community before deciding prosecutors couldn’t muster a winnable case.
In his statement, Cannizzaro said his staff “interviewed Marshall Coulter’s family and health care providers, ballistics experts, police officers, Landry’s neighbors, and attempted to interview Coulter himself.”
Cannizzaro suggested that the youth’s family duped his office about Coulter’s condition.
“We were repeatedly led to believe that he was in what can best be described as an irreparable semi-vegetative state,” he said in the statement. “When we visited with Coulter less than three months ago, we were led to believe that he could not walk without assistance and could only provide single-word responses to the simplest questions.”
Coulter could walk well enough on May 2 to allegedly make his way inside a home in the 2000 block of Royal Street.
Cannizzaro said his office has closed its investigation of Landry, the son of well-connected St. Bernard Parish politicians,
Following the grand jury’s inability to either indict Landry or hand up a “no true bill,” Cannizzaro faced three choices: file charges directly against the city worker through a bill of information, present the evidence against him to a new grand jury or refuse the charge.
A grand jury indictment is required for a murder charge but not for attempted murder, the maximum charge in this case. Cannizzaro has not said why he chose to present the case to a grand jury in the first place, rather than file a bill of information, although prosecutors sometimes use grand juries to audition their case before going to trial — particularly when the case is a problematic one.
The District Attorney’s Office source said prosecutors were forced to reassess the strength of the case after the grand jury failed to indict Landry. The source noted that state law on the use of force grants “a presumption that a person lawfully inside a dwelling, place of business or motor vehicle held a reasonable belief that the use of force or violence was necessary to prevent unlawful entry thereto, or to compel an unlawful intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle.”
Prosecutors looked at a variety of possible charges against Landry. But the source said state law left them with a hefty burden to prove that Landry was guilty of any crime, despite the fact New Orleans police had found that Landry fired when Coulter “was not posing an imminent threat.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, called the grand jury’s failure to hand up an indictment “disappointing,” saying prosecutors had presented a strong case and the office wasn’t simply trying to shunt off a political hot potato.
While no clear challenger has emerged as Cannizzaro approaches a re-election bid this year, his decision in the Landry case was, nonetheless, a politically ticklish one for the former Criminal District Court judge, who has vowed to aggressively attack gun violence in the city.
Angered over the shooting, some critics drew an analogy to the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman in a gated Florida community who was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter last year over accusations that he shot Martin without justification after confronting a black youth in a hoodie.
Landry is white, while Coulter is black.
Landry’s arrest led to an outpouring of support for him and a legal defense fund, with his backers arguing that he reacted appropriately to protect his family.
His wife was in the late stage of pregnancy when he awoke around 2 a.m., grabbed his gun and went outside. One of his attorneys, Kevin Boshea, said Landry heard someone at the shutters. Coulter had opened the shutters to the living room of the home, outside the gated drive area. He then apparently climbed over the iron gate.
Landry spotted him in the driveway. He told police that Coulter made a “thwarted move, as if to reach for something,” before Landry fired a single shot and hit the youth in the head, according to court records.
Coulter’s family at the time conceded that he was “a professional thief.” But he was unarmed, and another witness contradicted Landry’s version of the event.
Landry appeared to get favorable treatment after his arrest, when Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, a family friend, quickly set him free on the promise of a $100,000 property bond even before his family submitted the requisite paperwork.
Jordan said Landry remains shaken by the shooting.
“He is very distraught that it’s something that he had to do, and he couldn’t have done anything different,” Jordan said. “Something he had said is, he prays for the one that he shot every day. That kind of tells you where he is and where he was.”
Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino said the only unusual aspect about Cannizzaro’s decision was that it came in a news release. Prosecutors, he noted, refuse to prosecute criminal cases every day.
Ciolino agreed that Coulter’s recent burglary arrests would have stuck with a jury.
“Coulter would have to be a witness, and his criminal history is fair game on cross-examination,” Ciolino said. “The only witnesses to this incident were Coulter and Landry, so in many respects, that trial would have been a swearing match. A swearing match between a person with a criminal history and a person with a clean record is lopsided.”
Landry, who was placed on unpaid suspension from his city post after his arrest, returned to work the week before Thanksgiving while out on bond.
He has worked for the Landmarks Commission since 2007, making $39,400 last year, city records show.
In the meantime, Coulter remained in juvenile custody last week. According to a court source, Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty has ordered doctors to assess Coulter’s ability to understand the charges against him and assist in his own defense before moving forward with the case against him.
Coulter’s family has declined to discuss the case, or his condition, since shortly after he was shot.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter at @johnsimerman.