Somewhere between the potent “Telly Hankton Daiquiri” featured at a St. Charles Avenue frozen drink shop and a New Orleans homicide detective’s artistic rendering of Hankton’s mug shot in spent bullet casings, the mystique surrounding a man once dubbed the city’s most dangerous criminal became too much.
So say attorneys for 10 of 13 defendants named in a federal gang racketeering indictment that accuses Hankton, his mother and 11 others of joining in a murderous Uptown drug ring that reigned for decades.
They are asking a federal judge to move the case out of the Eastern District of Louisiana. In a legal filing Friday, the lawyers credit Mayor Mitch Landrieu and former NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley — purveyors of the “most dangerous” moniker for Hankton — and hundreds of local media stories for giving Hankton’s case an outsized profile in the Crescent City.
“When the New Orleans media mentions Telly Hankton, some variation of the words ‘Most Dangerous Criminal in New Orleans,’ invariably follows, as if it is his clear and rightful title, like Duke of Cambridge is for Prince William, or an epithet, like ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ is for Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books,” wrote Billy Sothern, an attorney for cousin Thomas Hankton.
“It has become another way to invoke his name, understood even when it’s not said.”
Calling persistent media attention over Hankton “damning to the extreme,” Sothern goes on to say that Telly Hankton “is depicted as a sui generis character in modern America who more closely resembles fictional criminals like Tony Soprano or Keyser Soze or historical ones like Al Capone than any mere New Orleans criminal defendant.”
Over 230 pages, the attorneys provided U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman with a compendium of online news accounts, from the first mention of Telly Hankton as a 16-year-old shooting victim in 1993, to an intricate front-page graphic from the Times-Picayune in 2012, drawing “lethal connections” among Hankton and various other players and murder victims.
Whether it’s enough to persuade Feldman to move the case out of the district before a trial slated for August remains to be seen.
On at least one occasion, Feldman himself noted the extraordinary publicity that Hankton has attracted. In a 2012 order granting anonymity for jurors in the case, Feldman noted the “considerable press coverage” the case has received, “perhaps in part because the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, has publicly labeled Telly Hankton as ‘New Orleans’ Most Dangerous’ in press conferences.”
But the legal standard for a change of venue is much higher after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that rejected a move out of Houston for former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.
The high-court majority in the Skilling case found that “jury impartiality does not require ignorance” and that changes of venue are warranted in only the most extreme cases.
Among the tests the Supreme Court laid out was whether news accounts contained “blatantly prejudicial information of the type readers or viewers could not reasonably be expected to shut from sight.”
Even Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was denied a bid for a change of venue. A federal judge found that the jury pool in eastern Massachusetts was big enough, and that the “decibel level of media attention” had died down in time to pick a fair jury from within the district.
Hankton, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 2008 murder of Darnell Stewart outside the Jazz Daiquiris lounge on South Claiborne Avenue, is the leading figure in a 24-count indictment that casts a net over an array of relatives and accused associates, alleging several murders and other violent exploits. The defendants include his mother, Shirley Hankton.
Among the allegations are that members of the clan schemed to lend false alibi testimony at Telly Hankton’s first trial in the Stewart murder, which ended with a jury deadlocked.
Another key figure in the case, alleged go-to hit man Walter “Urkel” Porter, is accused in the shooting of a key eyewitness who testified at both Hankton murder trials and the murder of that witness’ brother.
In January, Attorney General Eric Holder’s office took the death penalty off the table for Hankton, Porter and three other eligible defendants in the case.
Attorneys for the 10 defendants seeking a venue change argue that the Hankton mystique is a purely local confection, unlike with Tsarnaev, Skilling or other national criminal figures. Spurred by frothy local media coverage, they argue, “the ‘legend’ of the Hankton family is largely unknown outside this district.”
Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles, called that “a novel approach” in arguing for a change of venue.
“It’s ironic: If you’re so bad that you have a permanent reputation for being an outlaw, then you would get the benefit of a change of venue,” she said, “whereas people who might have just confronted the criminal justice system once, albeit something high profile, would not get that change of venue.”
Levenson doubted that the argument can clear the bar that was set in the Skilling case. In that case, “the whole town of Houston not only knew about the case, but were affected,” Levenson said.
“Given what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing case, the standard is higher than it’s ever been,” she added. “There were tanks in the streets. Everybody was affected. It was wall to wall news, and still not a change of venue. I don’t know if being permanently notorious, even though it’s different, will be sufficient.”
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