When a 20-year-old convicted armed robber was forced onto a New Orleans witness stand Thursday to testify against his alleged accomplice, former Tulane University football star Trent Mackey, he added some bustle to the already-contentious trial. The robber invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and the trial stalled for hours as an appeals court was consulted, until finally his defense attorney was held in contempt and sentenced to spend 24 hours in Orleans Parish Prison.
The commotion started early on the third day of an armed robbery trial against the all-star linebacker, and did not subside all day. Lawyers traded barbs with each other, the judge reprimanded both sides and, in an unusual twist, the defense called the defendant’s father to testify to his son’s good character and admonish the criminal justice system.
Prosecutors allege that Mackey orchestrated a plot to rob a woman at gunpoint in her Broadway Street apartment on July 12, 2012. He set up a fake deal with a known drug dealer, they say, then conspired to have two other men rush in, point a gun to her face and steal $600 worth of marijuana.
But Mackey’s defense attorneys describe their client as a star athlete on his way up who fell victim to shoddy police work and prosecutors looking to make their mark with a high-profile conviction of a football star.
He has two co-defendants — 19-year-old Julian Haynes and 20-year-old Robert Murray — the two men who allegedly burst into the apartment with a gun. Hayne’s case remains pending. Murray stood trial last month, testified in his own defense and was found guilty of armed robbery and conspiracy. He has yet to be sentenced.
Murray declined to testify against Mackey, citing his pending sentencing and appeal, and his constitutional protection from implicating himself in a crime.
Prosecutors implored Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson to force Murray to testify. She at first agreed, then changed her mind and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal took the issue up on Thursday morning.
The appeals court decided that Murray could be forced to testify, since he’d taken the stand during his own trial and then waived his right against self-incrimination.
But his attorney, Martin Regan, fought back, saying he would advise his client to keep his mouth shut.
“I will hold him in contempt, and I will hold you in contempt,” Landrum-Johnson threatened.
Regan responded by saying he would give up his law license before allowing his client to take the stand.
“This is totally unconstitutional,” he said, calling the ruling a “clear mistake.”
But Landrum-Johnson would not allow Regan to argue his case and chastised him repeatedly for interrupting her. Then she held him in contempt of court and sentenced him to spend 24 hours in jail.
Ultimately Murray took the witness stand and answered every question asked of him.
His initial statements to police proved imperative to prosecutors. He’d given a taped confession to detectives, describing how Mackey coordinated the invasion: “He said for the guys to come in and take everything and that would be it.”
He and Mackey did not know each other well. When he was arrested and got to Orleans Parish Prison, he called his mother from the recorded jailhouse phone.
“Dude set it up,” he told her, adding “Dude went to Tulane.”
His mother asked him for the name of the man:
“Trenton Richardson,” he suggested. Or maybe, “Trenton Mackafie.”
But he testified Thursday that he was lying, both to the detective and to his mother.
The detective tricked him into lying about Mackey, he said. The detective told him that Mackey had pinned the crime on him, and he’d be let go if he turned on Mackey.
He said Thursday that he only drove two people to the woman’s apartment on the 600 block of Broadway and had no knowledge that an armed robbery was planned. He waited in the car, he said, until both men walked casually back outside with nothing but the backpack full of pot.
Prosecutors Lindsay Truhe and Karen Lansden pointed out that Murray had made multiple conflicting statements over the course of the investigation and two trials. The victim testified Wednesday that she chased her robbers away and down the street. Murray testified that he saw no such thing, and defense attorneys have suggested that she stayed inside and cleaned up the evidence of her drug operation before police arrived.
The victim, a former member of Tulane’s dance team named Megan Wales, acknowledged from the witness stand Wednesday that she sold pot, but insisted she was a benevolent drug dealer, only doing occasional favors for friends for little profit. Mackey’s defense attorneys have painted her as a drug king pin who dealt large amounts of high-end marijuana imported from California. She and Mackey worked together at an Uptown lounge, smoked together a few times and had arranged for Mackey to buy a quarter-pound of pot from Wales.
Mackey, his attorneys have repeated, is a talented football star from a good family, who started hanging with a bad crowd and made some bad choices that ruined his life.
It is unusual for defense attorneys to put their client’s character on trial. When defense attorneys call witnesses to espouse the virtue of a defendant, prosecutors are entitled to introduce contradictory evidence: prior arrests or records they would be otherwise be forbidden from showing a jury.
Defense Attorney Richard Kohnke called Mackey’s father, Trent Mackey Sr., to the witness stand.
“Is there something that you think is important about your son’s make-up and character?” he asked him.
Mackey Sr. answered that his son is an honest boy from rural Plaquemines Parish, humble in the face of potential football fame.
He also bashed the prosecutors and police, calling the detective absurd and insisting his son is the victim of a “malicious prosecution.” He singled out the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case as a particularly corrupt member of the city’s criminal justice system.
Because his character was at issue, prosecutors were able to bring up past indiscretions. Mackey started his college football career at Duke University in North Carolina, but was dismissed in “violation of team standards,” prosecutors said. He and some others jumped another man in September 2008 and broke his phone so he couldn’t call the police to report it, they said. He was excused, though his father testified that he left on his own volition, and joined the Tulane University football team.
The trial continues Friday with closing statements.