When police arrested Michael Portis on April Fool’s Day in the March 24 killing of a Domino’s pizza delivery driver and father of three, New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison credited detectives for working “around the clock” to solve Michael Price’s murder.
But another clock — the 120-day window for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to secure an indictment — just came and went, meaning Portis may soon be a free man.
Portis isn’t leaving jail just yet. He’s being held on a federal detainer because he already was on parole when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty in a 2012 federal weapons case that earned him a 35-month prison term.
But that detainer remains in place only because of his arrest for murder, and one of his attorneys, Kimya Holmes, said she will press to get it lifted soon.
Prosecutors were well aware of the pending deadline under Louisiana’s speedy trial laws. Cannizzaro’s office acknowledged that prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence against Portis to seek an indictment, at least not on the evidence they’ve seen thus far.
“Before the District Attorney’s Office submits a case to the grand jury, it must possess evidence that establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, said in a statement. “While the district attorney believes that such evidence exists, the office is still awaiting receipt of several items that it requested.”
Bowman did not elaborate on what items have been requested. NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the “investigation is active and ongoing” but declined to give details.
Prosecutors could indict Portis at any time in the future. They just can’t keep him, under the release order that Magistrate Judge Jonathan Friedman issued Thursday.
Price’s murder, just before 1 a.m. in the 6100 block of North Roman Street during an apparent robbery, jarred the city. It marked the second killing of a Domino’s delivery man in six months. Billboards went up, with a $10,000 reward offered. The company that owns the New Orleans Domino’s franchise added restrictions to late-night orders and deliveries.
An arrest warrant for Portis said Detective Travis Ward was contacted by “a known subject” who told him that Portis had been the shooter.
The warrant said Ward also found an unnamed witness who said he had seen Portis, whom he knew as “Mike Mike,” in the area of the shooting about four hours before Price was killed.
“The known witness advised that he was awoken in the middle of the night and advised that a murder occurred in the area,” Ward wrote in the warrant. “The known witness then went back to sleep.”
The witness told police that he awoke about 8 a.m. and was approached by “Mike Mike,” who said he had “ ‘hit a lick last night’ and confessed that he killed the pizza delivery driver,” the warrant stated. The witness said Portis had a tattoo of a cross between his eyes and identified him in a photograph, Ward wrote.
Price was shot three times, and police recovered six casings.
But weaknesses in the case came to the fore at a probable cause hearing in late April, when Ward acknowledged not having spoken directly with a key witness who implicated Portis in the case. He also said police were considering at least one other suspect before they arrested Portis.
Ward said investigators determined Portis had been in the immediate vicinity of the crime scene based on phone records; his cellphone sent a signal to a tower showing he was in the Lower 9th Ward about 1 a.m.
One of Portis’ attorneys, Dennis Moore, called the evidence “weak at best,” but Magistrate Commissioner Robert Blackburn disagreed and ordered Portis held without bail.
Bowman did not elaborate on what evidence prosecutors requested from police that they’ve not yet received.
Holmes, the other defense attorney, said police “really have someone telling NOPD they heard he did it. There’s no physical evidence. There’s no DNA. That’s kind of where we stand now.
“We’re working to see what can be done as far as his federal situation. Obviously, they had some issues with their case. Had they not, they would have gotten an indictment by now.”
Friedman ordered Portis’ release based on the expiration of a 120-day clock for crimes in which the sentence is mandatory life or the death penalty.
Portis was on parole from his guilty plea in September 2012 to a federal count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He admitted pointing a Brazilian-made, scope-mounted .22-caliber rifle at a woman on Symmes Avenue while he drove in a gold-colored GMC Yukon.
Portis had a prior conviction in 2008 for aggravated robbery in Texas.
Staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.