Literary celebrity Zeitoun acquitted of trying to kill ex-wife

An Orleans Parish judge on Tuesday acquitted Hurricane Katrina literary hero Abdulrahman Zeitoun of all charges related to the alleged beating of his wife with a tire iron last year and offering $20,000 to a fellow jail inmate to kill her.

In a brief ruling after a two-day trial, Criminal District Court Judge Frank Marullo declared that the prosecution’s star witness — an inmate who claimed Zeitoun asked him to knock off his ex-wife, Kathy Zeitoun — was not believable.

The judge called Donald Pugh, 43, “a liar,” saying the ex-con and self-proclaimed former thief and drug dealer “has no credibility at all.” Pugh had turned over an envelope to authorities with Kathy Zeitoun’s phone number written on a note inside.

Defense attorneys suggested that he simply was angling for leniency, although Pugh claimed he had already bonded out on a charge that he had swiped a car from his daughter’s mother and made off for Texas.

Marullo said prosecutors in Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office overcharged Zeitoun with counts of attempted first-degree murder and solicitation of murder.

The judge said he was forced to acquit Zeitoun because none of the responsive verdicts — attempted second-degree murder, attempted manslaughter and aggravated battery — were applicable. He said the state should have gone with aggravated assault with a weapon, domestic abuse-battery or aggravated criminal damage to property.

Zeitoun, 55, the protagonist in author Dave Eggers’ acclaimed nonfiction account of post-Katrina injustice, enduring love and perseverance, was accused of pummeling Kathy Zeitoun with a tire iron on Prytania Street a year ago.

According to Kathy Zeitoun’s testimony, he then beat her and tried to strangle her. Later, while an inmate inside one of the temporary Orleans Parish jail tents, he allegedly asked Pugh to kill his ex-wife, setting up a scheme for Pugh to act like a prospective tenant at one of the 10 properties the couple owned across the city.

But defense attorneys J.C. Lawrence and A.J. Ibert argued a different motive: Kathy Zeitoun was in it for the money from the rental properties.

They focused on the fact that after claiming she was beaten severely, she declined an ambulance ride to the hospital and hospital records did not indicate the tire iron beating. An officer who responded to the scene also said he only saw lacerations on her.

“This was a divorce proceeding gone bad,” Lawrence said. “There are two people who share 10 pieces of property and four children. If it was left to Ms. Zeitoun, he would have none of the property and none of the children. That is what this was all about.”

He said there was no dispute that there was a fight, and no dispute that Zeitoun is supposed to stay away from Kathy Zeitoun. He knocked her to the ground and held her there, but didn’t punch or beat her, Lawrence said.

Lawrence, along with a cousin of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Fouad Zeitoun, said that the case would have found itself in Municipal Court if not for Zeitoun’s celebrity from the eponymous book based on his post-Hurricane Katrina travails.

“The book hurt him. It made him a high-profile target,” Fouad Zeitoun said. “I hope he goes home to have a happy life. His plan is to go back to work again. My cousin always, always tries to help people. My cousin is not a murderer.”

“Zeitoun” portrays its main character as a post-Katrina rescuer who shares an uncommon bond with Kathy Zeitoun as they run a business together painting and restoring houses in New Orleans, then gets jailed for nearly a month on a bogus looting charge.

Zeitoun, who is from Syria and not an American citizen, remained jailed Tuesday on an immigration hold, but Lawrence said he was expected to be released soon.

After the judge made his ruling, Kathy Zeitoun was distraught, saying she feared for her safety.

“He’s a repeat offender. There is no way they did not have enough evidence. Part of me feels like the verdict was made before the trial began and it was just for entertainment purposes,” she said. “The man beat me with a tire iron, strangled me and tried to break my neck. If that doesn’t say attempted murder, I don’t know what. Now I’m going to have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life.”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office lamented the ruling, saying prosecutors David Pipes and Lauren Favret “presented a very strong case against the defendant.

“We are extremely disappointed and disturbed by the verdict,” Christopher Bowman said. “The crimes this defendant was accused of were extremely serious and we put on evidence to prove those crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Reached after the verdict, Pugh said his testimony apparently was undone by a criminal past that had nothing to do with the hit offer from Zeitoun.

He said he recalled sitting on his jail bunk, listening to Zeitoun lay out the alleged scheme.

“I was sitting there like, ‘You callous, cold-hearted bastard. Take your lick,’ ” Pugh said. “What I am upset about is, I know the truth. He knows the truth. He and I know the truth.”

Advocate staff writer Claire Galofaro contributed to this story.