Justice delayed…

Jul 8, 2013 by

On January 17, 2009, I remember feeling excited about going to see one of my favorite musicians, Sonny Landreth, play at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl. At approximately 8:00 PM, as I was reaching for my jacket and while I was on the phone making plans, the street in front of my apartment became a cacophony of sirens as flashing blue and red lights frenetically bounced around on the walls and ceiling of my apartment. I told my date to hold up on our plans for the night for a bit and that I’d call him back once I’d learned what the hell was going on down the street.

I discovered that a young woman had been shot and was in critical condition just past the intersection at the far end of my block. A neighbor, who happened to be a doctor, had rendered assistance prior to the arrival of the EMTs that were preparing to transport her to the hospital. I called my date back and told him what was happening and that I wasn’t of the mind to go see a show that night. I sat on my front stoop, stunned, sad, and quiet, only speaking to my neighbors when spoken to. (After the ambulance departed, I called someone living elsewhere for emotional support.)

The victim, Wendy Byrne, died later that evening at the hospital. In the weeks that followed, three suspects turned themselves in (at the behest of their respective parents, if I recall correctly), were arrested, and were initially charged with murder: 15 year-old Drey Lewis, 15 year-old Reggie Douglas, and 14 year-old Ernest Cloud.

In the years that have followed, my life has changed in several ways that are directly linked to that one evening. To this day, I cannot walk past that location without remembering it’s where the life of a woman loved by many was also irrevocably changed by its abrupt end.

And, in the years between then and now, every time I could corner District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro face-to-face I would inquire about the status of this case (once even darting out of a public meeting to catch a moment of his time before he stepped into the vehicle that his driver had ready and waiting). Each time I was told that there had been no progress toward a trial date, primarily due to an endless stream of motions filed by the suspects’ defense attorneys. The last time I’d asked for an update was on 9/4/12, at the first session of the 2012 Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office’s Citizens Academy.

Today, while researching something else on the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office website in Docket Master to satisfy a matter of idle curiosity, I once again ran the names of the suspects in Wendy’s case.

Scrolling to the end of the lengthy record of motions, I was surprised to learn that, on September 7, 2012, suspect Drey Lewis pled guilty to the charge of manslaughter for the murder of Wendy Byrne. He was sentenced to “10 years, at DOC [Department of Corrections] at hard labor,” concurrent with “any/all sentences now serving (he’d apparently also subsequently been charged for assaulting an officer), with “credit for time served.” Given that he was first incarcerated at the age of 15, he will be released at the age of 25 (or possibly even before, if he becomes eligible for early release for good behavior — if such possibility exists).

It would also appear that Lewis received what I believe might be the minimum possible sentence for this charge (despite the fact that he was wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet at the time of his arrest), detailed as follows:

§31.  Manslaughter

A.  Manslaughter is:

(1)  A homicide which would be murder under either Article 30 (first degree murder) or Article 30.1 (second degree murder), but the offense is committed in sudden passion or heat of blood immediately caused by provocation sufficient to deprive an average person of his self-control and cool reflection.  Provocation shall not reduce a homicide to manslaughter if the jury finds that the offender’s blood had actually cooled, or that an average person’s blood would have cooled, at the time the offense was committed; or

(2)  A homicide committed, without any intent to cause death or great bodily harm.

(a)  When the offender is engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of any felony not enumerated in Article 30 or 30.1, or of any intentional misdemeanor directly affecting the person; or

(b)  When the offender is resisting lawful arrest by means, or in a manner, not inherently dangerous, and the circumstances are such that the killing would not be murder under Article 30 or 30.1.

B.  Whoever commits manslaughter shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not more than forty years.  However, if the victim killed was under the age of ten years, the offender shall be imprisoned at hard labor, without benefit of probation or suspension of sentence, for not less than ten years nor more than forty years.

Amended by Acts 1973, No. 127, §1; Acts 1991, No. 864, §1; Acts 1992, No. 306, §1; Acts 1994, 3rd Ex. Sess., No. 115, §1; Acts 2008, No. 10, §1.

The most current entry for the Docket Master record regarding suspect Reggie Lewis (now charged with armed robbery), dated 1/24/12, reads as follows:


I also ran Ernest Cloud’s name, re-confirming what I’d known since approximately 2011: charges were apparently dropped for this suspect (who had reportedly turned himself in after he’d attended the first inauguration of President Obama in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2009). Except for the lingering Internet records of media coverage related to this case, it appears that Docket Master has been expunged completely of any record of Cloud’s ever having been arrested and charged.

My mind is still a blur of half-formed thoughts this evening; it may be a day or two before everything spins down enough for me to find the words I can’t seem to find right now. But at this moment, I can express a few ruminations with clarity:

  • The last time I inquired about this case was at the inaugural session of the 2012 District Attorney’s Citizen’s Academy on 9/4/12, a mere three days prior to the appearance, apparent plea bargaining, and sentencing of Drey Lewis. I’d like to know: why did Mr. Cannizzaro neglect to mention Lewis’ sentencing to me subsequently (as he attended at least two additional sessions during the following seven weeks’ time)?
  • I have confirmed with a member of Wendy’s immediate family that they were notified of this action regarding Wendy’s case. However, I now wonder: why wasn’t Lewis’ sentencing covered by local media? To the best of my awareness, the (partial) resolution of this once high-profile case received absolutely no mention or notice.
  • Finally, how is it acceptable for anyone to be charged with manslaughter after deliberately shooting someone in the back who had been walking away from the suspected shooter at that very moment??

On January 23, 2009, in the back room of Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant, then newly sworn-in District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro arrived unexpectedly at a community meeting (prominently covered by the local media) and promised a sizable gathering of Wendy’s friends and area residents that he would prosecute this case aggressively. Four years and five months later, I now ask: is it possible that District Attorney Cannizzaro bargained away the original first degree and subsequently reduced second degree murder charges because it would be too much trouble to prove such, opting instead to accept the further-reduced charge of manslaughter simply to chalk up a quiet and easy win?

I can’t help but feel that this matter has not ended properly and is somehow lacking; has the most convenient resolution been served, instead of the once-professed “tough stance” regarding the pursuit of justice?

Justice delayed… apparently mutates into something unrecognizable as it also fades slowly and completely from the radar of public notice.

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