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Grand jury fails to take action against homeowner who shot unarmed teen

3rd March 2014   ·   0 Comments

An Orleans Parish grand jury has ended its six-month term without taking any action against a Marigny homeowner and City of New Orleans employee who shot an unarmed, teenage intruder in July of last year.

“It must obviously mean they’re still chewing the cud on this one,” legal analyst Joe Raspanti told FOX 8 News recently.. “They’re still working on it, and I believe they have another week to do so.”

A week after he made that observation, the grand jury ended its six-month term without recommending an indictment against the accused homeowner.

Merritt Landry, 31, initially was arrested by police and booked on an attempted second-degree murder charge following the shooting of 14-year-old Marshall Coulter in July 2013.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said the case remains open, though the office is disappointed that a decision to indict Landry wasn’t made.

Landry told police that he found Coulter in his side yard near his car in the early morning hours. He said he was concerned about his safety and the safety of his wife and child who were inside the home. Landry said he fired one shot and hit Coulter in the head.

The shooting left 14-year-old Marshall Coulter who was seen by a neighbor on surveillance video climbing a fence to get into Landry’s yard on Mandeville Street, with severe brain damage.

Coming less than two weeks after the acquittal of Florida’s George Zimmerman in the racially charged shooting death trial of a Neighborhood Watch captain who followed and fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old Black student in Sanford, Fla., the Merritt Landry case was compared to the Trayvon Martin murder.

The shooting has spawned several angry confrontations in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood where Merritt Landry and his family live involving a mostly white group of Landry supporters who argue the homeowner had the right to defend his family and his home and a more diverse group of community activists demanding justice for the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager.

In an interview last fall, Mike Howells, a member of the Justice for Marshall Coulter Committee, said the media’s handling of the Marshall Coulter shooting and other cases is “horrendous.”

“First of all, some lives are valued more than others,” Howells told The Louisiana Weekly. “When a person who is white and wealthy or Black and wealthy, they will cover it. But if they’re Black and poor, the media doesn’t attach the same value to those people’s lives. It send the message that it’s no big deal to kill poor or Black people, but it is a big deal to kill rich people or white people.

“That’s one of the things the committee is trying to do, to get across the message that everybody’s life is equally valuable,” Howells added. “Marshall Coulter’s life is just as valuable as anybody else’s life.”

Howells dismissed the argument that Marshall Coulter shouldn’t be considered a victim since he was shot while engaged in an unlawful act. “That’s totally wrong,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “Some of the worst crimes are committed as a result of people being overzealous in their response to an offense…The incident needs to be put in proper context. He’s a 14-year-old kid acting like a 14-year-old kid, doing something mischievous. But according to the NOPD themselves, he didn’t present a threat to life and limb, which is why they suggested that Merritt Landry be charged with attempted second-degree murder.”

The Justice for Marshall Coulter Committee has held several vigils for Marshall Coulter since the teen was shot last July and continues to call on the D.A.’s Office to prosecute Merritt Landry to the fullest extent of the law.

A small but vocal group of community activists, civil rights and religious leaders also questioned what it considered favorable treatment of Landry by Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Franz Zibilich, an attorney with ties to the family after representing Landry’s brother in a drug-related case. Critics accused Zibilich of pulling strings to get Landry out of jail quicker than he would have gotten out without his ties to the judge.

“There is boiling under the surface,” the Rev. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church, said at an NAACP press conference last year, referring to the message the Merritt Landry case sent to local Black youth. “They are beginning to wonder whether there is one code of justice that is equally applied to everyone.”

“There’s a tension in this city and if it’s not addressed properly, who knows what’s going to happen,” Danatus King, president of the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP, said.”

“If tensions are escalated now, if there’s a perception in the community that justice is not going to be done in this case, then I expect the tensions to heighten.”

Attorney Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, said that from a legal standpoint the shooting was not justified. “I recognize the guy had a wife at home who was pregnant,” Washington said. “Lots of people have extenuating circumstances. That jail is filled with people with extenuating circumstances.”

Others who have been outspoken about the case include the Rev. Christiana Ford, pastor of House of Faith;, the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now; and W.C. Johnson, a member of Community United for Change and host of local cable-access show “OurStory.”

Rev. Ford, who pastors House of Faith which is located several doors from Marshall Coulter’s family’s home, told CNN in early September that the teen had some behavioral problems but did not deserve to be shot in the head by Landry.

“He didn’t have no weapon, he wasn’t face to face to the man. He was about 30 feet away. It was just wrong,” Ford said. “… Every life’s invaluable, you know, even though he had a problem.”

“Well, first of all, if he is 30 feet away, not up on my door, I would have dialed 911 and prepared for the worst and hoped for the better,” the Rev. Raymond Brown told CNN when asked to respond to Landry supporters questions about how Landry’s critics would have handled the situation.

Brown told CNN that race was without a doubt a factor in the case and its aftermath. “Young Black men die every day. If he were white it would be a different situation,” Brown, who verbally sparred with white Landry supporters, later told CNN.

This article originally published in the March 3, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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