NEW ORLEANS — As the Louisiana Supreme Court hears arguments on non-unanimous jury verdicts, Dottie Tardy was at a fallen officer's memorial in Metairie, remembering her son, Christopher Russell.
“He liked to make people laugh, like to make people happy,” said Tardy.
The 35-year-old New Orleans Police officer was responding to a robbery at Club Tango in the 9th Ward in 2002. Sixteen people were robbed and forced to strip by four men with guns. Russell, who spent five years at NOPD, was shot and killed when he got there. While not the shooter, one of those four men, Michael Davis, was sentenced to life, plus 198 years for armed robbery as a multiple offender.
Nineteen years later, last Spring, Tardy got a call from Angola prison.
“I was like, in shock and I said, ‘What do you mean released him.’ She said, ‘He’s been let free,’” said Tardy.
Davis was convicted 11 to 1 by an Orleans Parish jury. Through a voter referendum, Louisiana law banned non-unanimous jury verdicts in 2019, long after Davis’ conviction. The U-S Supreme court then ruled them unconstitutional the following year. Neither were retroactive. That could change if the state supreme court decides to allow it, impacting about 1,500 prisoners.
“This is unacceptable in our civilized society,” said Participatory Defense Movement NOLA founder Sibil Fox. “We cannot sleep knowing that we have 1,500 citizens remaining in prison on an unconstitutional law.”
Fox says the Jim Crow-era law allowing split-jury convictions should not be a standing for anyone’s conviction.
“We know the law was unconstitutional, they said we can't do it anymore but for us to not go back and make this law of non-unanimous juries retroactive is just shameful,” said Fox.
Through appeals Davis’ case became part of then newly elected District Attorney Jason Williams’ plan on justice reform. Tardy says her family was never notified by the DA’s office of Davis’ release and was told he can’t be retired.
“You were there. You terrorized these people. You participated and as a result my son is killed, but I’m stuck,” said Tardy. “I can’t go forward with anything.”
With her son’s name etched in stone at the memorial in Metairie, Tardy wishes the convictions of the men involved in her son’s murder would be as well. She’s now hoping for judicial justice.
“I’m ready to take that opportunity to do whatever I can to make sure that justice for my son, my grandchildren, and my daughter-in-law is done,” said Tardy. “That’s what I want.”
The man who shot Officer Russell, Dwight Patterson, was convicted of first-degree murder and is still serving a life sentence. Two other men pleaded guilty to armed robbery and were sentenced to 15 and 25 years. There’s no indication on when the Louisiana Supreme Court will make its ruling.