One of three youths charged in the murder of Wendy Byrne, a popular bartender gunned down in the French Quarter in 2009, has been ordered to return to a state juvenile detention center after a sharply divided Louisiana Supreme Court ruled he failed to fulfill his end of a plea deal.
The 4-3 decision, which drew pointed dissents from two justices, sent 19-year-old Ernest Cloud back to the Bridge City Center for Youth to complete a vocational program that defense attorneys contend was not available during his 18-month stay at the facility.
Cloud, who was 14 at the time of his arrest, was charged as a principal to second-degree murder and armed robbery, having supposedly gone to the Quarter with two 15-year-olds who tried to rob Byrne before one of them shot her in the back — a brazen killing that sparked outrage in the city.
Byrne, a bartender at Aunt Tiki’s on Decatur Street, had been walking with a friend along Gov. Nicholls Street one evening in January 2009 when the attempted robbery occurred. The two did not resist the robbery, according to news accounts at the time, and nothing was taken from them.
Also charged in the killing were Drey Lewis, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years behind bars, and Reggie Douglas, the alleged gunman, who was found incompetent to stand trial and was admitted to a state mental health facility.
Prosecutors initially sought to try Cloud as an adult but withdrew that bid. Cloud, who was not accused of brandishing a weapon, pleaded no contest in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 2011, accepting a plea deal that allowed him to be released before his 21st birthday if he at least tried to earn a GED certificate and made “good faith” efforts to receive vocational training.
After weighing nearly 900 pages of testimony, Judge Mark Doherty ruled in October 2012 that Cloud had met this burden and, over the objection of prosecutors, placed him on electronic monitoring.
Doherty said that Cloud, who has a learning disability, satisfied the plea agreement by regularly attending school and tutoring sessions while in custody. The youth did not receive vocational training because the only program offered, a culinary arts course, had no openings during his time at Bridge City, the judge found.
The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld Doherty’s ruling last September, citing “overwhelming factual support” that Cloud had held up his end of the deal. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office appealed, and a majority of Louisiana Supreme Court justices last week ordered Cloud back into custody, finding he had not made a good-faith effort to obtain a vocational skill during his incarceration.
The majority held that, even though a judge ordered Cloud into the vocational program, the teen failed to “follow up and join the program.”
“There is no indication that defendant had even placed his name on the waiting list,” the justices wrote in a seven-page opinion. Allowing Cloud “to re-enter society at this point,” the majority added, “would frustrate the spirit of the plea agreement, which was to provide a means to deter defendant from a life of crime and to provide him with some life skills.”
Cloud’s defense attorney, Majeeda Snead, said she would ask the high court to reconsider its opinion, saying it was not her client’s fault that the vocational program was not made available to him.
“The court seemed to say he didn’t put his name on some magical list that we don’t know even exists,” Snead said in a telephone interview. “I think the dissenters were much more clear about the standard of review for the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court seemed to not look at whether or not the trial court had abused his discretion but actually made a judgment on the facts, which is rare.”
Dissenting from the majority were Justices John Weimer and Jeff Hughes and Chief Justice Bernette Johnson.
Calling the majority opinion “misinformed,” Johnson wrote in her dissent that Cloud had been “focused on his coursework and put forth his best efforts to complete assignments, despite significant learning disabilities.”
“It is unconscionable to remand this defendant to secure confinement in a juvenile facility to participate in a culinary arts program two years after his release,” she wrote, “when the opportunity to participate was never available to him.”
The chief justice also seemed to cast doubt upon Cloud’s involvement in the crime, noting that Douglas had confessed to shooting Byrne and Lewis confessed to being present. “Witnesses also stated that two perpetrators were involved in the commission of the crimes, not three,” she added.
In a separate dissent, Weimer wrote that not even the order of a juvenile judge had been enough to secure Cloud’s placement in the vocational program at Bridge City, adding that “it follows that the cognitively impaired juvenile defendant should not be penalized for failing to undertake the vain and useless act of placing himself on the program’s waiting list.”
“Although it would behoove this juvenile to achieve as much education as possible,” Weimer wrote, “he should not remain incarcerated for reasons beyond his control.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.