The victims of a brutal mugging last year in the French Quarter had pleaded for mercy to their attackers, but a judge’s leniency had its limits.
Noting that the attack left one visitor from Boston in critical condition, Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras on Tuesday sentenced all four young offenders to years in prison after each pleaded guilty as charged to two counts of second-degree robbery.
Buras said the men might have received longer terms were it not for an avalanche of letters from members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the liberal church holding the convention the victims were attending last June.
“I hope each and every one of you takes as much interest in your future well-being as the victims have, and as the community that appears in court and writes letters on your behalf has,” Buras told the four defendants. “This victim could very well have died if not for the immediate medical treatment that he received.”
Dejuan Paul, the 22-year-old who was accused of punching Tim Byrne of Boston from behind, leaving him in the intensive care unit with brain bleeding, was sentenced to eight years in prison.
As the condition of a tourist seriously injured in a French Quarter robbery last weekend continued to improve, a judge set bail Friday for the…
Rashaad Piper, the 21-year-old who was accused of putting the second victim, James Curran, in a chokehold, received a five-year sentence.
Nicholas Pogozelski, 19, and Joshua Simmons, 19, were accused of rifling through the victims’ pockets for cellphones and wallets. Pogozelski got a five-year sentence; Simmons received three years.
All of the defendants received credit for time served, having been jailed for nearly a year.
The swift ambush carried out by the four men, which was captured in brutal detail by a nearby surveillance camera, aroused national attention.
It happened about 9 p.m. June 24 in the 200 block of Bienville Street. The footage released by police showed Byrne twitching on the ground after the attack as a dazed Curran tried to help him.
Yet Byrne and Curran, computer systems specialists for the Unitarian church, said afterward that they were opposed to stiff penalties for the perpetrators.
Church members appeared at numerous court hearings to show support for the defendants. They emphasized that all four attackers were young, came from troubled backgrounds and lived at Covenant House, a refuge for homeless children and youths.
Defense lawyers raised repeated questions about the mental competence of Paul and Piper, though the judge declared the men ready to stand trial, which was scheduled for Tuesday.
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Byrne wrote an eight-paragraph letter to Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Friday asking prosecutors to consider a different outcome to the case. He said he hoped that prosecutors could opt for a practice called restorative justice, in which perpetrator and victim try to arrive at a reconciliation.
He asked to meet with the young men so that they could discuss the incident and the harm it had done, and he urged the DA to amend the charges so that the defendants would be eligible for probation.
A "harshly punitive approach won’t bring us peace or comfort and, equally important, is unlikely to turn damaged young men into productive citizens,” Byrne said.
“I realize your office has many constituencies to answer to, not just me," he continued. "But acting with the support of high-profile victims like us, with the support of multiple local religious and community organizations, could help New Orleanians see your office as one committed to improving public safety through a variety of approaches and maybe provide a better ending to a sad, horrendous story.”
The lone attacker to speak in court, Paul, apologized for his actions.
“All I can do is say I’m sorry and ensure that it never happens again, and from this day forward, I’m making it my obligation, my goal, to be better from this and come back,” Paul said. “Because I am better than what you see standing before you, in this orange (prison suit) and these handcuffs.”
Although Cannizzaro’s office did not amend the charges, it also made no recommendation to the judge about sentencing. The second-degree robbery charges each carried a minimum three-year sentence.
"We communicated extensively with the victims and weighed their concerns," Cannizzaro said in a statement Tuesday. "But we also had an obligation to our community to see that this attack was met with real consequences for the offenders."
Buras also said she had to balance the wishes of victims like Byrne with the interest of the community as a whole. She noted that Byrne is still undergoing surgeries and suffers from ongoing neurological issues.
“Clearly, probation was not an option for this court, because of what happened to the two victims in this case," she said.
Buras said she hoped that all four young men would take advantage of educational opportunities in prison. She also promised to keep a close eye on their progress once they are released.
Christian Bonin, the lawyer who represented Paul, said he was grateful to the Unitarians and others for writing letters on his client’s behalf.
Michael Kennedy, an attorney who represented Piper, said the case should be a rallying cry for reforms to the criminal justice and social services systems.
“Mr. Piper was failed by his family, the foster system, the state’s abysmal mental health care system and by our archaic test for sanity,” he said in a statement, referring to the standard used to judge whether defendants knew what they were doing was wrong.
“My client received a fair sentence. But in another state he would have been (found) not guilty by reason of insanity. This is not a happy ending.”