gavel

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court churns through thousands of defendants a year, and the vast majority plead guilty within a few months of being charged.

But one defendant, Timrek Andrews, refused to take a plea deal. He refused for four years. And because of multiple delays by prosecutors, his defense attorney said, he also couldn't get his day in court.

Those delays have now led the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to uphold a lower court's decision to dismiss the case, agreeing on Wednesday with the lower court that prosecutors violated Andrews' right to a speedy trial.

“To condone prolonged and unjustifiable delays in this case would both penalize defendant for the state’s fault and ‘simply encourage the government to gamble with the interests of criminal suspects assigned a low prosecutorial priority,' ” the judges said, quoting from another court ruling.

The panel said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office engaged in “prolonged and unjustifiable delays” in the case of Andrews, who was accused of obstruction of justice and other crimes. 

Prosecutors said they were unready to proceed on 14 separate trial dates until a judge dismissed the case in September 2017, according to the majority opinion written by Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins and joined by Judge Terri Love.

In a statement issued through his attorney, Andrews — who has been free on bail most of the time while the legal maneuvering has proceeded — said he felt vindicated.

“They had seven different prosecutors in charge of my case over four years, trying to make me plead guilty to a crime I didn’t do,” Andrews said. “I feel like they were trying to send a message that if you don’t plead guilty and help them make their stats look better, they’re going to use every dirty trick they can to punish you.”

Cannizzaro pledged to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, citing a “very strong dissent” by Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano. In her dissent, Lobrano said the lower court judge should have given the latest new prosecutor on the case more time to prepare a response to the motion for a speedy trial.

The case's ending is unusual in a court where 85 percent of the 2,939 cases that were concluded last year ended with the defendant pleading guilty before a trial, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Andrews' troubles began on Oct. 15, 2013, when he was pulled over in a traffic stop in Algiers for a broken driver's side mirror.

Police said that when Andrews, now 38, stepped out of his car, he pulled a clear plastic baggie containing an “off-white powder substance” out of his pants and put it in his mouth. The cops began struggling with Andrews and then placed him under arrest.

Andrews maintains that he was racially profiled, beaten and arrested on “fabricated” charges. The arrest happened before the New Orleans Police Department began requiring officers to wear body cameras.

In December 2013, prosecutors brought charges against Andrews in Municipal Court, rejecting a count of felony obstruction of justice (for putting the baggie in his mouth), but accepting one misdemeanor count of resisting an officer and two counts of battery of a police officer.

The case lingered through continuance after continuance until September 2015, according to the 4th Circuit. Most of the delays were requested by the state, but Andrews also missed one trial date.

In October 2015, prosecutors shifted tactics. They charged Andrews in a new bill of information in Criminal District Court, adding a felony count of obstruction of justice to the misdemeanor counts.

Andrews missed his first trial date in Criminal District Court in September 2016. But after that, the delays were all on the District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors requested and received continuances at schedule trial dates in January, March, May and July 2017.

Andrews continually refused to accept a plea deal.

Finally, at a September 2017 trial date, defense attorney Thomas Frampton moved to quash the charges on the basis that Andrews had been denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

The prosecutor said the case was new to her, so she would need more time to prepare a response. She also repeated a longstanding offer from the District Attorney’s Office: Andrews would receive no jail time if he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors.

But once again, Andrews refused to take the deal. Ad Hoc Judge Donald Johnson decided that over the course of four years, prosecutors should have been able to prepare for what might have been a one-day trial.

“How long do you keep the fish on the hook before you bring him in the boat?” Johnson asked.

The District Attorney’s Office appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit. But in the ruling issued this week, the majority voted to uphold Johnson's action. It noted that while the case lingered, prosecutors three times offered Andrews deals to plead guilty to misdemeanors.

“Thus, it appears from the record that the state’s interest in securing a guilty plea surpassed its interest in preparing this case for trial or providing defendant with a speedy trial,” the judges said.

Up until shortly before the final trial date in September 2017, the state claimed that it was ready for trial. But when it came time to proceed, prosecutors once again punted, the judges said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432