Attorneys for alleged Uptown crime don Telly Hankton want a federal judge to order prosecutors to hand over the names of witnesses to a 2009 killing in which Hankton allegedly opened fire, then ordered a hit from jail on an eyewitness who was found dead a few weeks later.
Hankton’s attorneys also want several documents, including correspondence between federal prosecutors and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office that might show why the feds are now prosecuting Hankton in a 2008 murder for which he is already serving a life prison sentence.
Federal prosecutors, according to court documents, do not want to divulge the information.
The legal set-to comes eight months after a federal grand jury indicted Hankton, 37, and a dozen family members and associates in a vast racketeering conspiracy, accusing them of running a violent, drug-based crime ring for at least 16 years.
Among those indicted were Hankton’s mother, Shirley Hankton, several cousins and Walter “Urkel” Porter, 37, an alleged hitman for Hankton who is accused of three murders in the 22-count indictment.
Along with Hankton and Porter, three other men — Andre Hankton, Thomas “Squirt” Hankton and Kevin Jackson —could face the death penalty.
The racketeering case has idled in federal court for months, as the five men gather information to lobby the U.S. Department of Justice not to pursue the death penalty.
Their attorneys have until Sept. 13 to lodge any mitigating evidence.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente’s office so far has turned down requests for the names of witnesses to the June 2009 killing of Jessie “TuTu” Reed in a hail of gunfire as the man ate chicken on a porch on Terpsichore Street.
The feds cite “concerns regarding witness security.”
One of Hankton’s attorneys, Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III, argued in a motion filed Wednesday that this rationale isn’t good enough in a case where Hankton’s life is at stake.
Three unnamed witnesses to Reed’s killing identified Hankton as one of the gunmen, according to Lemann.
But another man, Edward Allen, also was identified as a shooter, according to police.
Allen has since been cleared from prosecution. Now, Hankton, Porter and Jackson are named in Reed’s murder.
“And if they misidentified Allen, why not Telly Hankton?” Lemann wrote.
Hankton’s attorneys want U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman to order the feds to turn over “the identity and whereabouts” of all witnesses who identified Allen, among other evidence.
“The defense has an obligation to investigate the case. So in order to properly do that, I have to know the name and the identity of the witness so we can attempt to talk to them,” Lemann said Wednesday.
“Now they don’t have to talk to us, but I have an obligation to investigate.”
Prosecutors argue Hankton or members of his circle have killed at least two people in retaliation for statements made to police or in court testimony.
One witness to Reed’s murder, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, is dead. Williams, who police say identified Hankton, was gunned down in New Orleans East, allegedly by Porter and Thomas Hankton, a cousin of Telly.
Another man who would later testify against Telly Hankton in the 2008 murder of Darnell Stewart was shot 17 times in his home in New Orleans East in December 2010.
Porter, the alleged triggerman, was paid $10,000, the feds claim. The witness’ brother, Curtis Matthews, was fatally shot in October 2011, prosecutors say, also allegedly by Porter in retaliation for the brother’s testimony.
The killings of Stewart and Reed themselves were allegedly in retaliation for the slaying of Hankton’s cousin, George “Cup” Hankton, police and prosecutors have said.
The feds say they have turned over the substance of the witness statements in Reed’s killing, just not their names.
In a letter last week to Lemann, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Quinlan Jr. said the indictment points to “multiple instances where witnesses and family members of witnesses to crimes Telly Hankton has been charged with have been shot and/or killed while those matters were in a pretrial status.”
Lemann also wants communications between the feds and Cannizzaro’s office to learn if the two agencies hatched a plan to double-prosecute Hankton for Stewart’s murder.
The idea: win a second-degree murder conviction first in state court, where a 10-2 verdict was sufficient to send Hankton away for life, then press forward in federal court, where prosecutors potentially benefit from a wider jury pool.
“There is always a potential due process problem in making the guy run the gantlet repeatedly for the same offense,” Lemann said.
The government is arguing the communications Hankton’s attorneys seek are privileged.
Hankton’s attorneys also want information on Desmond Pratt, a former New Orleans Police Department detective who was central to the investigation of Reed’s murder.
Pratt was arrested on suspicion of forcible rape in April on a complaint involving a 15-year-old girl.
He also was a key figure in a 2009 murder case that resulted in a conviction that has since been cast in doubt, after a witness came forward saying he told Pratt that two of the suspects were not the killers, a claim defense attorneys never were told.
The convicted man, Travis Burke, 22, is seeking a new trial. Lemann said federal prosecutors can consider potential problems with their case against Hankton when assessing the death penalty issue.
Pratt, 43, who is out on bond, remains suspended without pay, according to NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden.
Hankton remains at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, serving a life sentence in Stewart’s murder.
Judge Feldman has set a July 10 hearing date on the issue.