Convictions hit-and-miss in Hurricane Isaac looting cases

“I’ll make it really simple,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in the throes of Hurricane Isaac in August. “You loot, you’re getting an orange suit. Everybody ought to be able to understand that really clear.”

The tough talk was followed by police action. New Orleans officers booked 41 people for looting or attempted looting over the course of a hurricane that squatted over the city for days. Most of them allegedly hit convenience stores and other retail outlets in a crime that carries a mandatory three-year minimum prison sentence when committed during a state of emergency.

But at the criminal courthouse, the cases have met with decidedly mixed results.

The largest, involving 10 defendants, is flagging, thanks in part to an NOPD officer’s inability to identify the suspects in court, among other weaknesses in police attempts to build a case in the billowing wind and rain.

Criminal District Judge Laurie White last week threw out the charges against five of the 10 defendants, who were accused of stealing food and drinks from the Magnolia Super Market in the Florida area on the morning of Aug. 29.

In a judge trial, White issued her verdict after hearing from prosecutors with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Canizzaro’s office. After prosecutors rested their case, the judge granted motions by attorneys for the five defendants to toss it with a judgment of acquittal. White did not elaborate on her ruling, noting that the rest of the defendants still await trial.

One major problem, however: Officer Phil Burras, who arrested the 10 suspects and read them their rights, couldn’t identify them in court.

Another: None of the suspects were inside the store when police arrived, although the two vehicles outside the store, where they lingered on the 3200 block of North Galvez Street, held foodstuffs — juice, cheese, ham and liver cheese — that also could be found on the ransacked store shelves.

“There was no credible identification of the people involved,” said Robert Jones, an attorney for one of the acquitted defendants, Shanell Holland, 26.

“There was the issue of statements made, but (the officer) couldn’t identify who made the statement. Nothing was substantiated. You have a case where officers just seized people in the area.”

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, a Cannizzaro spokesman who helped prosecute the case last week, said it points to the challenge of building a case amid a hurricane.

“We are seeing it is very difficult for police to do the (necessary) type of investigative work under those conditions,” Bowman said. “It’s not the same atmosphere you would deal with if there was a business burglary this afternoon. Not only are there multiple calls you have to deal with, but once you’re on scene, there’s definitely a difficulty in collecting evidence.”

Still, Bowman said prosecutors felt they had a good case and would move forward with the other five defendants, beginning with a trial scheduled Wednesday for Toria McDaniels, 36.

His attorney, Craig Mordock, was blunt about his views on the case against McDaniels.

“Either you have the evidence to convict or you don’t, and in most of these looting cases you don’t,” said Mordock, whose client will go before a jury.

Mordock represented another client, Joshua Hogan, 24, who was convicted by a jury in June of attempting to loot a Central City store on Aug. 28. A co-defendant, Timothy Hartford, 28, also was found guilty of the same charge. Both are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday. Hogan faces a potentially lengthy prison sentence not because of the attempted looting verdict, but prior convictions that automatically add years to the time he will serve.

Of the 41 defendants in the Isaac looting cases, five have pleaded guilty as charged, including an attempted looting conviction that landed Dorch Wesby, 41, a seven-year sentence under the state’s habitual offender law. The other four received the minimum three-year sentence under the state of emergency law.

Six others have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, including five misdemeanors, court records show.

In one case, three defendants were accused of stealing candy from a store, but the store’s owners were delinquent on rent and declined to cooperate. The three alleged looters pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and each received credit for time served.

Two have been ruled incompetent to stand trial, Hartford and Hogan were found guilty of attempts, three remain at large and 18 still await trial, court records show.

Some lawyers for the defendants acknowledged that the prosecutions may serve a broader purpose, deterring the kind of looting that has accompanied several hurricanes and ran rampant following Hurricane Katrina.

“When he says he has to stand strong to make an example, I believe him,” said attorney Morris Reed Jr., who described Cannizzaro as the best district attorney the city has seen in decades.

Still, Reed, who represented acquitted looting defendant Darryl Griffith, said prosecutors could come to the table a lot quicker for plea deals when little solid evidence exists.

“It could have been resolved months ago with a trespassing conviction or criminal mischief,” he said. “It wasn’t like they were stealing six packs and bottles of liquor and candy bars. It was sandwiches and bread. It was food to survive.”