James Gill: In-your-face impropriety

You’ll have to take my word for this, but I have known New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Franz Zibilich for many years.

And he is not an idiot.

Why he has chosen to impersonate one so convincingly of late is a question he cannot answer in the press, because judges are not allowed to comment on pending cases. I’m guessing he was hypnotized or someone slipped a foreign substance into his coffee. Otherwise he cannot possibly have believed nobody would notice when he decided to do illegal favors for an attempted-murder suspect.

This was not just any old murder suspect. This was a white guy who shot an unarmed black kid in the head. With the nation still in racially polarized uproar over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida, this case was clearly going to receive minute scrutiny.

The parallels were striking. Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, was not even arrested until weeks after he shot and killed the unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Merritt Landry was taken to jail immediately after grievously wounding Marshall Coulter, 14, but he was out in a jiffy without being required to post bond.

That is unheard of when such a major crime is alleged, and would indeed have been impossible under normal procedure. Suspects generally cool their heels until a magistrate or commissioner holds a hearing, although judges will sometimes intervene and set bond themselves. Either way, suspects have to make bond before they can be released pending trial.

Landry was sitting there on a Friday afternoon when Zibilich imposed himself on the case, setting bond at $100,000. It was to be secured by real estate, for which the law requires documentation. But Zibilich sent Landry home in time for the weekend with a promise to drop the papers off the following Tuesday.

A scrupulous judge would not have stuck his nose into the case even to play it straight. Before he was elected to the bench, Zibilich twice defended Landry’s brother against drug charges and he is friends with both his parents. If Landry’s trial were alloted to him, Zibilich would have to be recused to avoid any appearance of impropriety. There’s no need to fret about appearances here; this is in-your-face impropriety.

When District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro realized that Landry had been given an illicit break, he filed an objection. Zibilich had Landry recalled to the courthouse Tuesday, but he was soon on his way again. Zibilich’s pal, Landry Pere, produced the deed required to secure the bond, leaving the NAACP to howl for blood. Zibilich can hardly be surprised. Judges may show favoritism from time to time, but they are usually more discreet.

He may not have done Landry much of a favor anyway. Landry, a Historic Landmarks Commission inspector who lives in Faubourg Marigny with a young child and a heavily pregnant wife, is obviously no flight risk. He would have gotten out on bond fairly soon anyway, albeit not this lickety-split. He may have been spared a few days’ inconvenience, but the furor over his favored treatment will make for ever-greater tension if he ever comes to trial.

Defendants in noncapital cases are in any case at a disadvantage in Louisiana, one of two states that require only 10 votes to convict, and racial overtones are seldom lost on a New Orleans jury.

Zimmerman’s acquittal under Florida’s “stand your ground” law came courtesy of a jury that consisted of six women, five white and one Puerto Rican. Landry is unlikely to get a jury of such a complexion, but his claim of self-defense is on the face of it more compelling than Zimmerman’s.

Zimmerman killed Martin in the course of a scuffle, whereas Coulter was shot after scaling a fence and entering Landry’s yard at 2 a.m. Given that Coulter, according to his own brother, is a “professional thief,” there can be no doubt he was there with felonious intent.

Landry was not entitled to shoot, however, unless he believed himself to be in imminent danger. He says he did so believe, firing only after Coulter appeared to be reaching for a gun. The cops must have had their doubts, else they wouldn’t have booked him with attempted second-degree murder.

Then Zibilich’s wide acquaintance would not have been left wondering how come he took leave of his senses.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com