Crime

05.09.14

19 of Us Were Shot on Mother’s Day, But New Orleans Dropped the Attempted Murder Charges

A year ago, two gunmen fired into a crowd allegedly trying to kill one person. Why did the authorities drop the the counts against them?

NEW ORLEANS — As the first anniversary of the biggest mass shooting in modern New Orleans history approaches this Mother’s Day, all 20 charges of attempted murder filed in the case have been dropped.  Two suspects in the Mother’s Day 2013 shootings remain incarcerated on new federal drug and gun charges, charges that effectively replace the original state charges but do not mention the hail of bullets sprayed into a peaceful crowd that sent 20 people including children to the hospital, shocking a city where gun violence is far from unknown.

As one of the people who got shot that day, I confess to having more than just a journalistic interest in the Mother’s Day shootings. The shootings, which took place a month after the Boston Marathon bombing, attracted international media coverage after a video emerged showing a suspect striding towards the crowd, pointing a gun, and unleashing a barrage of shots before sprinting away.

You can see me in the video below; I’m the white guy in a cream fedora and green shirt, fleeing at the center of the screen. The gunman was about eight feet behind me; I heard the pop-pop, pop-pop-pop of his bullets from behind my left shoulder. People started screaming and running. Like everyone else, I threw myself to the ground. I had been around gunfire while covering the civil war in Sudan in the 1990s, but this was the first time someone was shooting specifically at me. At first, I didn’t think I’d been hit. Lying on the pavement as blood stained my shirt and streamed down my leg, I thought a piece of glass had cut me. “No, you were shot,” an emergency medical tech told me. “I can see the bullet there under the skin.” 

But I disclosed my potential conflict of interest to Mayor Mitch Landrieu before interviewing him at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last week.

“I’m sorry you were shot,” Landrieu told me before calling the Mother’s Day 2013 shootings “a tragic day for New Orleans.”

Landrieu went on to defend dropping the attempted-murder charges filed by the district attorney for Orleans Parish, Leon Cannizaro, calling the decision part of a “smarter” approach to crime that has cut the murder rate in New Orleans by half compared to last year.

“It may seem counter-intuitive, but dropping the attempted-murder charges gives us the best opportunity to put those suspects away for a long time,” Landrieu said. “We have learned in recent years to stop treating those kind of shootings as individual events. They are usually gang-related, and the federal government has more tools and resources to prosecute gang-related crimes than we do.”

The shootings, which occurred on Frenchmen Street, just seven blocks from a center of musical nightlife popular with locals and tourists alike, sparked shock and anger across the city. The alleged gunmen, brothers Shawn Scott and Akien Scott, had targeted a “second line” parade, a beloved New Orleans institution whose roots extend back to the era of slavery. In a typical second line, hundreds of people, most of them African-American, gather on a Sunday afternoon to accompany one or more brass bands and dozens of brightly costumed dancers on an exuberant procession through the streets of a given neighborhood. Firing into a second line “is like firing into a church,” one appalled local wrote after the Mother’s Day shootings.

Miraculously, no one died that day, though Deborah Cotton came perilously close. A journalist known for videotaping many of the city’s second lines and for speaking out against gun violence, Cotton was shot in the abdomen. She endured multiple surgeries; doctors removed one of her kidneys and other vital organs. Eighteen others also suffered gunshot wounds. (My own wound, in the leg, was not life-threatening.) The 20th victim was a 74-year-old woman who was badly trampled by two men fleeing the gunfire; she and I shared the same ambulance to the hospital. Authorities have not divulged whether the alleged target of the shootings was among the wounded.

The dropping of the 20 attempted-murder charges only became apparent on March 11 with the unsealing of a new indictment that effectively transferred prosecution of the case from state to federal authorities. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has adopted the entirety of the case, including the Mother’s Day shooting,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman told reporters. “The decision was made to bring the entire prosecution under a single umbrella.”

The federal indictment charges the two Scotts and seven others, including three more of their brothers, with seven counts of drug and gun trafficking.  It alleges that the suspects were part of a conspiracy to distribute 1 kilogram of heroin and 280 grams of crack cocaine. The only reference to the Mother’s Day shootings is Count 6, which alleges that, “On or about May 12… [Shawn and Akien Scott] did knowingly use and carry a firearm during and in relation to a drug-trafficking crime.”

Like I said, I can’t pretend to be perfectly objective about the Mother’s Day shootings or dropping the attempted-murder charges. Perhaps there are deeper issues at play here or more information still to emerge. But as a layperson, I have to wonder why the attempted-murder charges could not be included within the new federal charges. I asked Mayor Landrieau what message dropping the charges sends, not only to the residents of New Orleans but also to the many people across the country and around the world who love the city and want to keep visiting it.

“I hope this decision and the reduction of our murder rate sends a message to the world that we’re getting smarter about how we handle crime in New Orleans,” Landrieu said.  “Anyone who commits a crime here, we’re going to get you, wherever you are.”

If convicted of the new federal charges, the suspects could face life in prison.  But it won’t be for shooting into a crowd of people enjoying a Mother’s Day second line on the streets of one of the world’s most alluring but confounding cities.  Life in New Orleans, it seems, is rarely that simple.