A rolling gunfight across the neutral ground of South Claiborne Avenue, the fleeing target launched skyward by a speeding car and murder under the streetlights drew a jury’s attention Tuesday as federal prosecutors dove into an explosive racketeering trial against alleged Central City crime boss Telly Hankton, two cousins and convicted hit man Walter Porter.
The brazen May 2008 murder of Darnell Stewart, for which a state jury convicted Hankton in 2011, was among several bloody episodes in a running feud over the drug turf that Hankton claimed around Josephine Street, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Privitera argued in her opening statement Tuesday morning.
Stewart and an associate, Jessie “TuTu” Reed, had been suspected by police but never booked in the murder of a Hankton family leader, George “Cup” Hankton, five months earlier.
Reed would be gunned down in a barrage of more than 50 bullets on June 20, 2009, as he bolted from his porch on Terpsichore Street, firing behind him.
Prosecutors claim Telly Hankton, who was free at the time on $1 million bail in Stewart’s killing, carried out Reed’s murder with Porter and co-defendant Kevin Jackson, a Hankton cousin.
All three sat in federal court Tuesday along with cousin Andre Reese Hankton, the fourth remaining defendant in a case in which nine others have pleaded guilty.
Andre Hankton, Cup Hankton’s brother, is accused of being the driver of the Mustang that rammed into Stewart on South Claiborne, launching him 20 feet into the air before Telly Hankton polished him off with 11 shots.
The killings of Reed and Stewart are among five murders attributed to Telly Hankton or his associates in a 24-count federal indictment that U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman read to the jury Tuesday morning, kicking off a trial expected to run three weeks.
Telly Hankton, Porter and Jackson all are named in the main racketeering conspiracy count — a wide-ranging charge that incorporates 101 “overt acts.“tewart’s killing is one. The indictment also charges Andre Hankton and Telly Hankton with murder in aid of racketeering for the slaying.
According to prosecutors, the defendants didn’t just take aim at rivals. Hit jobs targeting witnesses to the killings of both Stewart and Reed, and the alleged murder of a key witness’s brother, bespoke unbridled vengeance and disdain for the justice system, Privitera argued.
Telly Hankton enforced a “stranglehold” on his drug turf “through fear and through intimidation backed by fantastic levels of violence,” Privitera told the jury. “These defendants committed ruthless, calculated violence. They also infested the judicial system itself.”
Attorneys for the defendants painted a different picture Tuesday, claiming the four have fallen prey to a notorious surname, a “dirty” cop and a desperate parade of convicts seeking leniency through their promised testimony.
The Hanktons were no criminal “enterprise,” said Majeeda Snead, an attorney for Telly Hankton.
“That’s not an organization. That’s a family,” she said of the Hankton clan.
Snead described Telly Hankton, who turns 40 on Saturday, as an only child raised in a violent Central City. “The story’s not always pretty, and I’m not going to stand here and tell you Telly Hankton is a saint. But he’s not a murderer,” she said.
The defense attorneys also took aim at former New Orleans Police Department homicide Detective Desmond Pratt, a key figure in the early investigation of Hankton who is now in prison and the target of a federal probe into claims he solicited false identifications of suspects in exchange for favors, including guns and money.
Pratt played a major role in the investigation of Reed’s murder, securing the false identification of a different suspect who spent more than two years in jail on a bogus murder charge.
Another witness to Reed’s murder, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, was gunned down two weeks after Reed’s killing. Williams, who also interacted with Pratt, identified Telly Hankton as one of the shooters to police and a grand jury.
Pratt pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of sexual battery and carnal knowledge of a juvenile and is now serving a three-year prison sentence.
“Desmond Pratt is a disgraced and convicted police officer,” Snead said, accusing Pratt of “promoting the drug trade and gun trade and violence.”
Porter, the alleged go-to hitman for the Hankton clan, is accused of helping to kill Reed and of carrying out hit jobs on Hasan Williams and, unsuccessfully, on John Matthews, who survived at least 17 gunshots to testify against Telly Hankton in connection with Stewart’s murder.
Porter also is accused of gunning down Matthews’ brother, Curtis Matthews, days after a judge sentenced Telly Hankton to life.
Steven Lemoine, one of Porter’s attorneys, argued that prosecutors had falsely pinned numerous killings to Porter through ballistics links that he described as bogus, based on “traveling guns” — weapons shared among various people.
Michael Fawer, Kevin Jackson’s attorney, said no witnesses place Jackson at the scene of Reed’s murder. His only crime, Fawer said, was being a Hankton and trading scores of phone calls with Porter.
“He’s not being charged with actually shooting anyone. There will be no such proof,” Fawer said.
Andre Hankton’s attorney, Ike Spears, said his client was a “hard-working, card-carrying union man” whose “only crime is he’s a Hankton.”
“He really doesn’t belong here,” Spears said. “We can’t change the fact the government spent years and years and years demonizing the Hankton name.”
A witness to Stewart’s killing took the stand late Tuesday and tremulously repeated the same harrowing story he told a state jury in 2011, of watching a guns-blazing car chase unfold in front of him, then dialing 911 as a Mustang stuck Stewart and a man ran up, firing at the prone victim.
“What was going through my mind is I was afraid I was going to die,” said the man, whom The New Orleans Advocate is not naming as a precaution. “I fixed my eyes on what was going on in front of me.”
The man, dabbing a handkerchief across his face, said he watched as the shooter “stood over (Stewart) and put what I believe was 10 bullets into him and ran down Louisiana” Avenue.
He later identified Telly Hankton as the shooter in a “six-pack” photo lineup.
Asked about his degree of certainty that Telly Hankton was the shooter, he replied, “Absolute.”
With that, Feldman ended Tuesday’s testimony. The witness will return to the stand Wednesday for cross-examination.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.