The father of slain Central City tot Briana Allen was convicted along with two cousins late Thursday on a federal drug conspiracy count involving what federal prosecutors described as a family-run drug ring at the former Melpomene public housing complex in New Orleans.
A jury of eight women and four men deliberated a little more than three hours before returning guilty verdicts against 35-year-old Burnell “Baldy” Allen, Sonny “Shortbread” Allen and his half-brother, Gie Preston, on a high-volume cocaine conspiracy count, the first of 14 counts from a 2012 federal indictment.
Over a four-day trial, prosecutors portrayed the Allens as a family bonded together in a long-running drug-selling business on the poverty-stricken streets of Central City.
Only Preston, 39, was found guilty on a firearms conspiracy count, as the jury acquitted both Burnell Allen and Sonny Allen on that charge. Preston also was found guilty on six of eight other gun and drug counts in the indictment, while the jury found Sonny Allen, 31, guilty on four additional counts.
Burnell Allen was being tried on only two counts.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval set sentencing for April 8.
Four other Allen family members and associates in the alleged drug ring had pleaded guilty earlier, and some testified in the trial that began Monday and ended with the verdicts about 7 p.m. Thursday.
Burnell Allen swayed back and forth in a chair at the defense table as the verdicts were read, more than two years after the day he crouched by his 5-year-old daughter, Briana, as she lay bloody and dying on May 29, 2012 — an image captured in a news photograph that jarred the city.
Also killed was 33-year-old Shawanna Pierce, who was fatally struck as she drove a rental car through the neighborhood on her way to the Central Business District.
Burnell Allen still faces a January trial date in the murder of a 21-year-old man just 11 days after Briana’s killing, in what authorities allege was retaliation.
Prosecutors portrayed the Allens as running a family drug operation with its center at the home where their grandmother, Delores Allen, lived in the 1200 block of Simon Bolivar Avenue. That is where Briana was killed while attending a birthday party.
Authorities say Briana died during an attack by members of the St. Thomas-area 110’ers gang on a rival gang known as the Young Melph Mafia, or YMM. One of the Allen cousins, Lionel Allen, was believed to be among the intended targets.
“They’re a large, formidable family. They stick together. They watch out for each other. They watch out for police,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Lagarde told the jury.
While acknowledging their clients were guilty of selling drugs on the streets, defense attorneys for the three men dismissed the most serious charges of conspiracy as a trumped-up fallacy.
“There were laws broken, drugs being sold. These were poor guys hustling to put shoes on their feet,” said City Councilman Jason Williams, one of Burnell Allen’s defense attorneys. “This is a sad story of New Orleans poverty.”
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr. said Burnell Allen faces a mandatory life sentence based on his criminal history, while Sonny Allen faces a minimum 20-year sentence and Preston, who was convicted on the most counts, faces 15 to life.
“The Allen Gang sold crack cocaine ‘every day, all day,’ in the Guste high rises, and used guns to protect that business. Tonight’s guilty verdicts ensure that these men spend decades in jail for terrorizing their community,” Polite said.
Williams said Burnell Allen was willing to plead guilty in the federal case, as he has in a past state drug case, until prosecutors insisted on pursuing the conspiracy count.
Robert Toale, Sonny Allen’s attorney, said his client turned down a plea deal with much less prison time - 10 years with the possibility of a reduction in his time behind bars.
“He was just absolutely shocked that the jury found him guilty on the conspiracy to distribute drugs. He has maintained there was no conspiracy from the first day I met him,” Toale said.
The jury heard no testimony about Briana Allen’s killing or any reference to the YMM.
Among those who already pleaded guilty was Lionel Allen, who admitted taking a jail phone call from Preston, telling him where to get Preston’s cocaine to give to another man so he could raise enough money to post bond. Lionel Allen did not show up to testify in the trial.
The others who pleaded guilty recently were Eugene “BeBe” Allen, Emanuel “Duke” Casame and Mark Rayfield.
Over four days, prosecutors laid out a picture of rampant, nonstop drug dealing on the street near the Guste high-rise housing complex, with Allen family members well-schooled in stealthy drug dealing, often keeping wrapped packages of drugs in their mouths for easy access.
Nandi Campbell, another of Burnell Allen’s attorneys, said the prosecution played on the family relationships of what she said were independent contractors in the drug trade.
“How do you beat a conspiracy when you have that last name?” Campbell said after the verdict.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.