By Mike Perlstein | WWL-TV | May 18, 2022
In 2020, Horace Toppins was already on New Orleans Police radar as a frequent domestic abuser, with a fresh warrant out for his arrest.
Seventh District officers were serving that warrant in April that year when Toppins opened fire, shooting officer Kevin Doucette in the arm as he tried to serve the warrant.
Toppins, 30, was arrested and ultimately charged with 15 criminal counts, including attempted first-degree murder of a police officer, felon with a firearm, kidnapping and multiple battery and domestic violence charges. On the attempted murder charge alone he faced 20 to 50 years in prison, and given his long criminal history, he could have faced life as a multiple offender.
But court records show that when Toppins pleaded guilty in February, the attempted murder charge disappeared. Eight other counts were dismissed and several more were dropped to lesser charges. In the end, Toppins agreed to serve 10 years for being a felon with a gun, and five years for aggravated second-degree battery, to be served simultaneously.
“That’s really troublesome. He ended up with a sentence that’s more consistent with credit card fraud, OK, than it would be for the attempted murder of a police officer,” said NOPD Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans.
Glasser noted that Doucette’s wound may never fully heal.
“Very serious wound. Permanent damage,” he said.
JUSTICE NOT SERVED
A very similar case in Jefferson Parish was resolved with a very different plea deal that was culminated on May 12. A domestic violence call. An armed suspect resisting arrest. A deputy shot in the arm and the leg.
In that case Tyronne Louis pleaded guilty as charged to attempted murder, kidnapping, felon with a gun and a host of other felonies. At his sentencing, Louis got the maximum: 50 years.
In the Toppins case, by comparison, Glasser said justice was not served.
“That was just a sheer act of violence,” he said. “And if he’ll do that to a police officer who’s armed outside his door, what’s he going to do to the average citizen?”
We requested an interview with Jason Williams or someone from his office, but so far nobody has been made available to answer our questions.
However, in press releases and public statements, Williams has regularly touted the number of guilty pleas obtained by his office. In his first “People’s Report” on his first year in office, he highlights 1,700 guilty pleas covering more than 3,000 individual criminal charges.
In March, after a defendant was convicted of murder in a jury trial, Williams said this from the steps of the courthouse.
“Criminal justice reform does not mean letting people out of jail, it means holding them accountable and putting them in jail,” Williams said.
The publicity push is understandable. As a career defense attorney elected on a progressive justice platform, Williams is still establishing himself as a prosecutor. And given the backlog of cases and lack of jury trials due to the pandemic, his office has been forced to make up for lost time.
But there’s a deeper story behind Williams’ conviction numbers, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Crime Commission of felony cases closed during Williams’ first year in office.
‘DISSERVICE TO THE PUBLIC’
Looking at all felonies resolved in court in 2021 either through dismissal, plea or trial, only 41 percent ended in a conviction, and only 10 percent ended guilty as charged, the MCC calculated.
Zeroing in on violent felonies, including everything from murder to rape to carjackings and other robberies, the conviction rate was up to 53 percent, but only six percent were guilty as charged, the MCC’s statistics show.
“That’s a failure. It’s a failure as a prosecutor,” said MCC President Rafael Goyeneche.
In the rest of the 2021 violent felony convictions, 19 percent of the cases ended with a plea to a lesser felon, and 27 percent ended in a misdemeanor.
By comparison, Williams’ predecessor Leon Cannizzaro secured felony convictions at more than double the current rate, topping 50 percent in each of his last two years in office before COVID shut down jury trials, according to the MCC.
“You’re doing a disservice to the public,” Goyeneche said. “And the bottom line is you’re not doing any favors for the offender, because you’re setting him up to go right back.”
While the DA’s office declined to answer questions, the office did push back against the MCC’s findings in a statement.
“From Day 1, we have been committed to increasing safety and delivering justice by being laser-focused on violent crimes in our city,” spokesman Curtis Elmore III wrote in an email. “The very high percentage rate of guilty verdicts secured in court since jury trials resumed in March and the 4,000-plus convictions secured by way of guilty plea since DA Williams took office is proof of that work.”
“Through a fulfilled public records request from Mike Perlstein asking for a breakdown of guilty dispositions and the DA’s Office’s first-ever public data dashboards,” Elmore wrote, “which allow the public to check our work for themselves in real time, we have proven that we are committed to transparency and to bringing the community along with us as we work to hold accountable those who choose to wreak havoc in our neighborhoods.”
While the DA’s office under Williams has been the first in New Orleans – and among the first in the state – to provide an online dashboard, the statistics do not include dismissals or plea deals that result in misdemeanors and lesser felonies. The three dashboards break down the percentage of cases accepted and declined, the raw number of guilty pleas and the number and type of cases referred to the office by law enforcement.
Deeper research into the 2021 guilty pleas did reveal cases similar to Toppins, in which the charges in a guilty plea were a steep reduction of the original charges accepted by the office.
Take the case of 27-year-old Montreal Baham. Williams inherited Baham’s case when he was still in the DA’s office diversion program following a heroin possession arrest. Diversion gives defendants the opportunity to get a second chance and avoid prison time if they complete counseling and other conditions established by the DA’s office.
Yet despite failing the program, Baham’s case was closed with no further consequences, court records show.
Then, in a case charged by Williams’ office, an aggravated assault with a gun, a felony, Baham was allowed to plead down to an assault minus the gun, a misdemeanor. Baham was given on a six-month suspended sentence, but in February, less than a year after his plea, Baham was booked with second-degree murder in a 7th Ward killing. He is awaiting trial.
“They will recidivate and come back into the system to cost more money and more havoc and more victims,” Goyeneche said.
Other officials have been critical of Williams. Last year, Police Chief Shaun Ferguson complained about a revolving door for repeat offenders under Williams. The DA responded by taking a shot at the NOPD for not making enough arrests.
That war of words has since cooled, but the armed robbery case made against Ronald Burton by the NOPD’s elite Violent Crime Abatement and Intelligence Team is among those that have been a source of inter-agency friction. VCAIT is the pro-active unit Ferguson developed to go after the city’s most violent repeat offenders, and sure enough Burton is a career criminal going back to the 1980s.
Going back to his most recent conviction, for burglary, Burton violated his probation and in 2016 was sentenced to six years in prison. He was already out on Thanksgiving of 2020 when detectives say rode up to two people on a bike on Montegut Street, pulled a gun and robbed them. VCAIT officers quickly zeroed in on Burton and booked him with two counts of armed robbery and being a felon with a firearm.
He faced up to 99 years on the armed robberies, but he was allowed to plead down to simple robbery. In June, he was sentenced to 30 months.
“An armed robbery is really just an inch away from being a shooting or a killing” Glasser said.
While Williams office did not make themselves available to answer questions about these individual cases or others with steeply reduced charges, historically some plea deals are necessary.
Cases may falter when witnesses get cold feet, or evidence is suppressed by a judge, or new information is gathered. But Goyeneche said the big picture is too glaring to ignore.
“A prosecution, an arrest for a felony, that is concluded as a dismissal or a misdemeanor plea deal is a failed prosecution,” Goyeneche said.