NEW ORLEANS -- The man who plowed a pickup truck into a crowd of parade-goers as the Krewe of Endymion rolled through Mid-City last February pleaded guilty Friday to the remaining charges against him, an unexpected move that provided relief to a number of victims who shared emotional victim impact statements.
“We’re satisfied with that,” Allison Smith Mitchell said minutes after 25-year-old Neilson Rizzuto entered the plea. “Now we’ll see in the sentencing phase how much time he does.”
Rizzuto pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts of vehicular negligent injuring. He previously pleaded guilty to 13 of misdemeanor counts in connection with the crash that injured at least 32 people.
While Rizzuto was set to be sentenced on the misdemeanor counts Friday, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Ben Willard set Rizzuto’s sentencing for all counts on Jan. 12. Willard ordered a pre-sentence investigation to be completed by the sentencing date.
Rizzuto’s guilty plea to the felony charges carry a maximum prison sentence of five years for each count. That gives him exposure to a maximum of 55 years in prison, although judges rarely string together sentences to run consecutively. For a defendant like Rizzuto, a young offender who is taking responsibility for his crimes, any sentences are likely to run concurrent, giving him a possible maximum of five years.
Mitchell said it was important for Rizzuto to hear her story and how he affected not only her, but her family.
“None of us want to see him go away for life, but we do want justice to be served,” she told reporters outside of the courthouse after the hearing. “We want him to do his time for what he’s done to us.”
Faye Thomas Bertrand, another of Rizzuto’s victims, said that since the Feb. 25 crash, she has intense headaches, insomnia and has been diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. “It’s kind of a burden lifted off of us,” she said of the guilty plea.
Police have said Rizzuto's blood alcohol level was .232 when he ran into the crowd, nearly three times Louisiana’s legal limit of .08.
Allison Reinhardt, who was lifted off the ground after Rizzuto hit her with his pickup truck, said she hopes he will share his experience with others to help prevent similar crashes in the future. She also said she hopes Rizzuto will keep in touch with her and the other victims.
“He needs to be connected with us and see these are life-changing decision that you make,” Reinhardt said. “He’s so lucky no one was killed.”
Nanak Rai, Rizzuto’s attorney, said that the guilty plea is his client’s way of accepting full responsibility for his actions that night.
“He’s very sorry for what happened to the victims,” Rai said. “Obviously by taking responsibility and pleading guilty he’s saying ‘I did it, I’m owning up to it, it’s my problem.’ ”
Rai said Rizzuto is open to speaking to others about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. “Obviously he’s in the position he’s in because … of the choices he’s made.”
WWL-TV reporters Duke Carter and Mike Perlstein contributed to this report.