A frightening story of territorial vengeance run amok on the streets of Central City has reached a jury, with deliberations set to start Friday morning in the federal racketeering trial of accused drug boss Telly Hankton, alleged Uptown hit man Walter Porter and two Hankton cousins.
During closing arguments Thursday, attorneys for Hankton, Porter, Andre Hankton and cousin Kevin Jackson took turns trying to spray cold water over what they described as a specious government case built on a parade of 60 witnesses, many of them clad in jailhouse orange, over the course of a trial nearing the end of its third week.
Hankton, 40, who sits at the center of the case and in the courtroom, wore a black tie for the occasion.
Already serving a state life sentence for the 2008 murder of Darnell “Durney” Stewart, he’s accused of enforcing a cocaine sales monopoly around his family’s Josephine Street stronghold through more than a decade of bloodshed.
Prosecutors say Hankton personally killed Stewart and two other rivals who refused to yield to his demands or who fought back. They also say he orchestrated a hit from jail on at least one witness, among other crimes.
Hankton’s lead attorney, Majeeda Snead, noted that authorities never tied Hankton directly to a murder weapon or any other physical evidence.
“Not a gun, not a bullet, not a confession, not a statement out of his mouth,” she said. “The justice system has been infested with the lies you’ve heard from this witness stand.”
Snead argued that prosecutors also failed to prove claims that Hankton led a cocaine ring that handled more than $40 million worth of drugs.
The entire federal case against him, she said, was sparked by rumors and assumptions after Andre Hankton was found near the scene of Stewart’s murder with a gun on the floorboard and damage to the front of his Mustang. All eyes, Snead argued, turned mistakenly to Telly Hankton as the gunman who pumped a series of bullets into Stewart.
Snead described Telly Hankton as a family protector who found his life in danger after he tried to stop Stewart and others from dealing heroin from the front porch of Telly Hankton’s aunt’s house.
“He said, ‘Guys, do your business somewhere else. Don’t sit on my people’s steps selling heroin,’ ” Snead said. “And you heard witnesses who said, ‘We’re going to take him out.’ ”
According to prosecutors, the running feud between Telly Hankton and his rivals kicked off in the early 2000s, with several shootings back and forth. Among them were the 2006 murder of Darvin Bessie, allegedly by Telly Hankton; the December 2007 slaying of older cousin George Hankton, allegedly by Stewart and Jessie “TuTu” Reed; and the murders of Stewart and Reed.
Reed suffered 50 bullet wounds when he was gunned down at his home on Terpsichore Street on June 20, 2009. Telly Hankton, Porter and Kevin Jackson are accused of firing on him with five guns.
Telly Hankton was arrested quickly in connection with Reed’s killing. But prosecutors have been forced to account for their long delay in alleging that he was joined by Porter and Jackson, after former New Orleans Police Department homicide Detective Desmond Pratt first arrested a different man along with Telly Hankton.
Pratt now is the subject of a federal civil rights probe into allegations of witness coercion on Reed’s murder and other cases. He took the Fifth Amendment when called to the stand.
Snead suggested Pratt also coerced Hasan “Hockie” Williams, a friend of Reed who identified Telly Hankton as the man he saw shoot Reed. Williams was gunned down two weeks later, in a hit job that prosecutors said Porter carried out.
Prosecutors portrayed Porter, 40, as a gun for hire who was so eager to kill people for Telly Hankton that he once considered offering him a volume discount.
One of his attorneys, Robert Toale, described a “culture of lying” that he said made it impossible to trust anything out of the witnesses’ mouths.
“When you can’t believe these snitches, it’s like a house of cards. Everything falls,” Toale said. He also pointed to a different allegation, that Porter once tried in vain to get an associate to admit to a gun charge for another friend. “Does this really make sense? He’s a hit man who can’t get someone to sign a piece of paper?”
Andre Hankton is accused of running down Stewart with his car in May 2008 before Telly Hankton fired on Stewart in front of the Jazz Daiquiris Lounge, whose owner, John Matthews, later survived at least 17 shots in an attack that prosecutors attribute to Porter and Thomas “Squirt” Hankton.
Matthews’ brother, Curtis Matthews, was shot dead in October 2011, also in front of the Daiquiris Lounge. Prosecutors claim Porter mistook Curtis Matthews for his brother.
Jackson’s attorney, Michael Fawer, ripped into one witness who testified she saw Jackson pay Porter for the hit on Reed, and others who said they bought drugs from Jackson.
Fawer noted that two inmate witnesses claimed they regularly bought drugs from Jackson in the early 2000s, a period he spent mostly in jail or on work-release.
One witness’ account of joining Porter at Jackson’s house in Venetian Isles to get paid for Reed’s killing didn’t wash either, Fawer said, because Jackson wasn’t living there at the time.
“The government has shown through its own witnesses that Kevin (Jackson) is guilty of neither of these charges,” Fawer said of murder and drug conspiracy counts.
But prosecutors keyed on phone records showing Jackson and Porter traded 239 calls over a two-week span surrounding Reed’s killing — but no calls before that. More than two dozen of those calls came the day of Reed’s murder, and a cellphone expert testified that both men were near Reed’s house shortly before the midnight killing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Privitera mocked the notion that Jackson was too busy building small businesses to be messing with drugs or killings.
“I agree, Kevin Jackson was a hard-working man,” she said. “He was working hard at getting Jessie Reed killed.”
Privitera also dismissed the idea that prosecutors overreached with a 24-count indictment that once named 13 defendants, mostly Hankton family members. Nine pleaded guilty before the trial.
“They’re not here because they’re Hanktons,” Privitera insisted of the defendants. “They’re here because of what they did.”
Privitera then turned her attention to Porter, who friends said bragged loudly about unloading his guns on Reed.
“You know what their biggest problem is? They hired a hit man with the biggest mouth in the South,” Privitera said. “That was their downfall. He was just so proud of his work, so proud of being associated with this group, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.