After days of emotional, graphic testimony and photos of a 2002 shooting spree that left a teenager and his young niece dead at a relative’s home in New Orleans East, an Orleans Parish jury late Thursday convicted 41-year-old Billy Lewis on two counts of second-degree murder in a retrial 13 years after the double slaying.
The verdict was 10-2 after more than three hours of deliberation at the end of a four-day trial in which the purported dying words of 16-year-old Travis Webb — “Billy shot me” — played a central role.
Prosecutors described a petty spat over a girl as the senseless spark for bloody gunfire on Intrepid Street. Left dead were Webb and 11-year-old Daveion Jones, who perished on the floor of her grandmother’s home, the contents of her head spilling out, according to testimony from relatives.
Lewis got a second chance before a jury after the Louisiana Supreme Court vacated his 2010 conviction in a ruling two years ago. The state’s high court found that Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman erred in failing to allow Lewis’ attorneys to use an allotted challenge to “back strike” a juror who initially had been picked to serve in the case.
The jury this week heard nothing about that. Instead, prosecutors drummed home a message of justice denied to the victims’ families for well over a decade.
A second defendant, Ronald Anderson, pleaded guilty to a pair of manslaughter counts and received concurrent 10-year sentences in 2009, with credit for the seven years he’d spent awaiting trial.
Assistant District Attorneys Brittany Reed and Kevin Guillory portrayed the killing as a senseless reaction to a phone call in which they said Lewis heard Webb getting into a physical scrap with a friend of his, Dominique Jones.
The prosecutors said Lewis and Anderson jumped in a friend’s green Mustang on July 24, 2002, gunning for vengeance. They brought along a .40-caliber handgun and an assault rifle for the task, according to the state’s evidence.
The spray of bullets into the house also injured another of Webb’s nieces, Tierra Jones.
Lewis “didn’t like the fact that Travis, this young boy, had disrespected Dominique, and he and his boy were going to run wild and knock some heads that night,” Reed told the jury Thursday.
Defense attorneys Daniel Engelberg and Kenneth Hardin Jr. argued that witnesses identified Lewis based only on rumor and a dubious dying claim by Webb, which he made separately to two detectives and others.
In his closing argument, Engelberg cited “a toxic brew of how NOPD investigators didn’t investigate. They rushed to judgment in 2002 with a horrible crime, people wanting closure.”
“ ‘Billy shot me.’ That’s the crux of the state’s case,” Engelberg said. “Can we send a man to die at Angola because of that, with all these other questions?” Engelberg argued that the shootings happened too fast for a wounded Webb to make out his assailants.
Guillory cast scorn on Engelberg’s appeal for sympathy for the family of Lewis, who sat with braided hair at the defense table. Lewis’ family and those of the two victims sat on opposite sides of the courtroom as the trial wound to a close.
“When you have the foolish actions of a man that takes the life of someone, it affects two sets of families, two sets of people,” Guillory told the jury. “Any pain the Lewis family has felt is because of Billy Lewis. The pain that the Jones family has felt, and the Webb family feels, is because of Billy Lewis.”
He noted that Daveion Jones would have been 24 now; Webb would be 29.
The difference between the families was that “at every holiday, every gathering, every barbecue, every family reunion and every celebration, there’s been two empty chairs” for the victims, Guillory said. “The only time you can give them a gift is when you put flowers on their tombstones.”
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