Moments after Rendell Brown pleaded guilty in a New Orleans courtroom Tuesday, Ann Yeager locked eyes with the man accused of killing her son while he delivered pizza in Mid-City.
“Young man, the day will come when you will have to face the God who created you and give an account of your life,” Yeager said. “I pray that He will be merciful.”
Brown, 19, admitted to playing a role in the killing of Richard “Chris” Yeager, a karaoke DJ and Domino’s pizza driver who was gunned down in September 2014.
Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams sentenced Brown to 40 years in prison on manslaughter and armed robbery counts under the terms of his deal with New Orleans prosecutors.
For family members and friends, the court hearing was a chance to express their anguish.
For Brown, who did not speak other than to affirm his plea, it was a chance to avoid life behind bars. He had been charged with second-degree murder.
Police said that Brown and Shane Hughes were both 16-year-old students at Cohen College Prep High when Richard “Chris” Yeager was found dead in the 2800 block of St. Louis Street. He had been shot 10 times and robbed.
Yeager’s stolen Toyota Corolla was abandoned in Gert Town shortly afterward.
An Orleans Parish grand jury has indicted two New Orleans teens in the fatal shooting of a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver in September in Mid-City.
Electronic monitoring bracelets from previous arrests placed both teens at the scene of the shooting. They were arrested, together, within a day. Hughes also acknowledged he had been at the scene of the crime in an interview with a detective.
Prosecutors said they believe a third juvenile, who has not been charged because of "insufficient evidence," also took part in killing Yeager.
The night before the killing, authorities alleged, Brown and Hughes carjacked and beat a 50-year-old woman outside her Uptown home. Brown pleaded guilty to armed robbery for that crime as well.
Noting that Brown was only a high school student at the time of his arrest, Williams recommended him for any job training and rehabilitation programs available in prison. However, he said, Brown has racked up a series of new charges in jail.
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"You will not be allowed to participate in any programs if you have any disciplinary problems," Williams said. "I suggest sir, at your age, you have the opportunity to redeem yourself and possibly become a better citizen."
The question of redemption lingered over the testimony from Yeager's parents.
Yeager, 35, had moved to New Orleans from Huntsville, Alabama. He was known for leading karaoke sessions in the French Quarter; he delivered pizzas to make extra money.
His father, William, said he had an easygoing manner and a talent for singing.
The father said it was too soon to think about forgiving his son’s killer.
“I realize the Bible tells us to forgive. However, forgiveness and compassion are two concepts I’ve not been able to consider yet,” he said. “I have wondered how much compassion the defendant displayed when this terrible act was committed.”
Ann Yeager said she wonders how much her son may have suffered and why he was killed. “One day I will see him again. That gives me some measure of comfort,” she said.
As part of his agreement with prosecutors, Brown pleaded guilty to a separate armed robbery and two separate cases involving incidents in jail, including a role in a March 2017 riot at the Orleans Justice Center.
Prosecutors said they believe that Brown also “solicit(ed) the harm” of Hughes’ younger brother in a February 2016 phone call from jail, although he was not charged in connection with that call.
The case against Hughes remains open. He appeared Tuesday in a bright red jail uniform with the words "Maximum Security" on the back.
Prosecutors and Hughes' attorney are trying to hammer out a plea agreement, Williams said. His next court date is March 23.
Yeager is one of three local Domino’s pizza drivers who have been killed in the past four years. Michael Price was killed in the Lower 9th Ward in 2015, and Michael County was killed in Algiers last year. Although a suspect was briefly held in Price’s death, both of those killings remain unsolved.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Yeager's death undermined the arguments of criminal justice reform advocates who say the DA is far too eager to prosecute juveniles in adult court.
“Unlucky victims such as Mr. Yeager are afforded no kinder treatment on our city's streets simply because their armed assailants are teens," Cannizzaro said in a statement. "Violent offenders such as these do not deserve to be freed upon our streets simply by virtue of reaching their 21st birthday, which is the limit of the juvenile courts' purview."
However, most of the debate over Cannizzaro’s prosecution of juveniles as adults has centered around defendants accused of crimes like armed robbery. Once probable cause has been established, the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court does not have jurisdiction over murder cases for juveniles 15 and older.
The director of the Louisiana Center for Children's Rights rejected the idea that Brown's case shone a light on the juvenile transfer debate. "By invoking a high-profile murder, the district attorney is playing on people’s fears rather than focusing on the real concerns about his practices," said Aaron Clark-Rizzio.
Assistant District Attorney Sarah Dawkins represented the state. Brown was represented by defense attorney Keith Couture, who called the case’s resolution “appropriate.”
Two teenagers suspected in the fatal shooting last week of a pizza delivery driver had their cases transferred Monday from Juvenile Court to a…