Sunday, June 8, 2014

How Colorblind Justice Prevailed in New Orleans

By Michael Weinberger

New Orleans

At 2 a.m. on July 26, 2013, Merritt Landry, his pregnant wife and small child were asleep in their house in New Orleans when their dog started barking. Someone had climbed over the locked front gate of their property and was rattling the window shutters. The noise awakened Mr. Landry, whose house in the Marigny neighborhood had been burglarized multiple times. Calling 911 might bring help, but far too late. He took his legally owned handgun and went into his tiny front yard, hoping to keep the intruder from breaking through one of the windows.

After spotting the intruder he said he yelled for him to stop, but the young man made a sudden move. Mr. Landry fired one shot that seriously wounded the trespasser, then called the police. They arrested and charged him with second-degree attempted murder.

Merritt Landry, then 33 years old, is white. The intruder, Marshall Coulter, is black and was then 14.

The episode raised an important question. In a majority-black city like New Orleans, can the justice system handle such a case impartially, or will racial politics cause it to malfunction? Today we have the answer: The system can render justice, especially when a coalition of black and white citizens demand it.

Initially, this wasn't so clear. Hours after his arrest, Mr. Landry was suspended without pay from his job as a city building inspector. Homeowners in New Orleans, where violent crime is a terrible problem, were deeply worried. It seemed as if the right to defend your family was being taken away. "This is a game changer," one of them told me.

A few days after the shooting, Nadra Enzi, a black conservative, went on a popular radio show and urged the black community not to rush to judgment. He called for "color-blind common sense" and explained that this was simply a case of a homeowner trying to defend his family. Jeff Crouere, the show's host and a friend of mine, arranged a meeting where the three of us began working to make sure this homeowner was treated fairly. We operated under the banner of the Home Defense Foundation of New Orleans, an organization I had founded before the shooting incident.

On Aug. 6, we held our first rally to support Mr. Landry. More than 70 people, including blacks, whites and citizens of Asian descent attended. The Big Easy isn't known for intense citizen involvement, so that was a significant turnout. A middle-age black man told a TV reporter that if someone climbed over the gate at his house in the middle of the night, he would also have been shot.

Our group asked for a meeting with the New Orleans district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro. For more than an hour he listened courteously and professionally as we made our case that Mr. Landry was simply trying to protect his family.

At a second rally in front of the Landrys' house, one attendee, who was black, told Mr. Enzi and me that his house had been invaded several months earlier. He said that he shot and killed the intruder, who was white, but was not arrested. Louisiana has a law protecting homeowners who use fatal force to stop an intruder, but a loophole left them vulnerable to prosecution if the intruder, like Marshall Coulter at the Landrys' house, was only wounded.

Although some black citizens asserted that Mr. Landry had overreacted, many others understood his situation. At one meeting Al Mims, a black retired Orleans Parish civil deputy sheriff, said Mr. Landry was defending his family and had done nothing wrong.

Our efforts seemed to be having an effect. Instead of moving ahead on their own, prosecutors announced that they would take Mr. Landry's case to a grand jury. Meanwhile, Messrs. Enzi and Crouere expanded our efforts to reform Louisiana law about homeowners using force during a break-in. The law needed to be changed to protect those who wound but don't kill an intruder. We began rallying support to change the law and we met with key legislators.

In February 2014, a grand jury voted not to indict Merritt Landry. Prosecutors sent the case to another grand jury, which also declined. But neither grand jury voted for exoneration, so the case was still open. Then on May 2, about two months after the second grand-jury vote, Marshall Coulter was arrested on suspicion of breaking into another house. The crime, caught on videotape, was broadcast on local TV. Mr. Coulter was booked for attempted burglary, and police confirmed that they had also booked him the same day on the charge of aggravated burglary during a home invasion in June 2012.

On May 15 the case against Mr. Landry was formally dropped. Seeking privacy, he made no statement. But he has returned to his job with back pay. A few days later, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law, passed overwhelmingly in the legislature, that gives homeowners who shoot and wound a home invader a presumption that their actions were lawful. The new law will largely protect future Merritt Landrys.

Michael Weinberger is a retired attorney who lives in New Orleans. He is a past president of the New York City chapter of the Federalist Society.The above originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal and is republished with permission of the author.

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