Deadline for DA to act on Merritt Landry case is near, but meaningless

Prosecutors have until Dec. 22 to charge him

Four and a half months since a single shot fired on Mandeville Street set off a debate over citizens’ rights to defend themselves against New Orleans’ tide of violent crime, the criminal case at the center of the controversy remains stalled.

Merritt Landry, a Marigny homeowner who shot an unarmed 14-year-old named Marshall Coulter who had climbed over Landry’s gate in the middle of the night, has not been charged by the district attorney despite a quickly approaching deadline.

Louisiana law gives the district attorney 150 days to charge a criminal defendant who has been booked with a felony and is out of jail on bond. That time limit expires Dec. 22.

But, legally, it means little for Merritt Landry.

His attorney, Kevin Boshea, describes the deadline as a “paper tiger” — a meaningless time clock often misunderstood by the public.

If Landry is not charged by the deadline, his $100,000 bond obligation would be erased. He would become formally a free man, unencumbered by bail restrictions, but with a pending attempted-murder arrest still simmering on the back burner.

“It doesn’t mean much at all,” Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor, said of the deadline. “I’m sure they’re rather do it deliberately than quickly.”

The true deadline, after which the state can no longer bring charges against Landry, does not arrive for six years. The district attorney could, in theory, do nothing until 2019.

“The case remains under investigation,” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. “We believe it’s more important to make the right decision than a quick decision.”

Bowman would not say if the office intends to charge Landry, or what he might be charged with.

For those pushing for Landry to be prosecuted, the delay represents more than caution by the DA’s Office.

Mike Howell, a member of the group Justice for Marshall Coulter, pointed to the “sweetheart” bond deal Landry was offered within hours of his arrest.

Landry is the son of well-connected St. Bernard Parish politicians. They are friends with Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, who represented Landry’s brother when he was picked up a decade ago during a Chalmette drug sting.

Zibilich circumvented the typical bonding process and secured Merritt Landry’s release from Orleans Parish Prison on a $100,000 property bond, a paperwork process that usually takes days as a defendant sits in prison. But Zibilich did not require Landry to actually sign over the property right away, meaning Landry got out of jail on nothing but a promise to return.

Cannizzaro’s office challenged Zibilich’s decision and pushed him to require a proper bond, but Landry’s family produced the property deed to secure the bond.

‘Show of good faith’

Howell noted that Landry was immediately given a break in the court system. Charging him within the legal time frame would be a “show of good faith” that the district attorney does not intend to give him any more breaks, Howell said.

“It sends a message that all life is valuable; it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, black or white,” Howell said.

Further delay would be “unacceptable,” he said.

Earlier this month, Coulter, the youth Landry shot, underwent the latest in a string of surgeries to have a plate put in his head. His family declined to talk about his condition.

Landry, meanwhile, returned to his job at City Hall. He has a new baby. His life has resumed, despite the possibility of spending decades in prison if he is charged, tried and convicted.

“All you have to do is take off your shoes and put his on and imagine how he’s feeling,” Boshea said. “It’s difficult to get happy, when you’ve got this thing hanging over your head.”

Landry, an inspector with the Historic District Landmarks Commission, was put on emergency suspension without pay the day he was arrested, July 26.

Civil service rules limit the number of unpaid suspension days to 120, and Landry returned to work Nov. 23, according to civil service records. He was assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said in a prepared statement.

Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, would not say what would happen with Landry’s employment if the district attorney brings charges against him.

Boshea said his client’s reinstatement is proof that the city is on Landry’s side of the debate.

“It tells me that the city administration is behind Merritt. They know what a great guy he is,” Boshea said. “They understand the difficult decision he faced with one second to make the right call.”

Gamble declined to respond to Boshea’s suggestion that the city has taken sides.

The shooting

Landry’s wife was pregnant, due in days, on July 26.

Around 2 a.m., Landry woke up, got his gun and went outside his home on Mandeville Street. Boshea said he heard someone rattling the shutters.

The teenager had climbed over his iron gate. Landry discovered him in the driveway.

He told police that Coulter made a “thwarted move, as if to reach for something,” according to court records.

Landry fired at him from 30 feet away, his arrest warrant says. The bullet hit the youth in the head.

Coulter’s family at the time conceded that he was “a professional thief.” But he was not armed, and another witness contradicted Landry’s version of the event.

The community divided. Some held rallies in support of Landry, and by extension in support of all people tired of crime in the city who take the law into their own hands. The other side questioned how threatened Landry should have reasonably felt by a 14-year-old who was 30 feet away.

New Orleans Police Department detectives fell into the latter camp. Coulter, they wrote, “was not posing an imminent threat to Merritt Landry.” They booked Landry with attempted second-degree murder, punishable by 10 to 50 years in prison.

State law lays out deadlines for the district attorney to charge a suspect. The deadline is far more important to defendants who can’t post bond and remain in jail awaiting trial. When the time runs out, if a judge doesn’t extend the deadline, a defendant can walk out of jail.

The state’s deadline to charge Landry is next Sunday, and the grand jury will meet Thursday for the last time before that date.

However, Landry is not facing a charge that must be decided by a grand jury.

State law forces the district attorney to present every case to a grand jury when the punishment is life without parole — i.e., in cases of murder, aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping. Attempted murder doesn’t fall in that category.

So the District Attorney’s Office could opt to file charges independently, without getting an indictment.

If it does not do so this week, that $100,000 bond deal arranged by Zibilich could be erased. It now requires only that Landry keep out of trouble and remain in the state.