Big-time drug dealer Theltus Williams sure made the right call when he waived his right to a jury trial and entrusted his fate to New Orleans Judge Laurie White.
No sweat calling Williams a drug dealer, because he can’t deny it. White acquitted him, but the evidence left no doubt that he had been distributing large amounts of heroin and cocaine. “This court has not found you innocent,” she told Williams.
The record shows, however, that she found him “not guilty.” He probably figured that would do just as well. He would have been too cock-a-hoop to wonder what the difference might be.
Since “not guilty” did not mean that White had any doubt Williams had been dealing, she termed his acquittal a “legal gift.” Now, she said, he must decide whether he will “continue to poison people.” It is a weird criminal justice system that gives him any choice in the matter.
There can be no doubt that, in a jury trial, Williams would have gone down. He was not nailed in some low-budget state stake-out with grainy footage of drug transactions. The feds handled the investigation, producing surveillance tapes with production values worthy of Hollywood. Jurors would have had no trouble identifying Williams, thanks to an undercover agent who wore a camera and a microphone on three occasions when buying 4.5 ounces of cocaine and 22 grams of heroin. Other DEA agents were keeping tabs in the background.
The feds, of course, paid for the drugs with marked money, which was recovered when they got a warrant to search Williams’ house.
They turned the prosecution over to New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro because state law prescribes longer prison terms for narcotics dealers. Indeed, Williams, as a multiple offender, faced life.
Although Cannizzaro’s assistants and the feds, by any rational measure, had Williams dead to rights, they were not taking any chances. When Williams came to trial, they were not content just to produce the surveillance tapes, the marked money and the testimony of the backup agents.
They wanted Williams so bad that they decided to call their undercover man to the stand. There’s no more cloak and dagger work for an agent who’s testified in open court. The feds wouldn’t have burned this one if they thought for a moment it might have been for nothing.
When the not guilty verdict came down, Cannizzaro hit the roof, suggesting that Williams and his attorney John Fuller must have waived their right to a jury trial because they figured White as a soft touch. She claims to have agonized before cutting Williams loose, however. “Every molecule in my being wanted to ignore” the “reasonable doubt” that required the not guilty verdict, she told him.
Whatever that reasonable doubt may have been, White was evidently alone in perceiving it and she declined to elaborate, even after Cannizzaro allowed he was “disgusted” and “very angry and upset.”
Although we do not know how she arrived at her verdict, it obviously wasn’t for the reasons suggested by Fuller, who said prosecutors failed to prove that the Second Street address where the drug deals went down was in New Orleans. But, had there been any question about the venue, a motion to quash would have been the appropriate response, and none was filed. Prosecutors pursued charges in Orleans Parish because there was no question where the surveillance had taken place. Had there been a jurisdictional issue, White presumably would have mentioned it.
Fuller also claimed double jeopardy, because Williams had already pleaded guilty to a drug paraphernalia rap after the feds raided his house. But the dealing charges obviously arose from different circumstances, and White had rejected the double-jeopardy claim when it was raised in a pretrial motion. Fuller’s third argument was that the feds had entrapped his client, but White did not cite that as a reason for her verdict, either.
Judges, having sole discretion, don’t owe the public an explanation anyway, so perhaps we should be grateful that White deigned to say she had “great difficulty” in deciding that Williams, though not innocent, was not guilty, either. The public, too, will have great difficulty in trying to make any sense of that.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.