Court OKs bond for homeowner accused of shooting teen

A Marigny homeowner accused of shooting an unarmed teenager was stranded at the New Orleans courthouse for hours on Tuesday, as attorneys scrambled to make good on a sweetheart bond deal that let him walk out of prison Friday with nothing but a promise to return.

Outside of the courthouse, 33-year-old Merritt Landry remains silently in the center of another, noisier debate. Some believe him a George Zimmerman-esque character, too quick to pull the trigger on an unarmed black teenager.

Others — his friends, his neighbors, even the Criminal District Court judge who let him out of jail hours after the shooting — describe him as a generous, law-abiding man from a good family.

In a city with rampant rates of violent crime, on a block plagued by thieves and vandals, some believe that the single shot he fired Friday morning on his property was totally within his rights to defend himself and his family.

“He didn’t ask for this situation to be put upon him, he wishes none of this would have happened,” said his lifelong friend T.J. Willis. “But when you wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and there’s a kid out there trying to break in, it’s a split-second decision that has to be made.”

On the other hand, 14-year-old Marshall Coulter remains in critical condition, possibly with permanent brain damage, lying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Friends and family over the weekend emphasized that while he’d had scrapes with the law, Coulter was an essentially good kid who had struggled with family traumas.

Landry’s family is of some renown in St. Bernard Parish, where both his parents have served in elected office as justices of the peace and his dad once ran a close race for sheriff. They are also friends with Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Franz Zibilich.

“They’ve lived in this community forever, they’re nice people,” Zibilich said Monday. “They’re the sort of family, they’re going to stay close.”

Within hours of Landry’s arrest on Friday, Zibilich secured his release from Orleans Parish Prison on a $100,000 property bond. Only he did not require the defendant’s father, former Justice of the Peace Larry Landry, to actually sign over the property right away.

The legal process could have taken days, leaving Landry stuck in prison. So Zibilich took the Landrys’ word that they would return this week to provide the proper paperwork.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office called foul, and the parties reconvened Tuesday to allow Landry’s family to provide documentation of a legitimate bond. They met privately in Zibilich’s chambers for 20 minutes.

Ultimately, Landry was allowed to await Cannizzaro’s decision on whether he should be charged for the shooting as a free man.

Landry graduated from Holy Cross School in 1998. He played football, then returned several years later to coach freshmen, according to his civil service file with the city.

In between, he went to the University of Southern Mississippi for two years.

He returned to New Orleans, worked odd jobs for family friends and started his own construction company, according to the file.

He was hired by the city in July 2007 as a building inspector for the Historical District Landmarks Commission.

He fell in love with old buildings, and the charm of the Faubourg Marigny, Willis said. He decided he wanted to live there.

In December 2007, he bought a modified red shotgun house in the 700 block of Mandeville Street, with a high iron gate separating the street from his front door.

He was there around 2 a.m. Friday with his 2-year-old daughter and his wife, who is pregnant and due to give birth in days, his friends said. They were all sleeping.

Coulter and another boy, meanwhile, were caught by a neighbor’s surveillance camera while riding their bikes along the block.

Coulter reportedly climbed over the iron gate. Landry woke up, and discovered him in the driveway.

Landry told officers that as he approached, the boy made a “thwarted move, as if to reach for something,” according to the New Orleans Police Department’s arrest warrant.

Landry fired at him from about 30 feet away, the Police Department estimated based on the distance between the single spent bullet casing and Coulter’s blood left behind on the pavement.

The bullet struck Coulter in the head.

The boy, at 14, was a “professional thief,” his brother told The Times-Picayune. He’s been in and out of juvenile jail on curfew violations and small-time burglaries. He was one of eight children.

“I really just see him being with the wrong crowd, trying to fit in with the wrong people,” said Clarissa Keller, who lived with Coulter and his family at a home on Elysian Fields. “He’s not crazy, he’s not stupid — he’s just a follower. Now he’s got a big hole in his head.”

Landry’s friends and neighbors describe him as a hard-working and kind man, who hosted neighborhood crawfish boils and volunteers his time and his tools to help out the neighborhood. He kept his house tidy, they said. He always said hello.

But the community is under siege with rampant crime, they said. Houses and cars are routinely burglarized. Thieves have even stolen potted plants.

Merritt Landry’s bicycles were snatched, then his scooters.

All people, some said, have the right to protect themselves and their families from the city’s persistent crime.

“I would have done the same thing in a heartbeat, I would not hesitate. I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it,” said Landry’s lifelong friend Maureen Noonan, who lives five blocks from him. “I stand behind him 100 percent.”

But others believe that it went too far, and question why a warning shot, or a call to police, or a fistfight, couldn’t have resolved the problem without potentially deadly violence. It could have been just teenage mischief that ended bloody instead.

The Police Department determined that Coulter “was not attempting to enter the residence” and “was not posing an imminent threat to Merritt Landry.”

He was booked with attempted second-degree murder, punishable by 10 to 50 years in prison.

His supporters created a Facebook page called “Free Merritt Landry,” which had up to nearly 3,000 followers by Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s heartbreaking, it’s nauseating to see this happen to such a good man, a good husband, a good father, from an incredible family,” Noonan said. “In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him be not kind and gracious. No one should have to go through something like this.”

His father, Larry Landry, an insurance agent, was also a justice of the peace who twice ran unsuccessfully for St. Bernard Parish sheriff. In 2003, he came within 115 votes of unseating 20-year incumbent Sheriff Jack Stephens.

He was suspended as a justice of the peace for six months in 2001 for issuing a civil judgment against a man before formally notifying him that he’d been sued, according to news accounts in The Times-Picayune.

He qualified to run again the following year, then his wife, Luann Landry, qualified to run too. He immediately withdrew his name from the ballot.

Luann Landry remains a justice of the peace and they work together out of an office in Chalmette.

Zibilich on Monday said he doesn’t know Merritt Landry well; he’s met him only a handful of times. But he knows his parents and one of his brothers.

A decade ago, Zibilich was the defense attorney for Merritt Landry’s older brother when he was picked up in a Chalmette drug sting, according to news accounts.

Larry Landry at the time of his son’s arrest said Stephens was targeting his family in retribution for his running against him for public office. The son eventually pleaded guilty.

At court on Tuesday, the focus was on paperwork.

Within hours of Merritt Landry’s arrest, he was released from Orleans Parish Prison on a $100,000 property bond before he even had a hearing. A property bond is a mortgage on a piece of property that turns it over to the state as collateral if someone doesn’t show up for court.

Landry remained free all weekend, though his family provided no paperwork or promissory note. His file had only “bail order per Judge Zibilich” handwritten across the top.

“There is a process that exists, and unfortunately that was ignored for some strange reason,” said Christopher Bowman, Canizzaro’s spokesman.

Cannizzaro on Tuesday went to Zibilich’s court to ask that Landry be remanded to jail, citing the illegal bail.

Zibilich’s arrangement was very unusual.

By state law, a person posting a surety bond for an inmate must get a certified copy of the mortgage from Civil District Court that describes the property, its value and formally turns it over as collateral. It is then taken to the court’s bail-processing clerk, who verifies the property’s ownership and equity. The process takes at least two days, and the inmate must wait it out in jail.

But none of that happened in Landry’s case until Monday.

When his family turned in the bonding documents to the court on Monday, the property listed was an address on Burgundy Street, owned by Dutch Properties, a limited liability company owned by Larry Landry, according to Louisiana secretary of state records. The property is worth $310,000, according to assessment records.

But the law specifically requires that a human being, not a company, own the property posted as bond.

His family scrambled on Tuesday to trade titles and arrange the proper paperwork while Landry was holed up in the courthouse, forbidden from leaving the building by Zibilich until the documents were in order.

Once it was determined everything checked out, he was allowed to exit the side entrance of the jail Tuesday evening, avoiding the bank of television cameras and photographers outside on the courthouse steps.