As Natasha Allen walked away from the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse Friday, 18 months after her oldest son was gunned down by a New Orleans police officer, she said that she might, finally, find some rest.
Former cop Joshua Colclough admitted Friday that he shot her unarmed son dead, during a botched drug raid that ignited racially charged tensions across the city.
He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and accepted a four-year prison sentence.
Colclough wept. He apologized to Allen for all that he took from her.
And she forgave him. She said it was what her son would have done.
“He was my everything,” she told the court Friday. “He was my superstar.”
Wendell Allen was the oldest of her 11 children, and his siblings admired him. He taught them to be humble and strong. He was the first member of their family to graduate from high school, as a basketball standout, and go on to college.
“He would always, always, say ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry, cause I’m going to be something in life.’ I could sleep at night in peace because I knew I didn’t have to worry about him getting in trouble,” she said. “Now I don’t sleep at night. I don’t get no rest.”
On March 7 of last year, Colclough was among a group of officers who raided her home on Prentiss Street in Gentilly, looking for evidence of drug dealing.
As they marched up the stairs, 20-year-old Wendell Allen appeared at the top of the staircase. He was shirtless, wearing only pants and a pair of sneakers.
He had nothing in his hands, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Friday. He was unarmed.
But Colclough fired his weapon once. The bullet tore through Allen’s chest, into his heart and his lungs. He fell on the landing and died within seconds.
“All of this happened in an instant,” Colclough’s attorney Claude Kelly told the court Friday. “It was a grievous mistake that he made, but it was a split second. In that split second, he made a decision, a dreadful decision, that a lot people will live with for the rest of their lives.”
Allen was black. Colclough is white.
The shooting came amid a national fury over a similar ordeal in Florida.
Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by a Hispanic neighborhood watch leader.
It hit especially hard in New Orleans, a city still reeling from multiple federal trials of police officers accused of unlawfully using lethal force against black residents and then trying to cover up what happened.
Protests and marches were organized to demand transparency in the investigation into Allen’s killing.
Posters were circulated and petitions signed, all titled “Justice for Wendell Allen.”
Kelly told the court that Colclough wept every day. He’s met with a psychologist, and must live with the memory of what he had done.
Colclough, who served four years on the NOPD, resigned from the department Thursday, then asked to meet with Allen’s family for the first time.
Natasha Allen said she felt nothing as she walked into her attorney’s Algiers law office for the meeting. She didn’t expect that the ex-officer might make her like him, or pity him, and she certainly did not anticipate that he would entirely change her opinion of police.
But he did.
Colclough held her hand, she said. He told her he was sorry. He told her that he has, for more than a year, regretted nothing more than that day. They prayed together.
She told him she asked God to have mercy on his soul.
“Josh spilled his heart out, and his guts out,” Kelly said. “The Allen family did the same.”
The attorney said he was “flabbergasted” by the family’s graciousness. In more than two decades practicing law, Kelly said he’s never seen such raw and emotional forgiveness.
Exactly one year earlier, Colclough backed out of a deal to plead guilty to negligent homicide. Allen’s family, expecting some kind of closure that day, left the courthouse in despair.
Colclough on Thursday promised the family that he would not let them down again.
He appeared in court Friday morning to plead guilty and be taken to jail.
But the deal, which had been worked out over a two-week span and included the Allen family’s input, wasn’t without some 11th-hour drama.
Lionel “Lon” Burns, an attorney for the family, balked when prosecutors told Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson that the deal called for a sentence of zero to five years. Attorneys said later it was a matter of miscommunication and too many lawyers in the room.
That prompted hours of backroom discussions among Allen’s mother, her attorney, the DA, Colclough’s defense counsel and the judge.
In the meantime, Natasha Allen grew angry, she said. She worried it would all fall apart again. Colclough largely kept to a back bench of the courtroom gallery in a dark suit and tie, waiting for nearly three hours as the final deal was struck.
It came just before noon.
During negotiations over the past few weeks, Cannizzaro had rejected another deal for Colclough to plead guilty to negligent homicide, which could have seen the officer released earlier because of less stringent sentencing rules for that charge.
“I just could not in all good conscience allow the case to go back to negligent homicide in light of what the family went through” after Colclough backed out of the earlier deal, Cannizzaro said.
Because Colclough is pleading to manslaughter, a crime of violence, he is required to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence. Landrum-Johnson ordered that his sentence begin immediately.
Colclough was shackled in the courtroom, and sat staring blankly ahead. The courtroom was packed with family and supporters for both the defendants and victim. But no NOPD officers were present.
The Colclough and Allen families met briefly in the judge’s chambers, and both groups left weeping.