Lila Gioe, wearing a quilted floral nightgown, rose from her chair and pulled her arms behind her back.

She held them there, showing how she pictures her husband’s hands, electrical cord cutting into his wrists, on the side of Judge Perez Drive in lower St. Bernard Parish, on the morning he died 36 years ago. A .357 Ruger was pointed at his head.

Mario Gioe was a co-owner of Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette. He worked the late-night shift at the popular restaurant famous for its huge portions.

He’d been driving his Camaro Z-28 after work, five T-bone steaks wrapped up in the back, before he was executed on Jan. 5, 1983. He was 53.

His wife, now 84 and a sturdy 4-feet-10, howled in broken English and raised two fingers to her forehead, cried “Bullets!” and then bent over, reaching down with one arm in a feigned search for something lost.

It was a pantomime. Two bullets had entered Mario Gioe’s head through the back and came out the front, dropping to the ground. His body was still warm, steam rising from his blood when the first passerby called the Sheriff's Office that cold morning.

“Blood everywhere. He died for nothing! For nothing. He didn’t do nothing,” she shouted, Sicilian curses giving way to English lament.

“Earl Smith literally blew his brains out,” said their daughter, Josie Dardar, sitting nearby.

A photo of Mario Gioe stood on a pedestal in the foyer, but Lila was staring, eyes wide, at a different portrait: a mugshot of the man convicted of killing her husband. The man, then age 37, was staring back with his familiar combed-back hair from a sheet of copy paper.

Three separate juries had convicted him for Mario Gioe’s murder — the first two convictions were tossed out — and three times he received a life sentence, with no chance at parole.

But now Smith, 72 and frail, was up for release under the state’s new “medical treatment furlough” program. The hearing was in three days. Lila Gioe was wavering.

“I’m trying to go. What am I going to do? I feel a pain about my chest. Why come over there? For what?” she said. 

She pressed herself against the edge of the dining room table and began stabbing the mug shot with her index finger.

“He’s going to stay over there!” she said. “Me, I’m sick too!”

'My stomach's churning'

Three days later, Lila Gioe was nowhere to be seen outside Department of Corrections headquarters under an idyllic blue sky in Baton Rouge.

Her health has suffered since the family was notified of the hearing, Dardar said. That was back in January, the 18th to be exact. The date itself was an affront, she said.

It’s the same date authorities booked Smith less than two weeks after her father’s murder, after authorities retrieved a gun in a traffic stop and linked it to the killing.

The hearing for Smith’s furlough was the second on the docket.

“My stomach’s churning already,” Dardar said. “He’s an animal.”

Her daughter, Linda Rosas, was back in the car with Brianna — her daughter and Mario’s great-granddaughter. They were scratching out notes to tell the board about the fallout from his murder on the family. Ten minutes is all they had.

Dardar’s two sons, Timothy and Jonathan, and other relatives were headed there from Madisonville.

The boys, now in their late 30s, don’t remember much of their grandfather, though Timothy said he could still retrieve the smell from the crypt at St. Bernard Memorial Gardens where they regularly played as children.

“Like an old flower,” he said.

Mario and Liboria “Lila” Tommaseo had wed at a church in their native Alcamo on the northern coast of Sicily. Mario was 31. Lila was 25. The union had been arranged, like many between the Gioe and Tommaseo families.

They joined other family members in Louisiana six years later, in 1960, joining brothers and other relatives in the restaurant business and living with their children three blocks from Rocky & Carlo’s.

Saving the state money

It was not entirely clear that Earl Smith wants to leave Angola, the state penitentiary where he’s serving a life sentence for murder — just like all the other inmates who have gone before the Board of Pardons and Parole under the new furlough program.

According to corrections officials, it’s not Smith's call one way or another.

The law setting up the furlough program was part of a historic criminal justice reform package that the Legislature passed in 2017. One of the few pieces that addressed violent criminals, it provides for people convicted of murder to be released to nursing facilities if they have "limited mobility," meaning they are "unable to perform activities of daily living without help."

In making their decision, parole officials can consider factors such as the crime, length of time served, medical condition and risk to the public. And community opposition.

Unlike the measures meant to reduce the prison population nearly across the board by increasing prison time credits for nonviolent offenders, the new medical treatment furlough program was never meant primarily to clear beds.

Terry Schuster of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which advised a state task force that drafted the reform package, said corrections officials pushed for the furlough program as a relief valve for the most expensive, longest-serving inmates who are no longer a threat to public safety.

It would get those inmates, often geriatric, off the state's dime and onto federal Medicaid rolls.

At one point, Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc suggested the program could save the state millions. A projection of the dollar savings was never attached to the reform package, Schuster said, because it was dependent on parole board decisions that were unpredictable.

LeBlanc, though, cited figures showing that the state’s most expensive inmate was costing Louisiana taxpayers more than $1 million a year in medical care.

“At its core, this policy is about a person in need of intensive medical treatment, the setting where they would get that medical treatment and who picks up the bill,” Schuster said.

“It’s different from compassionate release, which is at core about someone who has aged out of their crime-committing years and who no longer poses a threat to the public, regardless of their medical costs.”

Criticism, mostly from victims’ family members, led the Legislature last year to rule out those convicted of first-degree murder from the program, although a few who had already been granted furlough have been grandfathered in.

Aging prison population

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he was unaware of any evaluations of the program thus far. The association, more broadly, was taking a wait-and-see approach to many of the reforms, he said.

Adams said the association’s initial concerns with the program were over who makes the determination of whether inmates are qualified. He agreed that it was a cost-saving measure, more than one designed to free up beds.

And he said that such policies come at a cost.

“There is a common issue in a lot of these changes: When you make changes to what victims were promised in terms of a resolution with the case, that is an issue,” Adams said.

Still, corrections officials note that, particularly with the reforms in sentencing for nonviolent offenders and parole violators, Louisiana’s prison population is expected to age significantly, with the medical bill likely to rise accordingly.

Louisiana has far more inmates serving sentences of life without parole than any other state.

How much Smith, Mario Gioe's killer, is costing the state is uncertain. A Corrections Department spokesman said he could not readily provide an average cost savings estimate for the 10 people granted furloughs so far under the “medical treatment furlough” program since the first grant in March 2018.

Corrections officials have given mixed accounts of whether LeBlanc takes into account the inmate's cost to the state when the medical board forwards a candidate for a furlough to his office for referral to the parole board.

The furlough process is "initiated by the medical staff of the housing institution,” Francis Abbott, executive director of the parole board, said in an emailed statement. “The Committee on Parole does not consider and is not provided any information concerning cost of medical treatment. Public safety is always considered first and foremost.”

If approved by the parole board, Smith would be released to a private, secured nursing home chosen by his family and approved by the state, officials said.

'His condition is terminal'

Gail Guerin, director of crime victim services for the Corrections Department, put it bluntly as she sat with the family beforehand. “They’re moving him out so he can be less of a cost to the institution, basically,” she said.

She had anticipated the first question. The Gioes had supported a second-degree murder prosecution decades ago with the assurance that Smith would spend his remaining days in prison.

“I know what you were told, about the sentence, and the laws have changed. It’s hard. We can’t do anything about that,” she said. “I don’t think they’re looking at it as compassion. They’re looking at the cost savings.”

“It’s just mental torture,” Josie Dardar said.

Smith was a customer at the restaurant, she said. He came in frequently, having moved to Violet at age 22 from New Orleans.

Smith claimed to have received a medical discharge from the Navy and to have worked at various driving and machinist jobs. Neither of two marriages worked out. The first, which ended after eight years, produced a son.

As they walked into the hearing room Thursday, Dardar said the family had almost no information about Smith’s condition, how he landed before the parole board, why he couldn’t just die where he was.

Inside, they spotted Smith on a screen, appearing remotely from Angola in front of the three board members who would rule on his case: Keith Jones, Brennan Kelsey and Pearl Wise.

On the screen, Smith sat at a table alongside a nurse practitioner who explained that he suffers from symptoms of emphysema.

He had a heart attack two years ago and depends on an oxygen tank full-time, she said. Smith is bound to a wheelchair and his breath gets short “even with slight exertion,” including just a few steps.

He receives breathing treatments four times a day, she said.

“His condition is going to be permanent,” she said. “His condition is terminal.”

One member of the parole board panel asked if the nurse thought the care Smith was receiving in prison was inadequate or inhumane.

“Oh no, sir, I don’t believe that,” she said.

The nurse then acknowledged that the primary benefit of release for Smith would be allowing him to live out his dying days closer to family members, a few of whom sat behind him.

“This is my father, and you know, he really is a good person,” said a daughter when it was her turn to speak. “I’m just hoping you take it in your heart to consider his illness and for him to come home to die.”

As she turned from the podium and passed Smith, she said, “I love you.”

'He is where he belongs'

Smith was asked what he had to say about the opposition that had mounted against his furlough, given the severity of his crime. At the family’s request, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy had written a letter in opposition.

The St. Bernard Parish District Attorney’s Office also had lodged its opposition. Assistant District Attorney Mike Morales asserted during the hearing that the victims “were told life means life” and that Smith’s condition didn’t seem “all that bad.”

Smith said he had nothing to say about the family’s grief or the public opposition.

“I’m sorry somebody died in this case, but I can’t tell you anything about it. I wasn’t there,” he said. “I didn’t commit this crime.”

Later, Josie Dardar got up to speak, trembling.

Her father “was found face down in his blood, robbed and murdered, discarded like a piece of garbage,” she said. “I remember the bullet through the temple … I remember that look he died with.”

She remembers the putty used to plaster the holes in the back of his head.

The panel retreated to a back room before returning with their decision: no.

Smith was the seventh candidate rejected for a medical furlough. Pearl cited the opposition by law enforcement and the family. Jones, while insisting he gave no weight to Kennedy’s letter or the crime itself, said proximity to family wasn’t enough of a reason for release. Kelsey concurred based on public opposition.

The board has approved 10 of 17 referrals under the program, rejecting the rest.  Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick said that was a sign the vetting process, through the parole board, was working.

Smith headed back to the prison facility where he lives. Gioe’s family left the building bewildered.

Timothy Dardar said seeing the man convicted of killing his grandfather brought up a range of emotions “from hate to anger to even sympathy.”

“He is where he belongs,” he said afterward.

Mostly, the family still had questions.

“Is that it?” Timothy Dardar asked corrections officials as they stepped out of the hearing room. “We’re just hoping this is it.”

Smith is eligible to come up again under the furlough program in two years.


Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.