Tyron “T-man” Harden has known for nine months that he will spend the rest of his days behind bars for a gang-related double murder that claimed the lives of 5-year-old Briana Allen and a young mother in Central City. However, he never has been officially sentenced.
After repeated delays, the day came Friday for the automatic sentence finally to be handed down.
A cadre of police officers joined the family of Shawanna Pierce, the 33-year-old mother killed in the same incident, in a courtroom for the occasion, looking for an end to a painful case that began more than three years ago when Pierce and little Briana became collateral damage to New Orleans’ unrelenting gun violence.
Even Mayor Mitch Landrieu was en route to Criminal District Court, where Pierce’s family was poised to deliver impact statements in the presence of Harden and two gang members convicted in February of murder and racketeering.
Conspicuously absent, though, was Harden.
After a recent jailhouse assault on a deputy, he had been shipped off to northeastern Louisiana, where more than 200 of the city’s inmates were sent to avoid overcrowding at the city’s new jail as Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman fight over whether the city should continue housing hundreds of state prisoners.
The long-distance arrangement has complicated many proceedings because the displaced inmates, housed in Franklin and East Carroll parishes, must travel several hours each way simply to appear in court.
For some reason, officials in East Carroll Parish did not get the memo that Harden was due at 11 a.m. in Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier’s courtroom. So rather than receiving closure, Pierce’s family went home frustrated when the judge postponed the sentencing until Nov. 17.
Pierce’s mother, Dianne, sat in a wheelchair in the courthouse hallway, tears welling up.
“My daughter didn’t get so many chances,” she said, alluding to the stray AK-47 bullet that took Pierce’s life in May 2012.
Flemings-Davillier said court officials had been in discussions about the mix-up with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office as well as the warden in East Carroll Parish.
“It is our understanding it was confusion on their end as to why Mr. Harden was not transported to Orleans Parish today,” the judge said, referring to East Carroll Parish. “The warden has assured me personally Mr. Harden will, in fact, be transported for the next setting.”
The East Carroll Parish sheriff, Wydette Williams, said Friday he did not know what had caused the oversight. “It could have been a clerical error,” he said by phone. “I can assure you that won’t be a problem again.”
Friday’s miscommunication attracted attention in large part because of the high profile of the murder case. But it was not the first time a local court proceeding has been delayed because of a problem involving the New Orleans inmates being held in other parishes. Such complications crop up occasionally even in the transportation of locally housed inmates, but they are far more difficult to correct when the inmates are several hours away.
Defense attorney Kevin Boshea recently asked that a murder trial be rescheduled because a client of his had been sent upstate, hampering his ability to prepare for the trial. “How do I prepare a man to testify in his own defense when he’s on trial for his life if I can’t get to him?” Boshea asked a few weeks ago.
Sheriff’s Office officials have said they tried to transfer only those inmates who didn’t have court dates scheduled for several weeks. There are indications, however, that Gusman sent some of the most violent and problematic inmates out of the parish.
Harden, for instance, had been housed at the city’s new $150 million jail awaiting his automatic life sentence. But he was moved after being accused of attacking and injuring a female deputy, a violent assault that authorities said was caught on surveillance video.
Although Harden was convicted of murder in February, his defense attorney had requested his sentencing be delayed until a transcript of the trial could be completed.
“It is imperative for us to lay out for the court in detail the volume and gravity of the inadmissible evidence used to convict him,” said the attorney, Rick Schroeder, referring to a motion for a new trial.
Flemings-Davillier said she will rule on that motion Nov. 16, a day before Harden’s new sentencing date.
The Landrieu administration has asked a federal judge to prevent Gusman from housing New Orleans inmates out of the parish before removing several hundred state prisoners from the new jail.
While Landrieu wants those prisoners returned to the custody of the state Department of Corrections, Gusman has said dozens of the prisoners must remain in New Orleans due to pending charges. More than 100 others are participating in a regional re-entry program intended to reduce recidivism.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a sweeping reform effort at the jail, has scheduled a hearing next month to hear arguments from both sides.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.