A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced Burnell “Baldy” Allen to life in prison for his role in a family drug ring centered around the same Central City house where rival gang members gunned down his 5-year-old daughter, Briana, at a birthday party three years ago.
Allen, 35, was among seven people, including four family members, who were convicted of various charges from what authorities described as a family-run drug market centered at the former Melpomene housing project, known as the “Melph.”
Four of them pleaded guilty, while Allen went on trial last year along with two cousins, Sonny “Shortbread” Allen and Gie Preston. A jury convicted all three on the main drug conspiracy count; Sonny Allen and Preston were convicted on other counts as well.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval sentenced Preston, 39, in April to 18 years. He sentenced Sonny Allen, 32, to 20 years on Wednesday, right after handing the mandatory life term to Burnell Allen.
Attorneys for the three men didn’t deny they dealt drugs, but they downplayed the amounts involved and the coordination among them, arguing the men were independent contractors and not part of any conspiracy. The jury didn’t buy it.
With a laundry list of prior felony convictions, the life sentence for Burnell Allen was mandatory under federal law.
Duval dismissed an argument by Allen’s attorney, Sara Johnson, that automatic life for a drug offense amounts to unconstitutional punishment.
“We are the only Western nation that imposes a life sentence without parole for drug offenses,” Johnson pleaded in vain. Duval said that debate was for the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Toomey argued that leniency was unwarranted for the Allens, who were no run-of-the-mill drug dealers. He took note of Briana’s May 29, 2012, fatal shooting, after which a news camera caught a glaring Burnell Allen crouched on a porch with her neck cupped in his left hand.
Toomey urged the judge to acknowledge “the elephant in the room, and that is the death of this man’s daughter. She died because of his drug activity. This (rival) gang, the 110’ers, targeted him that day.”
A state jury in January convicted three members or associates of the 110’ers street gang in Briana’s killing after a trial in which a shackled Burnell Allen refused to answer questions about his daughter’s assailants.
“I want my justice,” he said then.
Briana was killed on a sunny evening in Central City as numerous suspected gang members, Allen family members and children mingled at a birthday party at the home of family matriarch Deloris Allen in the 1200 block of Simon Bolivar Avenue.
Shawanna Pierce, a 33-year-old mother driving a rental car to the Central Business District, took a stray bullet from an AK-47 to the head more than two blocks away and died instantly.
Authorities say the convicted killers, Demond “Lil D” Sandifer, Sam “Lil” Newman and Tyron Harden, were going after Lionel “Lott” Allen and other members of the Young Melph Mafia, a rival gang. Lionel Allen pleaded guilty in the federal case and received a 10-year prison sentence in June.
“This is a lifetime of a gang holding this part of the city in its grip,” Toomey said. “This is your quintessential New Orleans nightmare. That’s what we see: the loss of life, a terrorized neighborhood, people walking around on drugs.”
With one prior conviction, 20 years was the minimum sentence Sonny Allen could have received, though both sides said he turned down a much lighter sentence, refusing to cooperate.
“I’m sorry to the court, my family and my kids,” he said.
Burnell Allen made no statement.
In April, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office dropped a separate state murder charge against Burnell Allen in the killing of a 21-year-old man 11 days after Briana died. Authorities had claimed that Allen was seeking vengeance for his only daughter’s slaying.
That murder charge “was adopted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for their use in the sentencing phase of Allen’s federal prosecution,” DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman said. “Pursuant to the policy of the District Attorney’s Office as well as the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we ceased our prosecution of Allen in that case.”
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