Effort to save toddler reduces sentence in kidnapping case

A 35-year-old New Orleans man somehow learned that there would be a drive-by shooting at a Bartholomew Street home one evening last December. So he went there, grabbed a toddler from the house and carried her to safety around the corner.

There was, indeed, a shooting.

But for snatching the 2-year-old girl, Jason Clegg was charged with simple kidnapping.

He pleaded guilty on Wednesday and accepted a 7-year sentence, avoiding the possibility of a lifetime in prison had he gambled on a trial and been sentenced as a habitual offender.

The details of his plea, and the Dec. 19 ordeal, remain murky.

Judge Darryl Derbigny conducted the hearing in an unusual fashion: He held the entire plea proceeding, including a statement from the child’s mother, in his chambers, outside of public view, as Clegg’s family and other onlookers waited in the courtroom gallery.

Hours of negotiations leading up to the plea were also held behind closed doors.

The talks included Clegg’s defense attorney, Benny George, along with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, several assistant district attorneys, the judge, police officers and the child’s mother.

Clegg reportedly agreed to cooperate with the district attorney in the prosecution of the shooting.

George said that his client had information about a previous murder, that of a man he knew only as “Peanut.”

Later, on Dec. 19, 2012, he learned that a drive-by shooting was planned in revenge for that earlier killing, which took place at the child’s house, on the 2400 block of Bartholomew Street.

He went to the house around 8 p.m., according to court records. The child’s mother was away at a social gathering, the records say.

A baby-sitter was watching the girl, and Clegg reportedly told her that the mother gave him permission to take the child.

He got around the corner holding the girl, just as the mother pulled up with a friend, according to court records. She asked for her child back. He refused, and instead told her that if she came with him, he would give her the baby.

George said he wanted the woman, and everybody else in the house, to get out.

“He meant well,” George said. “He only did it for the child’s safety.”

The mother grabbed the child away from Clegg, took her back to the friend’s waiting car and called police.

Christopher Bowman, a Cannizzaro spokesman, declined to comment on the case.

Clegg was scheduled to begin trial Wednesday on a charge of simple kidnapping. A jury had already been seated.

Simple kidnapping is typically punishable by no more than five years in prison.

But Clegg has a lengthy criminal history, including convictions for battery, burglary and several counts of possession of marijuana.

He was facing the possibility of a life sentence without the possibility of parole had he been convicted of kidnapping and sentenced as a four-time felon.

George said Wednesday that was too big a risk, and his client opted late in the afternoon to instead take the deal offered by the state.

Derbigny conducted the entire proceeding in his chambers, behind closed doors, including the mother’s recounting of the event and the impact it has had on the boy and his family.

It’s not clear whether closing the hearing was proper. The Louisiana Constitution mandates that “all courts shall be open.” Various higher courts in the state have over the years clarified the legality of holding hearings in secret.

“The public and press have an enforceable qualified constitutional right of access to attend criminal trials and pretrial proceedings,” the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in 1990.

The same court earlier decided that some proceedings can be held behind closed doors, under certain specific circumstances.

Traditionally, judges close courtrooms for limited purposes, like when a child victim of sexual assault testifies, then reopen the court for the remainder of the proceedings.

But, even in those limited situations, the state’s appeals court have ruled that “the public must be given an opportunity to be heard before closure is ordered.”