NEW ORLEANS -- The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office has officially agreed to review a simple burglary case that ended with one convicted defendant on the street within three years, while his accomplice found himself locked up for life without possibility of parole.
The development was set into motion by a statement from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro in light of information connected to the sentencing disparity.
The information included the fact that two jurors in the case told Eyewitness News – one anonymously, one publicly – that they were shocked by the life sentence and regret their guilty verdicts.
"In light of recent revelations relative to the disparity of sentences between the two defendants in this case, I am in the process of personally reviewing this entire file,” Cannizzaro stated.
Troy Ellis, 50, received the life sentence after being found guilty by a jury in a 10-2 verdict, then being sentenced under Louisiana’s strict multiple bill law. Ellis qualified for the life sentence even though he has never been convicted of – or arrested for – a violent crime.
Ellis’ prior convictions consisted of cocaine and PCP convictions from 1989, a burglary from 1998 and a theft from 2004. In each of those prior cases, Ellis pleaded guilty, records show.
Ellis’ co-defendant, Patrick Constantin, 28, pleaded guilty and testified against Ellis at the burglary trial. In a plea deal, Constantin received a six-year sentence, for which he served 2 ½ years despite the fact that he could have received a more serious sentence as a repeat offender with a prior convictions for possession of marijuana, hydrocodone and diazepam.
Court records also show that Constantin had an arrest for a crime of violence, armed robbery, although that case was dismissed in 2008 by a previous district attorney.
Ellis’ family greeted the news from the district attorney's office with prayerful optimism.
“Family, friends, members at churches, we’re all praying and pulling for Troy,” said his sister, Venita LaCroix. “Someone heard our prayers. And I'm glad. I am so happy. I know there is a God."
LaCroix said the family is aware that there is a long legal road ahead, but she said she’s relieved to replace her sadness with hope.
"I know there are hurdles to cross, but I also know that at the end of this hurdle, that's where the blessings are going to come in," LaCroix said.
Despite the statement by Cannizzaro, undoing a jury verdict and life sentence could prove difficult, according to attorney Donald "Chick" Foret, the Eyewitness News legal analyst.
“The further into the criminal justice system you get, the harder it is to get out,” Foret said. “And now that Ellis is in Angola (state penitentiary) after going to trial and being sentenced, he’s in pretty deep.”
But judging by Cannizzaro’s statement, Foret said there is a legal opening for Ellis.
Cannizzaro has declined to comment beyond his written words, which concluded with, “Despite overwhelming evidence against Ellis and his complete refusal to accept responsibility for his actions, the District Attorney’s office offered to allow Mr. Ellis to plead guilty as a second offender in return for a 12-year sentence both prior to trial and even after he was convicted. While I believe that such a sentence would still be appropriate in this case, Mr. Ellis must first take responsibility for his actions."
Foret said he interprets the DA’s comments to mean that the first move is up to Ellis and his attorney.
"For Mr. Ellis to get rid of his mandatory life sentence and to go back to any previous deals that were offered, he's going to have to accept responsibility," Foret said.
In a 33-page appeal now pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, Ellis maintains his innocence and raises several allegations that his Constitutional rights were violated in his prosecution.
His appeal includes the fact that the district attorney's office refused to step aside even though the victim of the burglary was a senior prosecutor with the office.
Ellis also raises a so-called “Batson challenge,” alleging that his rights were violated by prosecutors using all but one of their jury challenges to strike African-Americans from the jury pool, leading to a predominantly white jury. Ellis is African-American.
Ellis’ attorney, Jessie Beasley, also takes issue with the lack of evidence against his client. There was no direct evidence linking Ellis to the 2010 burglary except for the testimony of Constantin.
To move forward, Foret said, Ellis would have to drop his appeal. If that happens, the avenue to change Ellis’ sentence remains a narrow one: the DA’s office and defense attorney would have to file a joint motion for a new trial. And that motion would have to be accepted by Judge Julian Parker, who presided over Ellis’ trial and sentencing.
If all the parties in the case approve of a new deal, Ellis still must agree to serve time. Cannizzaro’s office said it is willing to revisit an earlier plea deal that was rejected by Ellis: 12 years in prison as a “double bill,” a two-time offender, leaving Ellis to serve the full term without any reductions for good time or work release.
Ellis’ attorney Jessie Beasley said he is encouraged by Cannizzaro’s statement and will inform Ellis as quickly as possible before requesting a meeting with prosecutors.