In a trial that was over quicker than a sugar high, a New Orleans man accused of theft for snatching $31 worth of candy from a dollar store was convicted of a lesser charge on Monday, potentially saving him from a lengthy prison term under Louisiana’s habitual offender law.
Police said they arrested Jacobia Grimes, 34, after the manager of a Dollar General on South Claiborne Avenue stopped him for stuffing sweets into his pockets in December.
The case attracted national attention after Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich noted in court that Grimes faced 20 years to life in prison if the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office decided to enhance his sentence by invoking his five prior theft convictions.
In response to concerns raised by the judge, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asserted that “shoplifters will not be doing 20-year sentences.” But the DA has not ruled out upping Grimes’ sentence from the one-year term he now faces by labeling him a habitual offender.
Grimes’ attorney, Michael Kennedy, gave no opening statement and offered no witnesses on behalf of his client in an unusual, 16-minute bench trial on Monday. Unlike most trials — where the facts around a crime are hotly contested — Grimes’ lawyer raised no objections when the prosecution entered a police report into the record.
But after those preliminaries were over, Kennedy argued that since Grimes never made it past the cash register, his suspect moves were “really no different than putting your groceries in a reusable bag.”
Assistant District Attorney Ashley Spears responded that it was not too hard to guess where Grimes was going with pants chock-full of candy: out the door.
“Well, that’s your prediction,” Zibilich said. “Theoretically, he could have changed his mind and removed the candy bars, and placed them on the cash register’s conveyor belt.” The sliver of doubt was enough for Zibilich, who found Grimes guilty of attempted theft instead of theft. He also was convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia.
The distinction between a conviction on theft and attempted theft might not make much difference in many states, where a judge could decide to dole out a few days in the county lockup for a butterfingered shoplifter.
But in Louisiana, Grimes’ conviction could have made him eligible — at least in theory — to spend the rest of his life in prison. District attorneys in Louisiana can “multiple bill” an offender, invoking past convictions to ratchet up a mandatory minimum sentence. The mere threat of the dreaded “multibill” forces many defendants to cop a plea, defense attorneys say.
After the trial, Zibilich ticked off a list of topics both sides should brief him on ahead of a June 15 sentencing hearing. One of them was whether a conviction on attempted theft, as opposed to the real deal, can trigger a harsh sentence under the state’s habitual offender law.
Zibilich also asked both sides to give him more information on Grimes’ background, including “perceived or actual or alleged drug problems.” Grimes was jailed in April after he tested positive for opiates, cocaine, oxycodone and marijuana.
Prosecutors offered Grimes a four-year deal in April, but he rejected the offer. Zibilich has previously said he would like to see a “split sentence” that includes some jail time, followed by probation and treatment.
The District Attorney’s Office has until Friday to submit a sentencing memo to the judge.