Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., a country that locks up a higher percentage of its people than any other. And Troy Ellis is a living, breathing example of why the state is tagged with that dubious distinction.
Ellis, 50, grew up in a large, loving family in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. He's also a heroin addict and career criminal, going back and forth to prison on drugs charges, as well as burglaries and thefts that helped him feed his habit.
As a non-violent offender, Ellis had always been given a chance to turn things around, a rocky road to redemption that has included church, drug rehabilitation and relapse.
Those chances came to a screeching halt after his most recent tumble into the dark dependency of heroin. Addicted and desperate, Ellis was booked in a simple burglary in 2010 with an unlikely co-defendant. His alleged partner in crime was Patrick Constantin, a then-25-year-old from a successful Uptown family.
The two men shared a heroin addiction and non-violent rap sheets, according to police reports and court records, but the similarities end there.
Ellis (pictured right) was sent to prison to die behind bars, hit with a life sentence without parole.
Constantin is a free man today after being sentencing to six years for the same crime, then being released on good time after serving less than three.
The disparity in the sentences shocked not only Ellis' attorney and family, but even some of the jurors who convicted him.
'Clearly this was a situation where the punishment does not fit the crime,' said Randy Waller, one of the jurors who voted to convict Ellis by a 10-2 verdict. 'No one got killed. There was no weapon involved.
Based on what was taken, it amounted to a petty theft. I think it's greatly unfair.'
Two men, same crime, different paths
In Louisiana, juries don't play any role in sentencing except in death penalty cases, and Waller said he walked away from jury duty assuming that Ellis would get a sentence similar to Constantin's.
'A life sentence without parole? That's shocking to me,' he said. 'That doesn't make any sense. That doesn't make any sense to have one guy who is going away for life and this other guy is doing a couple of years.'
Constantin received his six-year sentence after a plea bargain in which he also pleaded guilty to three other burglaries and a theft, none of which implicated Ellis. In exchange, the district attorney's office agreed not to invoke the state's multiple offender law against
Constantin, according to court records.
Constantin, who had given a confession to police, became the star witness against Ellis at trial. And in a largely circumstantial case, he was the only person to place Ellis at the scene of the burglary.
After the jury came back with a 10-2 verdict to convict Ellis of simple burglary, Judge Julian Parker sentenced Ellis to 12 years, the maximum.
As he had done in previous cases, Ellis began paying his debt to society.
(The lineups used to identify Ellis and Constantin)
The original 12-year sentence made Ellis eligible for a good time reduction and work release. In March 2014, after Ellis had served more than three years behind bars, his family said they counting down the months until his eventual homecoming.
'He was up for release, to come home,' said Ellis' sister, Venita LaCroix. 'I was going to have him stay with me. When he's on drugs, it's something totally different. But when he's himself, and the drugs are totally out of his system, he's a loving person.'
But Parker and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro were not done with Ellis.
With four prior felonies, consisting of cocaine and PCP convictions from 1989, a burglary from 1998, and a theft from 2004, Ellis was sentenced under the state's multiple offender law, one of the toughest such laws in the nation. In each of those prior cases, Ellis had pleaded guilty, records show.
On March 31, Parker sentenced Ellis to life. Parker did not return calls for comment.
'Had I known that this was a potential outcome...'
When contacted about the sentence, one juror said Ellis got what he deserved. But two other jurors said they were appalled. One of them, Waller, agreed to say so publicly.
'Surely he should be punished in some shape, form or fashion,'
Waller said. 'But life without the possibility of parole is ludicrous to be honest with you. It really is.'
When asked if he would change his verdict, knowing what he knows now, Waller said, 'Had I known that this was a potential outcome, it was on the table for him and the sentence, I would have had to have found not guilty.'
WWL-TV presented the jurors' sentiments and facts of the case to Cannizzaro. Late Tuesday afternoon, Cannizzaro issued a statement that appears to give Ellis an opportunity to significantly reduce his sentence, possibly reverting back to his original 12-year punishment.
'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. Given that Mr. Ellis had a much lengthier record than his codefendant at the time of this offense, I do believe that he deserves a sentence longer than the six years that was handed down to Patrick Constantin, who took responsibility for his actions and pled guilty prior to trial. 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.'
Ellis' attorney Jessie Beasley said he is encouraged by Cannizzaro's statement and will inform Ellis as quickly as possible.
Beasley said that as much as he is troubled by the sentence, he is even more troubled by the legal path it took to get there.
'This is the case that actually keeps me up at night,' Beasley said. 'This is the case I wake up thinking about in the morning. I carry the weight of Mr. Ellis on my shoulders.'
Beasley has filed an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals alleging several Constitutional violations in Ellis' prosecution. (Click image to see Ellis' appeal)
'Early on in the proceedings, it was plagued with issues that affected Mr. Ellis' right to a fair trial,' he said.
One issue raised by Beasley is the failure of the DA's office to step aside from the case, even though the victim, Jason Napoli, is a senior prosecutor in that office.
'There is no closer relationship that can be imagined than the relationship between the District Attorney and one of his assistants,' Beasley wrote in his appellate brief.
Another connection raised by Beasley involves the lead detective in the burglary case, NOPD officer Andrew Waldron. Waldron admitted a longtime friendship with Constantin, a man he called by his childhood nickname 'Packie.'
'The whole case was fraught with this kind of cronyism, bias, from the get-go,' Beasley said in an interview. 'Because Mr. Constantin, the co-defendant, also knew the arresting officer, the investigating officer. They grew up together.'
The court record of the trial shows that Beasley objected to those issues and several others, starting with jury selection. Despite a majority African-American jury pool, the jury ended up being mostly white, with prosecutors using 10 of 11 challenges to strike black panelists, according to Beasley.
'In this case, the State clearly discriminated on the basis of race, using all but one of its preemptories (challenges) to strike African-American people from the jury, leaving a predominantly white jury to Judge Mr. Ellis, an African-American male,' Beasley wrote.
A confused jury
Once the jury heard the case, there was no direct evidence that Ellis ever entered the victim's house. And initially, there wasn't even circumstantial evidence as the key witness, Constantin, began testifying. But after a break in the trial, all that changed.
'He got one of the public defenders that talked to him in the back for about an hour before he came out and changed his testimony to say that Troy Ellis is the one who did everything,' Beasley said.
The question of whether Ellis entered the apartment was critical, potentially the difference between burglary and the lesser charge of attempted burglary, a verdict that Beasley said would have capped Ellis' sentence at 12 years, even as a multiple offender.
The issue did not go unnoticed by the jury. On the verdict form, the jury foreperson initially wrote 'Guilty of attempted burglary' on the wrong side of the page. Judge Parker instructed the panel to fix it.
The jury was left confused, Waller recalled.
He said the group didn't know whether Parker meant to fix the form or the verdict itself. When the jury came back with a second verdict form, the foreperson again wrote 'Guilty of attempted burglary,' but crossed that out and wrote guilty as charged. (Pictured below, click to larger image)
'Yes, there was some confusion during that time, no question about it,' Waller recalled. 'I certainly remember there was confusion to exactly what the charge we were supposed to write was.'
One thing not subject to appeal is the value of the goods stolen in the burglary. A debit card, used by Constantin at a couple of gas station convenience stores, and a baseball card collection sold for $80 dollars to a collectibles shop in Metairie.
The owner of the shop told police that the cards were sold to him by
In light of the recent statement by District Attorney Cannizzaro, the family of Troy Ellis is now placing their hopes in the legal system. And their faith in God.
'It's hard on him,' LaCroix said. 'I cry. Yeah, I'm normal. I'm human. I cry because I'm going to miss my brother. But he said as long as he continues praying, because he knows God has a plan for him.'
Constantin's attorney did not respond to calls for comment. His family, however, said he is remorseful about his past behavior, has paid his debt to society and is working hard to rebuild his life.