Marigny shooting case hinges on self-defense law

Merritt Landry
Merritt Landry

Louisiana has its own version of the “stand your ground” law that got so much attention last year after neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a Florida town.

The state’s law also embraces the “castle doctrine,” a centuries-old legal principle that grants people the right to legally protect their property — homes, cars, businesses — from intruders.

But some lawyers and legal experts said neither of those provisions seem to fit in the case of 33-year-old Merritt Landry, who was booked last week on an attempted murder count in the shooting of 14-year-old Marshall Coulter in his front yard.

If Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office decides to charge Landry, the case boils down to a simple argument over self-defense: Whether Landry could reasonably have felt himself in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm when he fired at Coulter, lawyers said.

Coulter reportedly jumped a gate into Landry’s Faubourg Marigny yard in the early morning hours of July 26. Landry, an inspector with the Historic District Landmarks Commission, told police he approached the boy “from his front yard, near his vehicle. As he grew closer, the victim made a thwarted move, as if to reach for something. At that time, Landry fired one shot, striking the victim.”

A witness, unnamed in the brief police account, gave a conflicting account, though the report doesn’t describe the difference.

Just what “thwarted move” means, or what Coulter did, is unclear. But the report says police found a single, spent shell casing some 30 feet from the boy’s blood — about the span from Landry’s back door to the gate.

That distance suggests Landry wasn’t in a “stand your ground” situation, and it may complicate his case for self-defense, local defense attorney Craig Mordock said.

“This is far worse than Zimmerman for the defendant. If Zimmerman had these facts, I think he would have been convicted,” Mordock said. “If you’re 30 feet away, are you under a threat of imminent harm? Remember, Trayvon Martin is on top of Zimmerman.”

According to police, Coulter was not armed.

Even though Florida’s broad “stand your ground” law — which allows a person on the street to meet force with force, without a duty to retreat — was much discussed before Zimmerman’s trial, it ended up playing a relatively minor role in the actual trial. It was referenced by the judge during instructions to jurors, but Zimmerman’s attorneys presented a standard self-defense case, trying to show their client was in fear of great bodily harm or death at the moment he fired his gun.

The legal case against Landry will pivot in part on whether Coulter survives. He remained hospitalized last week with a gunshot wound to the head. A spokesman at Interim LSU Hospital said he couldn’t provide Coulter’s condition without his mother’s approval. An attempt to reach her last week was unsuccessful.

Should he survive, his possible testimony or just his presence in a courtroom could favor prosecutors seeking to sway a jury against Landry. Also, if he dies, the burden of proof shifts to the state to prove that Landry wasn’t acting in self-defense, lawyers said.

“It shifts everything,” said attorney Donovan Livaccari, a former NOPD officer who often represents police officers. “You can’t use deadly force to protect property. You’re not going to have a justifiable homicide that was solely for the purpose of protecting property. You have to have an imminent threat of death or bodily harm.”

“It’s all based on the perception of the homeowner and what a reasonable person in similar circumstances would think,” he added. “The yard seemed pretty small. It may be easier to make the argument. If he lived on an acre of land, there’s a big difference.”

But Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino said the benefit to Landry, should Coulter not survive, isn’t clear-cut.

“It’s mixed bag. If the kid doesn’t die, then (Landry) is going to bear the burden of proving self-defense. If the kid does die, than the state has the burden of proving it wasn’t. Look at the George Zimmerman case. Jurors thought he was guilty, but didn’t think the state proved it. It makes a difference,” Ciolino said.

He added, however, that under Louisiana law, any possible defense-of-property argument goes away if Coulter dies.

“If the kid does not die, he can conceivably argue defense of his property. Of course, the force has to be reasonable and necessary, and he still has a problem there.”

Bottom line, said Ciolino, “in either event his best defense is going to be self defense.”

But Landry’s possible defense of property argument remains problematic.

Under the state’s castle doctrine, the use of force is justifiable to stop an intrusion, but wouldn’t apply if Coulter didn’t actually break into Landry’s house or car, for instance.

Castle doesn’t include the “curtilage” — that is, the surrounding area, Ciolino said.

In other words, it may not matter legally that Coulter jumped the gate to enter Landry’s property.

“Under a legal analysis, jumping the fence is not enough to shoot the guy. What (Landry) did was the equivalent of shooting a guy on the street,” Mordock said. “But I don’t necessarily know that a jury’s going to agree with that.”

LSU criminal law professor Raymond Diamond argued the castle doctrine is a legal relic in Louisiana, made moot by the state’s stand your ground law.

“A jury might be more sympathetic to him because he was at home with a wife and a child on the way and it was the middle of the night. I just don’t know. But the Castle Doctrine has no application here because this is a stand your ground state,” Diamond said. “The fact he was at home or not when this happened doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

If he can’t show he had a reasonable fear that warranted shooting Coulter, Louisiana law could treat Landry more harshly than other states. Unlike the penal code model used in many states, Ciolino said, if Landry made a mistake in assessing the threat from Coulter, or the amount of force needed to stop it, he could face a murder charge based on his negligence, instead of negligent homicide.

Michael Kennedy, one of Landry’s attorneys, declined to speculate.

“It’s way too early in the case to start talking about strategy or the case facts,” he said. “We have a long road ahead of us and lots of avenues to pursue. We’re not going to start tipping our hand this early in the game.”

In the meantime, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office declined to comment on the case or when the office intends to make a decision. Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman saying the office had not yet received a police report, which he said was not unusual.

The office has until Dec. 23 to make a decision.

Landry, the son of former St. Bernard Justice of the Peace Larry Landry, remains free on a $100,000 property bond.