New Orleans candy swiper sentenced to year in prison while Orleans DA weighs stiffer sentence _lowres

Jacobia Grimes

Jacobia Grimes, a serial shoplifter who was convicted this month of attempted theft after stuffing $31 worth of candy into his pockets at a New Orleans dollar store, now formally faces a mandatory prison sentence of 20 years to life under the state’s habitual-offender law.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office filed a “multiple bill” against Grimes on Friday, seeking to punish him as a four-time — or “quad” — offender for the failed sweets heist.

The decision came despite earlier protestations from Cannizzaro, following national media coverage about the case, that shoplifters “will not be doing 20-year sentences” under his watch.

But in a twist, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said prosecutors will not object if Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich veers well below the statutory minimum under a small loophole in one of the nation’s stiffest habitual-offender laws.

Zibilich could find a 20-year sentence for Grimes, 34, to be “grossly out of proportion to the severity” of the offense, amounting to “purposeful imposition of pain and suffering.”

According to spokesman Christopher Bowman, Cannizzaro would be just fine with such a finding.

“When the District Attorney’s Office does not object, the judge has wide latitude to depart below the mandatory minimum, which the District Attorney’s Office believes will occur” in this case, Bowman said. “The District Attorney’s Office intends to encourage the judge to impose a five-year sentence.”

Zibilich scheduled a July 15 hearing on the issue.

After a 16-minute bench trial on June 6, Zibilich found Grimes guilty of attempted theft, reasoning that he never made it out of the Dollar General on South Claiborne Avenue after a manager spotted him filling his pockets.

But Zibilich later ruled, reluctantly, that a state law that makes felons out of three-time shoplifters also applied to attempted theft.

Given Grimes’ extensive history of convictions, mostly for petty theft and drugs, the new felony made him vulnerable to stiff potential sentences.

Zibilich, who earlier had urged a deal for a combination of jail time and drug treatment, last week sentenced Grimes to a year in prison — the maximum on the attempted-theft count — and awaited the district attorney’s decision on whether to file a multiple bill.

“The mayor of this city wants (fewer) people incarcerated. It’s costing the citizens way, way, way too much money. But the opposite side of the coin certainly doesn’t give someone like Mr. Grimes carte blanche to continue to commit crimes,” Zibilich said in handing down his sentence.

“The punishment here is not for the $31 worth of candy. The punishment is, he won’t stop, and if Mr. Grimes were to receive a pass today, the message this court would be sending is, ‘Mr. Grimes, go steal some more Baby Ruths. It’s OK.’ And that’s the wrong message for this court to send.”

Still in doubt Friday was whether defense attorneys Michael Kennedy and Miles Swanson would object should Zibilich follow Cannizzaro’s wishes and sentence Grimes to five years.

Both attorneys expressed outrage at the filing from Cannizzaro’s office, calling it an about-face from the district attorney’s earlier statements.

“The mandatory minimum (under the multiple bill filing) is 20 years, in direct contradiction of the DA’s letter” to The New Orleans Advocate in April, Kennedy said. In that letter, Cannizzaro described a newspaper story about the potential sentence Grimes faced as a “manufactured” controversy.

“It’s a travesty someone could be facing 20 to life for $31 in candy,” Swanson said. “This goes against what the DA said he would not do, and yet, here we are.”

His attorneys describe Grimes as a drug addict who possibly suffers from kleptomania. Zibilich earlier revoked Grimes’ $5,000 bail after Cannizzaro’s office requested a drug test that turned up marijuana, cocaine, oxycodone and opiates in his blood.

Grimes, 34, received a four-year sentence in 2010 following his guilty plea for stealing socks and pants. In that case, Cannizzaro’s office charged him as a two-time felon.

Prosecutors could have doubled the one-year sentence that Zibilich handed to Grimes this month by charging him as a double or triple offender. But Cannizzaro deemed that figure too low to “provide the defendant with adequate rehabilitation,” Bowman said Friday.

In a recent decision in a different case, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned a 30-year sentence imposed on Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old suffering from a crack addiction who was sent away as a quadruple offender under a bill filed by Cannizzaro’s office.

The state’s high court described the three-decade sentence for Mosby as “unconscionable” and the kind of “exceedingly rare” case that warranted stepping on the Legislature’s toes by ignoring a statutory minimum. Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams last month resentenced Mosby to a five-year term.

Christopher Aberle, a deputy director with the Louisiana Appellate Project, said last month he was unaware of any other case from Orleans Parish in which the high court overturned a statutory minimum sentence.

Harder to determine, he said then, is how often the Supreme Court declines to review decisions by judges who on their own veer below what they deem to be excessive minimum sentences.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.