Accused triple-murderer Shawn Peterson pleaded guilty Friday to a manslaughter count, agreeing to an 80-year prison term in a deal drawn up by his attorneys and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to bypass a judge who refused last week to accept anything less than a life sentence. Family members for the three victims reacted bitterly, as did Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White, who had no authority to reject a deal this time because Peterson, 44, was pleading guilty as charged. Cannizzaro’s office dropped the three murder counts against Peterson to make way for the deal.
Although Peterson pleaded guilty to a single manslaughter count, White made clear he was admitting guilt to the killings of all three victims who died in September 2013: Peterson’s ex-girlfriend, Christine George; their son, Leonard George, 18; and her daughter, Trisa George, 20.
Christine George was a 39-year-old New Orleans Police Department dispatcher. She and her two children were found dead in their Gentilly garage in the 4400 block of Jeanne Marie Place.
Cannizzaro’s office secured an indictment against Peterson in December 2013 on three counts of first-degree murder.
The district attorney said Friday that his decision to work out a plea deal stemmed in part from White’s decision to throw out a pair of incriminating statements that Peterson made to police. Higher courts backed White’s decision to exclude those statements on the grounds that police had not adequately advised Peterson of his rights.
Last week, family members of the three victims offered emotional testimony as they urged White to reject an earlier deal for Peterson, which would have had him serve 65 years. White readily complied.
“A life for a life, with you,” she told Peterson last week. “For you to negotiate a number does not do justice to the three people you killed.”
On Friday, White expressed dismay at the decision by prosecutors and the Public Defenders Office to work around her demand, then ordered Peterson to recite the names of his victims.
“Are you pleading guilty because you are in fact guilty of killing three people?” White asked as Peterson stood in orange jail scrubs. He paused for several seconds.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you.”
White continued, “There’s another judge in store for you, and he won’t be limited, or she, to anything the district attorney decides for you.”
She added, “I believe in redemption. I hope you will find it in your soul and your heart to accept responsibility, to reach out to those people someday, not that they would want to hear from you. You’re finished.”
Outside the courtroom, Christine George’s older brother, Patrick Preston, welled up in tears and excoriated the DA for striking the deal. He said the family wasn’t notified until Friday morning.
“This is traumatizing. My family is destroyed,” Preston, 49, said. “The DA can’t call me and tell me jack. He failed me and my family from the word go. We’ve been railroaded on three murders. This is a shame.”
In an interview afterward, Cannizzaro said the case against Peterson “boiled down to an identification” and that he aimed to avoid the possibility of an acquittal or years of appeals, which Peterson waived with his deal. Cannizzaro also acknowledged how difficult it is to secure the death penalty in Orleans Parish, echoing a comment from White last week.
“I’m very, very satisfied with the results. I believe we have essentially received a life sentence for this particular charge. This man is 44 years old. He will be released from prison when he is 124 years old,” Cannizzaro said.
“I understand the frustration and the anguish that the family of the victims are experiencing. You cannot blame them for feeling they want more. I try to be as objective as I can. I have to do what I believe is the best for the community, and what is best for the community in this case is to take this individual off the streets for the balance of his life.”
Manslaughter carries a maximum 40-year sentence. Peterson agreed to the 80 years as a double offender, from his 1995 guilty plea to an attempted murder charge.
He also pleaded guilty Friday to a contraband charge, for being found in Orleans Parish Prison with what was described as a key to handcuffs. White sentenced him to five years on that count.
Peterson additionally pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of simple criminal damage to property, for tampering with a sprinkler in the jail.
“You seem to be an excellent inmate, worthy of such a deal,” White scoffed.
Along with the challenge to Peterson’s statements to police, his attorneys with the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, Christopher Murell and Anna Van Cleave, sought to cast doubt on the NOPD investigation because of its broadcast on the reality crime TV series “The First 48.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.