Orleans grand jury takes no action in Merritt Landry shooting

There’s an old adage in criminal-justice circles: A good prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

Merritt Landry, it seems, is no ham sandwich.

An Orleans Parish grand jury ended its six-month tenure Thursday by taking no action in the controversial case of the 33-year-old Marigny homeowner who last year shot Marshall Coulter, a 14-year-old who had hopped over Landry’s gate and into his yard in the middle of the night.

The grand jury had been hearing evidence about the shooting for months. Landry was booked two days after the July 26 incident on a count of attempted second-degree murder. He appeared last week at the criminal courthouse with his attorneys, drawing speculation that he had voluntarily appeared before the grand jury.

The grand jury’s deliberations are secret under state law, and neither Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office nor Landry’s attorneys would say whether he in fact testified.

A spokesman said Cannizzaro was disappointed at the failure of the required nine out of 12 grand jury members to agree that the early-morning shooting constituted an indictable offense.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman said Cannizzaro is weighing his options on what to do next. He could bring the case before a new grand jury, charge Landry on his own in a bill of information or decide not to pursue charges against him.

“At this point we consider this to be a very open investigation,” Bowman said, declining to explain why the case went before the grand jury in the first place. But Bowman insisted that Cannizzaro was not trying to shirk a political hot potato by taking the case before the grand jury instead of simply charging Landry directly.

With their subpoena powers, grand juries can be powerful investigative tools. They also can serve to give prosecutors a better idea about how trial jurors might think about a case. Even so, only aggravated crimes must first get the nod from a grand jury to move forward.

When they do try to secure an indictment, prosecutors rarely fail. It has occurred only a few times in Cannizzaro’s five years in office.

“It has not happened often that we have attempted to obtain an indictment and could not obtain it,” Bowman said. “We feel as though we presented a strong case. It’s disappointing nine members couldn’t agree.”

Landry, an inspector for the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission, comes from a family of prominent St. Bernard Parish officials. He was freed on bail not long after his arrest and returned to work in late November.

Landry did not appear in court Thursday. His attorneys, Kevin Boshea and Roger Jordan, declined to comment on the latest turn of events, citing grand-jury secrecy as they left the courthouse, seven months and a day after Landry shot Coulter in the head, seriously injuring the teenager.

The incident sparked community outrage — on one side from supporters and neighbors angry over Landry’s arrest for shooting an intruder on his property and on the other side from people who said Landry had no justification for shooting Coulter.

After an investigation, New Orleans police concluded Landry fired on the youth from about 30 feet away. Coulter was unarmed and “not posing an imminent threat,” according to police.

The arrest inspired a campaign on Landry’s behalf and a defense fund. Supporters said he was protecting his home and his then-pregnant wife, who was due to give birth in days.

Coulter has undergone a series of hospital procedures after suffering a gunshot wound to the head.

In the meantime, Cannizzaro said he would present evidence in the case to a grand jury. Bowman blamed scheduling problems with witnesses for delays in that process.

Tulane University law professor Pam Metzger called the lack of an indictment from the grand jury “very bizarre,” considering that prosecutors hold an overwhelming advantage in those proceedings. Attorneys for a defendant are not allowed in the grand jury room, much less permitted to present their side of the story while the citizen panel decides whether probable cause exists to indict.

“Probable cause is an incredibly low standard. One message may be, they don’t have enough evidence, or they didn’t present their evidence well,” Metzger said.

Occasionally, “runaway” grand juries will simply filibuster cases they don’t like, but that doesn’t seem to be true in Landry’s case, Metzger said. If Landry did in fact testify, she said, it would stand as a bold legal gambit.

“He may have persuaded them not to indict,” she said. “It certainly would offer an explanation. It’s easier to indict somebody when you’ve never looked them in the eye.”