Apparently poised to name names in a 2012 carjacking-turned-killing that left a Southeastern Louisiana University student dead in the parking lot of an Algiers strip mall, 18-year-old Jaroid Washington clammed up Tuesday afternoon, refusing to take the witness stand despite the knowledge that it might cost him additional decades behind bars.
Washington pleaded guilty in February to manslaughter and armed robbery for his role in the brutal, close-range killing of Fernando Eyzaguirre, and he had agreed to a 23-year prison sentence in exchange for his expected testimony Tuesday against alleged shooter Milton “Bullet” Wilson and future testimony against other co-defendants in the case.
However, he walked into an Orleans Parish courtroom, clad in orange jail scrubs and shackles, with a different idea after Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman had sent the jury home.
Herman repeatedly asked Washington whether he understood the consequences of failing to testify.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled from a seat in the jury box.
Those consequences, Herman continued, could be as much as 99 years in prison on his guilty plea to the armed robbery charge and 40 years on the manslaughter count.
Herman said the jury of seven women and five men already had seen video footage of the assault, in which Eyzaguirre, 27, was shot seven times and fell to the pavement in front of a Subway sandwich shop in the 6100 block of Gen. de Gaulle Drive.
“I assure you after viewing this video, it will not be 23 years,” she admonished the teenager. “You’re basically flushing your sentence away.”
Washington had already given sworn statements to police containing many of the details he had promised to tell the jury directly. How much of that evidence now will make it into the trial is uncertain.
Washington’s attorney, Ike Spears, credited Washington’s cold feet to his concern for his safety if he testified, but Herman said Washington had been trying Tuesday to swing a lower sentence before he testified.
During opening statements Tuesday morning, prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office promised the jury that Washington would shed a clear light on the figures, including himself, who are seen in videos of the carjacking and killing, taken from three cameras in the strip mall where Eyzaguirre had gone for a workout in the early morning on Nov. 25, 2012.
Between a job as a restaurant busboy and computer technology courses at SLU, Eyzaguirre squeezed in workouts at Anytime Fitness. The De La Salle High School graduate was shy — “a very sensitive guy,” his mother testified — so he chose odd hours to go to the gym.
Milagro Eyzaguirre said she heard her son leave the house around 2 a.m. He drove four blocks from the Tall Timbers home he shared with his parents, sat in his Honda in the strip mall’s parking lot and texted his girlfriend.
Wilson, who faces charges of murder, armed robbery and obstruction, strode up, pointed a gun at Eyzaguirre’s head and ordered him out, prosecutors allege. Washington had gone around to the other side of the vehicle, prosecutors said, while a third man, Marke “Fresh” Simmons, stood nearby.
Eyzaguirre got out and handed over his keys. According to prosecutors, Wilson and Simmons then held a brief discussion over whether to stuff him in the trunk. Instead, two guns came out and bullets flew.
Eyzaguirre, who played piano and guitar and taught Spanish, went down fast, and the culprits sped off in the Honda.
“Mr. Eyzaguirre (lay) there cold, alone, dying and dead” for four hours, prosecutor Inga Petrovich told the jury.
Another gym customer spotted his body after 6 a.m. and called 911. An emergency medical technician didn’t bother to check his pulse. Pooling blood and other telltale signs on his body “were incompatible with life,” she testified,
“My son didn’t deserve to die like this. It was a senseless, brutal crime with no reason at all,” Milagro Eyzaguirre testified, sobbing on the witness stand. “They did not only kill Fernando. They killed all the family, and it’s a pain that we have to take with us all of our lives.”
Wilson, 19, who has shed the dreadlocks he sported in his booking mug shot, sat quietly in a white dress shirt, dark slacks and bright yellow tie. The jury heard no alibi defense during defense attorney Edward Rantz’s opening statement, no denial of Wilson’s involvement in a crime that garnered widespread attention for its seemingly random brutality.
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, after viewing the videos, described it as “heartless.”
However, Rantz said Wilson, the first of the five charged defendants to stand trial in the case, was merely a slow, scared “follower” of Simmons, 21.
“He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Rantz said of his client. “There were five people that were involved in this case, not just Milton. And the name you’re going to hear the most, the name who should be sitting there right now, is Marke Simmons.”
Wilson “was scared to death of Marke Simmons. ... Marke Simmons is the one that cold-bloodedly, without a word, walked up to Mr. Eyzaguirre and fired on him. It’s about levels of participation. It’s about levels of responsibility,” Rantz said.
The Honda turned up days later in Waveland, Miss. Simmons’ DNA was found on the car’s radio and on a hat that read “Deadtime,” found in the backseat, prosecutors said.
New Orleans police detective Timothy Bender said Wilson admitted tossing his revolver into a canal. No weapons were recovered, Bender said. That fact, along with some imprecise ballistics tests, created some doubt as to whether Wilson actually fired a gun, Rantz suggested in his cross-examination of the detective.
The jury also saw several photos of Eyzaguirre’s corpse lying on the pavement with bullet holes in his back. When he was found, his wallet lay below his feet.
Simmons, indicted last year on a first-degree murder count, is the only one among those accused in the case who, because of his age, could face the death penalty if convicted.
Also charged in the murder and related crimes is Erin Doucet, the alleged getaway driver, who is not seen in the videos. Desmonique Reed, Simmons’ girlfriend, is accused of being an accessory to both murder and second-degree robbery. Trial dates for Simmons, Doucet and Reed are pending.
Prosecutors said Washington named the others after a family member who had seen media coverage of the murder alerted police that he may have been involved.
Washington, who lived in Waveland but often visited New Orleans, was due under his plea deal to testify against several, if not all, of the other defendants.
Prosecutors asked Herman to issue a subpoena for Washington to return to court Wednesday to take the witness stand as the trial resumes. The judge remanded Washington to Orleans Parish Prison in the meantime, despite a plea from Spears for different accommodations based on his safety concerns.
“Whether he’s genuinely in fear for his life or simply horsetrading is something for another court to decide,” Herman responded. “But we’re keeping him.”
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