Forced to go to trial last fall in a 5-year-old French Quarter murder case, Orleans Parish prosecutors took extraordinary steps to delay the proceedings while keeping the defendant, Donovan Carter, locked away.
They scurried to secure a fresh indictment that not only named Carter in the 2010 killing of a Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, man, but added murder and armed robbery counts against four neighborhood buddies of Carter’s from Baton Rouge who were around Conti and Burgundy streets when Thomas Jessie was shot dead outside the Corner Pocket Bar.
One by one, those men took the witness stand Tuesday in Orleans Parish jail garb as Carter, 27, stood trial alone for Jessie’s murder.
They told the jury largely what they told police on Nov. 1, 2010, after all five were detained within minutes of the killing, but only Carter was booked.
One of them, Michael Johnson, testified that he was lagging behind the group when Carter allegedly fired into Jessie’s back at 6:38 a.m. near the Mississippi man’s gold Buick Century.
“I came back around the corner and Donovan had his arm extended with a gun in his hand,” Johnson said.
He said Carter blurted, “It was rational,” before they took off running toward Basin Street and the truck they’d driven to New Orleans to catch the late Halloween revelry on a night when the Saints notched a win in the Superdome.
Police arrived quickly, cuffing them within 90 seconds of the shooting, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office said the case involved an armed robbery gone bad, with Jessie and Carter locked in a struggle before the gunfire.
Carter fired the fatal shots, they said, after the friends had contemplated robbing another man earlier in the night.
Assistant District Attorney Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue hustled to indict the five men in November after Carter’s attorneys had pressed a motion for a speedy trial in a case that had languished for years on the Criminal District Court docket.
Along with Carter and Johnson, the indictment names Philip Francois, Lamarcus Murray and Tavoris Smith. Each has remained jailed for months.
Rodrigue told the jury that the four friends wanted nothing to do with testifying in the case and “decided to run.”
“What should the state do if somebody is refusing to cooperate and they may have been involved or know more information?” she asked. “The state had to exercise some of its authority ... in order to get the witnesses into court.”
In many cases where key witnesses balk, prosecutors will secure material witness bonds to jail them until they testify. But with Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier calling a start to the trial last fall, that wasn’t an option.
Francois, a mechanic who drove the group to New Orleans that night in his white Dodge Dakota, never got a subpoena, said his mother, Irma Francois.
“He was never given the opportunity to testify. The state said they couldn’t find him,” she said. “I would have made him come down. I would have brought him here.”
Instead, her son was booked on a warrant the night before Thanksgiving as he visited an acquaintance at the Baton Rouge jail, she said. A father of four, he’s spent nearly six months behind bars and lost his job, she said.
Despite prosecutors’ claims, there doesn’t appear to be any new evidence in the case to warrant the fresh indictment, said Jerome Matthews, Francois’ attorney. “They had to do this to get additional time,” he said.
Francois testified that the friends jumped in the truck on a whim following the Saints victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It was kinda like a spur-of-the-moment type thing,” he said.
Johnson had recently found a revolver that they stashed under the hood in case police stopped them while they smoked marijuana on the drive to New Orleans, Francois testified.
They reached the French Quarter after midnight and spent several hours drinking and chatting up women before heading back toward his truck, Francois said. It was still dark outside.
“On the way back to the car, I was talking to a female and Lomarcus was talking to a female. I didn’t see it. I heard the argument, and I turned around and saw the conflict” but not the gunfire, Francois said.
None of Carter’s friends said they had been granted immunity for their testimony. Each faces charges of murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
Also testifying Tuesday was Troy Wright, a bystander who said he didn’t see Carter’s face but saw a man in a light hoodie standing over Jessie and firing. The hoodie matched a description of what Carter wore that night.
“I seen the shooting, but I didn’t see the shooter,” he said.
Wright said he had just seen Jessie, 37, chatting up a group of transgender people in the middle of the street before pulling his car to the curb. That’s when prosecutors say Carter approached Jessie and a scuffle broke out.
Prosecutors told the jury that Carter’s DNA, along with that of Johnson, turned up on the murder weapon. But Gregory Carter, one of four defense attorneys for Donovan Carter, said any DNA found on the revolver must have come from his client handling the weapon earlier. He said his client wasn’t the shooter.
“They’ve had his clothes for six years. They not only did not find any gunshot residue, but if my client struggled with their victim, why is none of the victim’s DNA on my client or my client’s clothes?” the attorney said.
Jessie’s pockets contained $1.06, records show. He was buried at Holt Cemetery, a city-owned potter’s field. None of his family members appeared Tuesday at the trial, which continues Wednesday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.