NEW ORLEANS -- A 27-year-old New Orleans man pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to five killings in 2007, including those of a New Orleans police officer and a sheriff's deputy.
Steven Hardrick confessed to the killings and agreed to serve 30 years in prison as part of a plea deal.
But the deal isn't quite done, the case not yet closed. U.S. District Court Judge Sarah, amid a chorus of objections from the victims’ families, said she's not sure if she’ll accept it.
In court this morning, more than a dozen family members and friends of the different victims told Vance that a 30-year sentence was not nearly lengthy enough. Some called it a joke, others called it an insult. They made clear, they were not happy with the plea deal.
The killings all took place in October 2007 in eastern New Orleans, where Hardrick ran a drug ring.
Authorities have said Hardrick and others confronted NOPD Officer Thelonious Dukes outside his home early one morning. They forced Dukes inside, demanded money and cocaine, and fatally shot the officer. Duke’s wife was also wounded in the shootout.
In another incident, Hardrick and others set up a drug deal and carjacked, and then killed, David Alford and Brett Jacobs. During that murder, Howard Pickens, a partially blind man, passed by. Hardrick, fearing that Pickens, was a witness, fatally shot him.
Also, Hardrick murdered his friend Dwayne Landry, an Orleans Parish Sheriff's deputy. Hardrick previously stole a gun from Landry.
Vance said she must review the case and a pre-sentencing report before deciding whether to accept Hardrick’s guilty plea, which is predicated on the agreed upon 30-year sentence. If she were to refuse the plea, the case would go to trial.
Vance told the victims’ family and friends that she was not pleased with the take-it-or-leave it deal presented to her. She stressed that she sympathized with their anger and noted she previously handed down a life sentence to the person convicted in her courtroom of multiple killings.
Vance also told attorneys: "What y'all are asking me to do is extremely difficult, if not repellent."
Recent court filings make clear: while the government believes Hardrick is guilty, there are significant issues with the prosecution’s case. Prosecutors cited false confessions, witness credibility issues, and new ballistics evidence that shows at least one other weapon was used in a murder.
“While this 30-year deal is not the justice that the Government had hoped to achieve for the victims, it provides a definitive resolution to a complicated murder and drug case that has serious evidentiary problems,” prosecutors wrote in a memo filed into the court record.
Hardrick's sentencing is set for March 20.
The NOPD had previously arrested two young men – Anthony Skidmore and Chris Dillon – in Dukes’ murder. A state grand jury indicted Dillon, but declined to indict Skidmore. After several years in jail, Dillon took a plea deal in an unrelated homicide. He is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence for manslaughter.
Dillon had possessed Dukes’ gun, which was stolen from his home the night of the killing. Dillon had later purchased it from someone, according to court filings in Hardrick’s case.
Dillon told federal investigators he falsely confessed to Dukes’ murder “as a result of the pressure he was feeling from the police interrogation.” Neither he nor Skidmore were involved in the Dukes killing, according to court documents.