NEW ORLEANS — Some shootings and killings in New Orleans have been etched into the city's collective memory.
Three killed and seven wounded at Jazz Daquiris on Claiborne in 2018. Seventeen wounded at Bunny Friend Playground in 2015. Nineteen shot at the Mother's Day second-line in 2013, including writer and historian Deborah Cotton, who died of her injuries four years later.
“Black children being murdered and women of all ages and races being attacked,” said criminal justice activist Nadra Enzi, also known as Captain Black. “It touches every sector of the community.”
Yet some equally brutal shootings get lost in all the carnage, with a much smaller circle of victims and their loved ones left to live with the anger, heartache and profoundly life-altering injuries.
The Aug. 24, 2014 drive-by shooting on Burgundy Street in the Lower 9th Ward could qualify as one of those. Several men in a car drove by this house and opened fire with an assault rifle. The impact was devastating.
The intended target, 33-year-old Terrence McBride, died at the scene after being riddled with 10 bullets. Among the large group of innocent bystanders, 16-year-old Jasmine Anderson, was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. She was supposed to start 8th grade the next day.
Five others were shot and severely injured. A four-year-old boy, now 12, was left blind. A two-year-old, now 10, has permanent brain damage. The boys' mother continues to suffer from grave complications from gunshot wounds to her stomach.
Case and old wounds re-opened
Almost eight years later, those survivors and their families are now being reminded of their nightmare on a regular basis. That's because the case against the two accused gunmen, Blair Taylor and Joseph Nelson, has been re-opened and their life sentences thrown out. Their guilty verdicts were by an 11-1 vote of the jury, and a change in state law in 2018 requires verdicts to be unanimous.
“You just outlined a family that essentially has been destroyed and is demanding justice,” Enzi said.
The case against Taylor and Nelson was sent back to square one. And now, the prosecution is being handled by a new district attorney, Jason Williams. Formerly a career criminal defense attorney, Williams was elected on a progressive justice platform.
He vowed to concentrate his office on the most serious crimes of violence.
But during Williams' first year in office, even some of the most serious violent felony cases were dismissed or subject to generous plea bargains. Of the 1,350 violent felony cases closed in 2021, 74 percent were either dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor plea. Only six percent ended with a plea of guilty as charged.
Another 19 percent of those violent felonies ended with a plea deal to lesser felony charges, according to statistics compiled by the non-profit Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The Burgundy Street massacre was quietly headed down that same path of reduced charges and steeply reduced penalties, according to court records, recent hearings and multiple sources.
The plea bargaining started when one assistant district attorney suggested manslaughter pleas for both Taylor and Nelson, along with 15-year sentences.
Enzi expressed shock over the proposed deal.
“You destroyed a family,” he said “You murdered people. You maimed people, many of whom were children. And 15 years? Somebody might be able to get that much time for check fraud.”
Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans...had not even heard that the case was back in court, much less being contemplated for a plea bargain.
“When did murder basically become misdemeanor? I don't understand that. It makes no sense to me,” Glasser said.
MCC President Rafael Goyeneche has closely followed the track record of the district attorney’s office. He, too, was surprised to hear about the proposed plea deal for Taylor and Nelson.
“Fifteen years is an insult to the victims,” Goyeneche said. “When you give deals that are inappropriate to cases like this, it makes the public question all of the deals that you give out.”
While prosecutors generally avoid discussing pending cases, WWL-TV learned that a plea deal was being contemplated because some holes had developed in the case.
One of the original witnesses can't be located. Another co-conspirator who testified against Taylor and Nelson, and now serving a 20-year manslaughter sentence, has clammed up.
But the offer of 15 years did not last long. Judge Karen Herman, who is presiding over the case, refused to sign off. Then a more senior prosecutor took over the case. Plea offers were raised to 30 years for each defendant.
Finally the family of the two disabled boys was given a voice. A loud voice. Among those who was brought in to listen: District Attorney Jason Williams.
On April 21, and affirmed in court two earlier this month, Nelson pleaded guilty to manslaughter and accepted 30 years in prison. Manslaughter is punishable by up to 40 years.
And once Williams got personally involved, the plea offer to Taylor was increased to 40 years. Sources said Williams was “instrumental” in raising the stakes.
Taylor, who police say was the gunmen who wielded the AK-47, turned down the offer. He is now set for trial in September. And the case against him may be stronger than it was at the original trial. Nelson's plea deal requires him to testify against his co-defendant.
“You may have to make a deal with the sinner to get to the devil,” Goyeneche said. “And the devil would be the more serious offender.”
The district attorney has repeatedly declined requests for an interview on WWL-TV’s findings about his conviction rate and the high number of cases dismissed. But Goyeneche, who has been critical of Williams’ first-year track record, sees the office getter more aggressive in violent felony cases.
For example, early in his tenure, Williams broke a campaign promise to never charge juveniles as adults is, which he has now done in several murder cases. And now that trial have resumed after being paused for nearly two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams has personally tried three jury trials, all of which ended in convictions.
Williams’ involvement in the Burgundy Street case is yet another example.
“I've seen the district attorney's office make decisions today that they weren't making two months ago,” Goyeneche said.
The course of justice in this case could change yet again. With the mother of the two disabled boys in precarious medical condition, prosecutors have not ruled out additional charges should she die of those wounds she suffered nearly eight years ago.