Carol Belisle took the stand in Criminal District Court on Thursday and described the events of a frosty January evening almost five years ago. “They started knocking on the door, and I opened it. All I could see was shadows,” she said.
The knock was a portent of a hellish triple murder in the St. Roch neighborhood, which ended with Belisle suffering a gunshot wound to the leg and her three housemates executed by two masked men, one of whom wielded an assault rifle.
Belisle’s testimony took center stage in the trial of Charles “Tiger” Franklin for the 2010 killings. Prosecutors Inga Petrovich and Kevin Guillory said Franklin committed the murders with his friend Dwayne “Red” Johnson in a dispute about crack dealing.
Johnson pleaded guilty to three counts of manslaughter earlier this year and received a 35-year prison sentence.
Franklin’s attorneys, Dwight Doskey and Brandi Struder, characterized their client as a victim of circumstantial evidence and faulty police work. They also suggested that another man, Arnold Wilson, may have been responsible for the murders.
The shooting happened just before midnight Jan. 7, 2010, in the 2700 block of Urquhart Street.
Belisle said one of the housemates, 23-year-old Desmond Harris, was first shot outside the house after investigating the knock. She said the gunmen then barged into the home, demanding crack and money.
“He said, ‘This can’t be all it. Y’all about to die,’ ” she said, quoting one of the gunmen.
The men then killed Kewanda Harris and Karen Matthews. They also shot Belisle while she was huddling under the covers with a 2-year-old boy the roommates often watched.
According to Belisle, one of her roommates had just begun selling crack to supplement her unemployment insurance and pay her rent.
Prosecutors painted drug dealing as the motive for the killing, a claim backed up by 26-year-old Brittany Walker, who told the jury she lived across the street from the house where the victims were shot.
Walker said Franklin was involved romantically with her roommate and that he and Johnson would constantly hang around the house, where they would “sit, smoke weed, watch TV and play with guns.”
She told the jury that the men sold crack and that Franklin typically toyed around with an AK-47, while Johnson had a handgun.
Walker, who according to court records was at one point arrested and held on bail as a material witness in the case, said Franklin and Johnson had been in an argument with the victims over drug sales prior to the shooting.
She said moments before gunshots were heard across the street, Franklin and Johnson left the house, clad in clothes belonging to her other roommate, Johnny Perry.
Walker said that after the shooting, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and now has severe anxiety attacks.
“I am afraid of whatever he has planned for me,” she said of Franklin.
Timothy Bender, a veteran New Orleans Police Department homicide detective, also testified Thursday.
Bender, who was in charge of the murder investigation, told the jury that when Franklin was arrested days after the shooting, police found boxes of .762-caliber ammunition behind a nearby shed. The ammunition was the same caliber found at the scene.
He also said detectives found .380-caliber bullets in Walker’s home, where the two suspects spent most of their days. That ammunition also matched shell casings found at the scene.
Doskey pressed Bender on why he had taken more than two years to send clothing found at Franklin’s home to a State Police crime lab for DNA analysis. He also dug into inconsistencies in Belisle’s testimony about whether one of the shooters was wearing gloves.
The defense additionally focused on Arnold Wilson, a man who showed up at Walker’s house after the shooting. Bender admitted he was eager to speak with Wilson but said he had trouble locating him.
Bender said that when Franklin was arrested, a phone was found in the tank of his toilet. The contents were retrieved by the FBI, and one of the most recent texts was from someone named Arnold.
According to Doskey, Wilson is currently in prison on an unrelated charge.
The trial, held in front of ad hoc Judge Walter Rothschild, will continue Friday.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Nov. 7 to correct the charges to which Dwayne Johnson pleaded guilty earlier this year.