Harry Riggins, who walked out of an Orleans Parish courtroom and vanished at the start of his trial last week on a gun-possession charge, won’t be tried this week while AWOL. An appeals court and the Louisiana Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a judge’s order granting a mistrial in the case.
After Riggins bolted from the courtroom just before opening statements on Thursday, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office pressed to try him in absentia on a count of possession of a firearm by a felon.
Riggins, 29, remained on the lam Wednesday, with a no-bond warrant issued for his arrest.
The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal agreed with Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams that newspaper stories about Riggins’ disappearance, replete with accounts of a criminal record that the jury would not have heard about during a trial, had tainted the panel beyond hope.
The 4th Circuit’s brief ruling noted that the judge questioned the jurors individually when they returned to court Tuesday morning. Williams said the responses of three jurors “gave the court grave concern.”
The jury members “had full knowledge of the facts and circumstances surrounding the absence of the defendant which was obtained from newspaper articles,” Williams told the appeals court in a written statement. “Specific reasons were given that led the court to believe the jurors’ continued service would be prejudicial.”
The appeals court found that Williams did not abuse his discretion in granting a defense motion for a mistrial. The Supreme Court agreed in its own ruling later Wednesday, denying the appeal by prosecutors.
Cannizzaro’s office pushed hard to keep the trial going in Riggins’ absence despite acknowledging that an “essential” police officer witness was headed into surgery Wednesday and would be unavailable for several weeks, and also knowing that the jurors would need to be held over from the end of their scheduled duty.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office declined to comment after the court rulings Wednesday.
State law allows a defendant to be tried in absentia if he “voluntarily absents himself after the trial has commenced” and his attorney remains present.
Riggins walked out of the courtroom Thursday as prosecutors and lawyers haggled over a legal issue in the judge’s chambers. Several New Orleans police officers sat in the courtroom gallery waiting to testify as Riggins, who had been free on bond, strolled out. A brief courthouse search by deputies came up empty.
The jury wasn’t in the courtroom at the time, and the judge never filled them in on Riggins’ absence. The jurors found an empty defendant’s chair when they returned to court this week to resume the trial.
Records show Riggins was freed on $20,000 bond in July 2012 on the gun charge. He also faced separate marijuana possession charges and two counts of bail jumping from missed court dates.
Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker raised Riggins’ bond slightly last year, but he was able to meet it and go free again, records show.
He appeared dutifully for jury selection Wednesday and again Thursday morning for the start of the trial but then apparently decided his continued presence wasn’t desirable.
One of his attorneys, John Fuller, said he hasn’t heard from Riggins since.
Williams released the jury late Wednesday, setting no new court dates for Riggins, who is described as having a goatee and a fleur-de-lis tattoo around his temple.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.