Mistrial ruling in Mardi Gras slaying case overturned

Akeem O. Gailes
Akeem O. Gailes

An appellate court late Thursday overturned a state district judge’s ruling granting a mistrial in a second-degree murder case after the defendant briefly escaped from custody in the Iberville Parish Courthouse.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said Akeem O. Gailes, 27, 23760 Bourgoyne St., Plaquemine, was able to evade authorities for 20 minutes after he jimmied the courthouse’s third-floor holding tank lock during the trial’s luncheon recess.

Gailes is on trial for second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Dewayne Milton Smith, 27, of White Castle, on Feb. 19, 2012, during a Mardi Gras parade in Plaquemine. Investigators accused Gailes of shooting Smith when the two got into an altercation at the Plaquemine Community Parade.

The excitement surrounding Gailes’ escape from the courthouse led Judge William Dupont to declare a mistrial when court reconvened after the defendant’s capture.

But in a ruling handed down about 9:30 p.m., the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Dupont’s decision, saying the “trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion for mistrial.”

Stassi attributed Gailes’ escape from the courthouse to a combination of human and mechanical error.

“The video shows that the bailiff brought him to the holding tank and locked the door after we broke for lunch,” Stassi said, adding that Gailes “said he used a piece of cardboard to jimmy part of the lock.”

Gailes fled the courthouse on foot but was found by authorities 20 minutes later, hiding three blocks away under a house on Clay Street.

“We set up a perimeter, found him, and had him back at the courthouse before the lunch break ended,” Stassi said.

The judge’s ruling did not sit well with the parish’s District Attorney’s Office, which asked the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal on Thursday afternoon to overturn Dupont’s decision.

“We think it sets a bad precedent,” Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton said. “He should not be allowed to create a situation for a mistrial. So what now? If a defendant doesn’t like the way their situation is going during trial proceedings, they can escape and get awarded a mistrial?”

Clayton added, “The court should not have to spend thousands of dollars of the taxpayers’ money to try him again.”

The jury was held at the courthouse pending a decision by the appellate court.

In the meantime, Stassi said, Gailes was returned to the Iberville Parish Jail and booked with escape in connection with Thursday’s jailbreak.

The sheriff said deputies were looking into what specific factors made it possible for Gailes to make good his escape from the courthouse.

“We’re going to get a locksmith to see what’s wrong with the lock,” Stassi said. “As far as I know, that lock is old and has been on that door since the courthouse was built. I’m not trying to take any of the blame off my men, we just want to find out what caused it and prevent it from happening again.”