The jury didn’t buy it when Michael Dabney’s attorneys claimed he didn’t shoot New Orleans police Officer Troy Pichon in the leg Oct. 28 in Central City.
Although Dabney’s attorneys argued Wednesday that Pichon’s partner accidentally blew a hole in the officer’s thigh with a spare gun he kept in his patrol car and that numerous NOPD officers then conspired to pin the crime on Dabney, even planting his DNA on the weapon, the jury seemed to agree with prosecutors that the claims were not believable.
Wednesday night, the jury convicted Dabney on one of two counts of attempted first-degree murder after a trial that ran three days. It was hung on the second count after five hours of deliberation. He also was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon.
Dabney, 35, a parolee with a lengthy criminal history, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Attempted murder carries a maximum 50-year sentence, although District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office may up the ante by pressing to have Dabney sentenced under the state’s habitual offender law.
Dabney pleaded guilty to second-degree battery in a 2011 case, receiving a 30-month sentence. He also was convicted of heroin and cocaine charges in 2010, of armed robbery in 1996 and of possession with intent to distribute heroin in 2000, records show.
He sat quietly in a crisp white dress shirt this week as the jury heard widely divergent accounts of what happened the night an NOPD patrol car pulled up to Third and LaSalle streets as Dabney was walking nearby.
Both sides portrayed the jury’s vote as a referendum on the state of the New Orleans Police Department, offering competing images of Pichon as either a dirty cop meting out his own brand of justice and getting shot for his efforts, or else a brave defender risking his life to rid the streets of one more bad guy.
What was clear was that Pichon, who returned to the force in April, suffered a gunshot wound after spotting Dabney at Third and LaSalle and jumping out of the passenger side of a police cruiser.
Alongside him in the patrol car was Sgt. Eric Gillard, as the two worked overtime on a task force patrolling a hot spot for armed robberies and carjackings.
Also clear was that, shortly after the gunfire, a police K-9 dragged Dabney out from under a house on Third Street by his hand, after he had shed his hooded sweatshirt, camouflage cargo pants, his wallet and, according to police, a 10 mm handgun that was found the next day.
According to a police report, the officers saw Dabney grabbing at something tucked in his waistband and moved to make an “investigative stop.” Pichon got out and Dabney started running up Third Street. Pichon, a former nine-year firefighter who joined the NOPD five years ago, took off after him. Gillard drove to cut off Dabney, who fired on the patrol car, hitting a tire.
Pichon then fired, and Dabney turned his gun on the officer, prosecutors said. When police arrested Dabney, a field test found gunshot residue on him.
A test later found two sets of DNA, including Dabney’s, on the discarded sweatshirt and only Dabney’s DNA on the gun, state police crime lab analyst Tayla Pinell testified.
As NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas sat watching in the courtroom gallery, prosecutor Jason Napoli’s voice quavered as he painted the jury’s decisions as either a declaration of support for the men and women in blue, or else an abandonment of the force.
“It’s time for y’all to pick a side,” Napoli told the jury. “This side or that side. The only thing standing between that killer and that door is the 12 of you.”
Napoli said Dabney’s attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office were “grasping at straws.”
Dabney’s attorneys told a far different story, pointing to Pichon’s admitted acquaintance with the defendant’s sister, as revealed in familiar text messages between the two.
The theory from public defenders Leon Roché and Sarah Chervinsky was that Pichon was having sex with the sister and was harassing Dabney, to the point of firing on the parolee as he fled in fear down the street.
At one point, Gillard fumbled with his service weapon, then reached for his “drop gun” in the patrol car before firing away, hitting his partner in the leg, Dabney’s attorneys argued.
According to police, Gillard never fired a shot.
The trial featured a long pause Tuesday, when Pichon started testifying about his relationships with confidential informants — including one he identified.
Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman locked the courtroom doors for about an hour to sort out the fallout from Pichon’s statements.
Pichon knew Dabney from the neighborhood and “had it out” for the convicted felon, Roché told the jury. “He tried to kill Mr. Dabney, and he ended up getting shot in the leg.”
Why investigators didn’t locate the gun until the next day was clear, Roché argued: They planted it near the scene.
“They took that sweatshirt and they rubbed that sweatshirt on the gun,” he argued to refute the DNA evidence against Dabney.
He called Dabney a victim who was merely heading home to Freret Street when the patrol car rolled up and he started running out of fear.
“I’m asking you to send a message to NOPD today. They planted that gun. They planted his DNA. There was no gunshot residue,” Roché told the jury. “Officer Troy Pichon is nothing but a George Zimmerman, and Mr. Dabney’s Trayvon Martin. That’s what this is about, y’all.”
That didn’t add up, prosecutor Napoli countered, noting that the sweatshirt had two sets of DNA on it but the gun only one.
“Why is it when he ran under that house, he took off all of his clothes? It makes absolutely no sense,” Napoli said of the defense theory.
Dabney’s attorneys had tried to get Napoli removed from the case, arguing that he earlier tried to intimidate Dabney into a plea deal.
“If you don’t take this deal, I’m going to f***ing bury your ass,” they quoted Napoli as telling the defendant.
Cannizzaro’s office had offered Dabney a deal for 35 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea.