A New Orleans man who vanished from an Orleans Parish courtroom during his trial last week on a gun possession charge remained on the lam Tuesday as Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams called the jury back to weigh testimony before an empty defendant’s chair.
But after querying the jurors one by one in his chambers, Williams changed his mind and granted a mistrial for Harry Riggins on a motion from his attorneys.
Prosecutors with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office quickly appealed the ruling, leaving the case in limbo. Williams ordered the jury back to court Wednesday morning pending a ruling by the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
The legal wrangling over just what to do in Riggins’ absence was bizarre even by the standards of the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street.
Adding to the oddity, resumption of the trial was held up Tuesday morning while sheriff’s deputies tracked down a juror at a local graduation ceremony. She had been excused from service earlier but was needed back to fill out the 12-member panel.
Once seated shortly after 2 p.m., jurors in the tiny third-floor courtroom stared at the defendant’s vacant cushioned chair, with Riggins’ absence left unexplained.
State law allows for a defendant to be tried in absentia if he “voluntarily absents himself after the trial has commenced” and his attorney remains present.
It’s unclear when the Criminal District Courthouse last hosted a trial minus the defendant. A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said an informal survey turned up no prior examples.
John Fuller, Riggins’ defense attorney and a 13-year courthouse veteran, said he’s never seen it in more than 200 trials.
“This is my first time ever representing an empty chair,” he said.
Fuller was among the lawyers for both sides who were hashing out legal issues in the judge’s chambers on Thursday when Riggins, who was free on bail, walked past a bailiff and several New Orleans police officers into the hallway and disappeared. A brief search of the courthouse came up empty.
The jury wasn’t in the room when Riggins bolted. Opening statements had been set to start before his stealthy exit led a frustrated judge to ask the jurors to return this week.
DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday’s mistrial order.
Fuller said a mistrial was clearly warranted, citing the days the jurors already have spent sitting around and the responses some of them gave to questioning in the judge’s chambers.
“The idea of them coming back for a fourth or fifth day seems selfish to me on the part of the state,” Fuller said.
Williams initially denied a mistrial motion, but that was before he questioned the jurors individually.
Records show Riggins, 29, had been free on $20,000 bond since July 2012 on the 3-year-old charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He also faces other pending charges including two counts of bail jumping and marijuana possession.
He was arrested a year later on another marijuana possession count, court records show. Judge Julian Parker signed a bond forfeiture judgment.
Riggins was charged in November with two counts of bail jumping after missing court, but he remained free on a higher bond while awaiting the trial that began with jury selection Wednesday.
The charge against Riggins, of being a felon in possession of a firearm, stems from a police search of his New Orleans home in May 2012 following another arrest for marijuana. Officers found a chrome Taurus .38-caliber revolver in a closet and pinned it on Riggins, who has a prior burglary conviction from Houston.
The gun had been reported stolen from St. Tammany Parish in 2011, according to a police report.
Following his flight from the trial, the judge issued a no-bail arrest warrant for Riggins. Fuller said he had yet to reach Riggins by phone.
Riggins is described as having a goatee and a fleur-de-lis tattoo around his temple.
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