New Orleans man represents self in heroin case, scores acquittal _lowres

Provided photo -- Don Hayes

The adage is so old, some attribute it to Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Just don’t tell that to Don “Poo” Hayes, who took on prosecutors with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office this week without the benefit of a lawyer — and won.

Hayes, 42, ditched his public defender and represented himself on a charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin. Tuesday night, a 12-member jury deliberated for a little more than two hours before acquitting him.

The case stemmed from an investigation in which a confidential informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called Hayes to set up a drug purchase Sept. 18 at Hayes’ house in the 1900 block of Alvar Street in the Upper 9th Ward. The informant paid $300 for a plastic bag containing heroin, authorities said.

DEA Special Agent Joseph Blackledge then secured a search warrant for the house, turning up four digital scales, more plastic baggies and spent bottles of mannitol, a cutting agent, along with a “residual” amount of heroin.

Hayes was arrested Sept. 24 and jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail.

His history of drug and gun convictions dates back more than a decade, with five felony convictions that appear to make him eligible for a life prison term as a habitual offender.

This wasn’t the first time Hayes has decided to act as a lawyer.

He was prosecuted in 2011 on the same charge after a New Orleans Police Department officer spotted him driving the wrong way down North Villere Street and found a half-ounce of heroin and $1,545 in cash on him.

Hayes decided midtrial — after the first police officer had testified — that he could do a better job than his attorney, John Fuller. Hayes took charge of his defense, delivering his own closing argument, and a jury found him guilty as charged. He received a four-year prison sentence.

Hayes appealed his conviction, arguing that the judge had failed to advise him of his right to an appointed counsel after he abandoned Fuller. That failure, he argued, prevented him from making “a knowing and intelligent waiver of counsel.”

But Criminal District Court Judge Robin Pittman in fact had warned Hayes that representing himself is “almost always unwise and may be detrimental,” and an appeals court panel upheld his conviction.

He fared better this week, arguing that prosecutors never proved he was in possession of the drugs.

Court records show that public defenders helped him before the trial, challenging prosecutors’ right to present the jury with evidence of his past crimes. But Hayes went solo during the trial, held before Judge Byron C. Williams.

Cannizzaro’s office did not immediately comment on the case. A spokesman said he was uncertain when an Orleans Parish criminal defendant was last acquitted after representing himself.

Hayes, who remained in jail Wednesday, still faces three pending criminal cases: attempted murder and weapons charges from 2014, an aggravated assault charge from last summer and a pair of domestic abuse counts for which he was charged days after his arrest on the heroin charge.

He is representing himself in all three cases.