Nearly two decades after five people were slain in a bloodbath at a house on North Roman Street, Juan Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter Monday night after a long day of jury selection for a retrial in a case that the U.S. Supreme Court shipped back to Orleans Parish when it overturned Smith’s 1996 conviction on five murder counts.
Smith, 39, waived any delays, and Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo immediately sentenced him to two consecutive 40-year prison terms just before 9 p.m. The deal means Smith, who has spent the past 19 years behind bars, will remain in prison for at least another two decades under “good time” laws that were more generous to offenders when he was originally convicted.
The plea brought to a sudden end a first-degree murder case that shocked the city in 1995, then later left the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office smarting from the high court’s ruling that prosecutors had failed to turn over key evidence in the case.
The plea came after more than nine hours of jury selection, with a full jury not yet seated.
Even before Marullo called for a jury pool Monday morning, Smith’s public defenders and prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office were poised to strike a deal, with public defender William Boggs and Assistant DA Bobby Freeman presenting the same guilty pleas to Marullo shortly after 10 a.m.
But Marullo refused to allow discussion of an agreed-upon sentence as part of the deal.
“I’m not letting the state or you sentence him. That’s my prerogative,” Marullo barked at Boggs. “I’ll decide my sentence. I’ll decide.”
The deal was shelved then, and Marullo called for the jurors as Smith, who spent 16 years on death row, sat watching in a dark suit and tie. By late Monday, 11 jurors had been initially selected to hear evidence in the case, in which Smith faced five counts of first-degree murder.
He was the only person convicted of killing Willie Leggett, 22; Shalita Russell, 17; James Jackson, 43; Ian Jackson, 24; and Robert Simmons, 28, in the Roman Street massacre.
Smith’s first trial in 1996 ended with convictions on all five counts, but the jury refused to sentence him to death. Because of that decision, Cannizzaro’s office could not again seek the death penalty against him.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict 16 years later on an 8-1 vote, in a harsh rebuke of prosecutors’ failure to give Smith’s defense attorneys initial statements by an eyewitness. Larry Boatner, who first told police that he couldn’t identify the shooter, then later fingered Smith.
Some of the high court justices wagged their fingers at Cannizzaro’s office for even bothering to defend the failure, which took place during former longtime District Attorney Harry Connick’s tenure.
Another jury, after hearing evidence against Smith from the Roman Street massacre, sentenced him to death after convicting him in a separate, triple murder that took place a month earlier than the Roman Street shooting spree.
In that attack, on Morrison Road, the jury convicted Smith of murdering former Saints player Bennie Thompson’s ex-wife, Tangie Thompson; their 3-year-old child, Devyn Thompson; and Tangie Thompson’s boyfriend, Andre White.
Marullo threw out Smith’s death sentence in the Morrison Road case but kept intact the guilty verdict. Smith’s re-sentencing in that case remained pending Monday, even as other attorneys fight to get that conviction overturned on similar arguments of misconduct by prosecutors.
As part of the plea deal Monday night, Cannizzaro’s office agreed not to again seek the death penalty for Smith in the Morrison Road conviction. Smith, for his part, agreed to dismiss a lawsuit against the DA’s Office.
A significant portion of the jury selection process focused on whether potential jurors recalled either of the bloody melees, which were covered prominently in the media, or had learned about them later. While some jurors acknowledged hearing of the cases, the question didn’t appear to be a major obstacle in seating jurors.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.