When a Marigny homeowner snuck out the side entrance of the courthouse Tuesday afternoon, free for the second time on a bond deal secured by a judge and close family friend, he turned what had been a mild-mannered debate into a firestorm.
“He got a get-out-of-jail-free card,” one activist said Wednesday, surrounded by a dozen others who gathered outside the local office of the NAACP to lament what they believe is evidence of a justice system perverted by favoritism and inequality.
Merritt Landry was set free hours after he allegedly shot an unarmed teenager who’d climbed over his gate in the early morning on Friday.
His release was secured by Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, a family friend who twice worked as a defense attorney for Landry’s brother. But that release on Friday was improper, as Landry remained free all weekend without sufficient paperwork filed.
The shooting led some to worry that the city was sitting on a powder keg. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, some black activists grew anxious that the incident would similarly divide this city. But the shooter was arrested, a gathering for peace was organized by a small activist group and the controversy remained mild.
Until news spread Tuesday that Landry, the well-connected son of St. Bernard Parish politicians, had received an allowance that shocked even some criminal courthouse veterans: Zibilich swooped in before he ever had a hearing and let him postpone the paperwork legally required to put up a property bond. Merritt Landry walked out of Orleans Parish Prison on a mere promise to return.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a news conference Wednesday afternoon, calling for an investigation into the judge’s actions.
“Justice has got to be blind, or it’s not justice at all,” said Danatus King, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Landry, who works as a building inspector for the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission, was at his home on Mandeville Street in the Faubourg Marigny around 2 a.m. Friday with his toddler and his pregnant wife, who is due to give birth in days.
Marshall Coulter, 14, climbed over the gate that separates the street from Landry’s front door. Landry discovered him in the driveway.
Landry told officers that as he approached, the boy made a “thwarted move, as if to reach for something,” according to the New Orleans Police Department arrest warrant. Landry fired at him from about 30 feet away, the warrant says.
The bullet struck the teenager in the head. He remains in critical condition.
The police department determined that Coulter “was not attempting to enter the residence” and “was not posing an imminent threat to Merritt Landry.”
Landry was booked with attempted second-degree murder. If the district attorney decides to pursue the charges and Landry is convicted, he faces 10 to 50 years in prison.
Criminal defendants typically appear before a magistrate judge to have a bond set. But Landry was allowed to skip that step — and several others that defendants are legally required to follow.
Zibilich called in his bond at $100,000 and allowed Landry to leave jail without providing the property documentation that takes at least two days to secure. He remained out of jail on the faulty bond all weekend, only to return to court Tuesday after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro made an issue of the bond irregularities.
After the District Attorney’s Office signed off on the paperwork brought to court, Landry was allowed to sneak out the side door usually served for jurors or employees to avoid the television cameras lined up at the courthouse steps.
“For many in our community, the reported actions of Judge Zibilich have destroyed the trust and confidence that ‘blind justice’ will be applied in the case of the shooting by Mr. Landry,” the NAACP wrote in a release Wednesday.
Zibilich has declined to comment further on his decision.
He is admitted friends with Landry’s parents, both longtime politicians in St. Bernard Parish.
As a defense attorney before he was elected judge, Zibilich also represented Landry’s brother in state court in 2004, then again in federal court in 2007. Maxwell Landry pleaded guilty both times to drug charges.
The NAACP on Wednesday issued a statement, calling for various agencies to investigate the propriety of Zibilich’s involvement in Merritt Landry’s case.
But the judge is not technically attached to it.
All criminal defendants are at first routed through magistrate court, where their case is overseen by a magistrate judge or commissioner. Only once the district attorney decides to pursue formal charges — either through a grand jury indictment or bill of information — is the case assigned to a Criminal District Court judge.
If Landry is charged, his case will be randomly allotted based on the date of the offense.
Tracie Washington, president of an organization called the Louisiana Justice Institute, said at the NAACP news conference Wednesday that she understands that Landry has a child and pregnant wife at home. But so do a lot of others who pass through the courthouse without special consideration.
“That jail is filled with people with extenuating circumstances,” she said. “Join the club. You can’t have a double standard.”
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