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Back to School

Crystal Head #7, Barb Choit, 2014. Courtesy the artist.

Crimewatcher

The victim of a robbery starts attending trials in New Orleans to understand the system while her burglar serves time in jail. Then he gets out.

We’d been back in New Orleans for just two months when our house was burglarized, and my husband, Malcolm’s, car was stolen. It was February, 2006, Mardi Gras season and freezing. Our son Andrew had gotten home at 11:30 p.m. and he’d not locked the back door. Someone jumped our eight-foot fence, walked through the kitchen and into the front hall, took money out of Malcolm’s wallet and picked up the keys to his SUV. What he didn’t take: a cold beer from the fridge, the Bose radio, the cigar box on the counter stuffed with pocket change. The thief’s stealing was focused: cash and wheels. And he left the back door wide open, which is how Malcolm knew something was wrong the next morning at seven when he got up to make coffee and felt cold air blowing through the hall.

Malcolm woke me, and we woke Andrew. We called 911 and five New Orleans police showed up within 20 minutes. They had us call OnStar, because the SUV had a GPS system.

“An inside job,” the plainclothes detective decided because the crime had been quiet and precise. An officer named Cade asked Andrew terse, direct questions about where he’d been that night, who’d dropped him off. The lieutenant in charge took me aside and said that they were sorry to have to question our son. Just because he went to a Jesuit high school—I’d mentioned this to him—didn’t mean that his friends didn’t steal money for drugs. They saw this kind of thing all the time. Andrew looked shaken and reticent, and I took him out on the front porch and asked him if he was hiding anything, and, if so, to please tell the truth now.

Officer Cade got a call on his radio saying they’d pinpointed our car at a stoplight in the 700 block of Canal Street. Within minutes, NOPD had surrounded the car and arrested Micah Howard. Cade told us they’d recovered most of Malcolm’s money.

A policewoman gave Malcolm and Andrew a ride down to Canal Street. My husband and son watched Micah Howard in handcuffs in the middle of the neutral ground, smiling at the girls who’d stopped to watch his arrest. He’d been a work release inmate at Orleans Parish Prison, doing time for simple burglary and auto theft, and a few weeks away from freedom. Canal Street on the morning of Bacchus had to be the most secure place in America. It was crowded with New Orleans policemen, the National Guard—still deployed from after Katrina—and inveterate parade-goers grabbing their spots ten hours in advance.

Officer Cade walked over to Andrew and apologized for questioning him so roughly. “I understand,” Andrew said. “It’s cool.” Malcolm’s camera, a laptop, windbreakers and fleeces in the hatch, sunglasses in the ashtray—all of his stuff was still there in the car. But on the console was Micah’s bag of pot, a pack of Camels, a watch with half of the strap missing, and a green Bic lighter.

Within 90 minutes of discovering the crime, our car was back on the side of our house, Andrew and Malcolm were home, and Micah Howard was in jail.

We did the math: Before Katrina, there were over 480,000 people in New Orleans, and over 100,000 arrests a year. By the summer of 2006, about a year after the storm, only about 230,000 people were left. After Katrina we’d felt safer in the city, figuring that most of the bad guys were somewhere else, someone else’s problem.

 

I’d been afraid to go to Micah’s trial, to see the person who walked into our kitchen in the middle of the night. Malcolm had spoken to the D.A., shown up for the hearings, done the heavy lifting, and seen the case through trial, while I waited at home and then pressed him greedily for all the details.

“Was his mother in the courtroom?” I asked before he could even sit down.

“I don’t know,” Malcolm said.

Micah had been charged with five counts but three of them had been dropped. He’d stolen our car and money, but this couldn’t be proved; only that he was in possession of stolen property.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“Twenty-two,” Malcolm said.

“Did he look worried? Like he’d screwed up?”

“I couldn’t see his face but he was probably disappointed. The jury almost acquitted him.”

“That can’t be,” I said. “They found him in your car. He gave back the money he didn’t spend.”

“I’m telling you,” Malcolm said. “Officer Cade never got a signed confession. And the jurors didn’t trust the word of the police.”

Micah Howard received a sentence of six years, hard labor.

 

On a chilly morning in March of 2007, I walked up to the Latter Library, a converted mansion on St. Charles Avenue built in 1907, to attend a Court Watch training session. A dozen concerned citizens like me were waiting outside for the doors to open.

The program’s founder explained how we would monitor judges and their cases. She said, “We want to follow what happens after the arrest is made.” Our job would be to sit in courtrooms, follow cases, and file reports. An arrested person’s docket can run for pages and go on for years. Since the program had begun in 2007, court watchers had observed almost 300 criminal cases and seen only four go to trial.

We asked 20 questions, betraying how little most of us knew about due process, and letting on how much we watched Law & Order. We left the library clutching the shiny yellow clipboards that would be our calling cards. Holding these, the founder explained, we’d be granted easy access to the New Orleans criminal courts. Prosecutors and defense attorneys and judges, clerks of court and sheriff’s deputies would notice us in their court rooms because this was the point: accountability.

The volunteers that morning came from different parts of the city: an uptown matron in red lipstick; a rumpled World War II veteran from Gretna; a Metairie house wife with gold hoop earrings; an earnest, bearded man about to start Tulane law school. We were there for similar reasons: an interest in the law, concern about crime, anger with the loop-holed legal system, and a desire to help fix our destroyed city. I wanted a second chance to see a trial for myself.

 

The outside of New Orleans Criminal Court on the corner of Tulane and Broad was gray and stony. Inside, it was breathtaking. Giant etched-glass art deco chandeliers hung from vaulted ceilings and the marble floors gleamed.

I parked across the street at the U-Haul place, pressed my yellow clipboard against my chest, hiked up the steps and got waved through the metal detector by a sheriff’s deputy. I’d been assigned to Judge White’s courtroom, which was cramped in a temporary space on the top floor. It was a Friday and my first time court watching. When I entered the chambers, family members turned around to stare. I sat timidly in the back. Violent criminals waited twenty yards away, shackled men in orange jumpsuits who’d been instructed by deputies to take a seat in the jury box.

I was there to observe two motion hearings—an armed robbery and a second-degree murder. The day’s docket was long. I tried to pick up the jargon of attorneys who spoke quickly and sotto voce. The accused men I’d been sent to follow stood with their public defenders in front of Judge White. Their motions were handled in seconds, continuances granted.

We asked 20 questions, betraying how little most of us know about due process, and letting on how much we watch Law & Order.

I filled out my reports and stuffed them into the wooden box in the Court Watch office on the third floor. It was only 10 a.m., but I’d seen fourteen cases inch forward, watched the tired-looking men be escorted back to their cells at Orleans Parish Prison by sheriff’s deputies.

The next time I landed in Judge White’s courtroom I sat on the front row. We were supposed to alternate sides of the aisle so we didn’t seem partial to the prosecution or the defense, and I’d found a seat behind the district attorneys. The clerk of court came over and asked me what cases I was following. I told them. The prosecutors gave me nods.

An elegant woman in her late fifties sat down beside me. She’d dressed up in a brightly flowered shirt and red pants, and she carried a crocheted wool sweater.

“You smell good,” I said, her soft perfume like a gift.

“I can’t tell anymore,” she said, pressing her wrists to her nose. “You’ve heard of Paloma Picasso. I’ve worn this for 15 years.”

“I remember it,” I said, smiling.

It was plea day in Judge White’s courtroom and the place needed a traffic light. The jury box was crowded with men in orange jumpsuits. Many of them would plead down to lesser charges. The chamber filled with families and friends, and defendants in street clothes out on bail, back in court up to plead their cases.

“Good morning,” the sheriff’s deputy said in his baritone voice as people entered the courtroom. “Here to come before the judge?”

The judge’s secretary passed out nametags and assigned numbers. Everyone was treated with courtesy, a smile.

Judge White heard cases in groups of four or five, read the defendants their rights over and over again, and sentenced them. “Good luck,” she said to each guilty man. “I hope your time passes quickly.”

“Who are you here for?” I asked the woman beside me.

“My nephew, Patrick,” she said. “I know he’s looking at me from the box but I can’t look back. I’ll start crying.”

“What did he do?” I asked, as gently as I could, but my nosy question made me cringe.

“Armed robbery,” she said. “He was living by me, because my sister had trouble with drugs, but then she wanted him back. So I had to let him go.” She shook her head.

“He got in trouble when he wasn’t living with you,” I said.

She sighed and looked down at her hands. “I could’ve stopped him.”

I didn’t ask her which of the men in the box was her nephew, but she called him Patrick.

I’d observed my cases, but the morning docket was going to continue through lunch. I had to go.

“God bless you,” his aunt said, and she squeezed my hand.

When I got home I found online that Patrick had been arrested six times since 1997, first for selling pot, then heroin, simple battery, with an arrest-less period of three years when he must’ve been living with his aunt, who would now be with him through his trial, and after that. That morning there had been only one man in the box not dressed in orange. This was her nephew because in his docket it said he’d been placed into the custody of the feds. Federal prisoners wore light blue.

 

In 2007, there were 58,050 arrests made in New Orleans. Our peaceful Mid-City neighborhood was being hit by crime, day and night. While the wife of a local musician picked the kids up from school, her house was robbed. When a man left his house at 7:30 a.m. for 45 minutes, burglars broke in and threw stuff into a pillowcase with time to spare. A college student ran out to his car at 2:30 a.m. to look for a CD, and four men held him up at gunpoint and took his keys and his car.

The newspaper said a lot of New Orleans crime is made up of a few thousand of the same people being arrested and let go. At least Micah was off the streets for six years. When judges convict and sentence, the city gets a speck safer.

At a neighborhood watch meeting, the police explained that most robberies, break-ins and carjackings were crimes of opportunity. Criminals walked through neighborhoods, looking to steal enough to sell so they could buy drugs. “They watch you,” the police told us. “They see your patterns.”

It sounded like what he was saying is that we shouldn’t take these crimes personally. Stealing was their livelihood, it’s what they did, which made you wonder how many thieves jiggled your doorknob while you were inside your home, sleeping or watching TV, or when you weren’t home, because in our case Micah didn’t care whether we were there or not. Before Micah I didn’t know the difference between a robbery and a burglary. Before Micah we had never been the victims of a crime. A victim can be many things, many of which described us: injured party, target, recipient, dupe.

Since Micah, we set the alarm even when we run to the store for milk. He made us afraid, and then he got me out of the house.

I wanted to know where Micah lived so I could drive by his place, and maybe catch his mother or grandmother outside. I wouldn’t have the courage to stop, only to stare. But his docket didn’t list his address.

After a year and a half I put down my yellow clipboard. I’d seen enough judges keep defendants waiting, seen enough defense attorneys show up late for court and keep their clients waiting. The continuances and delays, the excuses and scheduling conflicts turned swift justice into sludge. Meanwhile, the stream of new arrests seemed endless, hopeless. I wanted to help stop crime on the front end, so I volunteered in the city’s new charter schools to help remedial students read closer to level.

I imagined Micah Howard in his cell, lying on his back, with time to sleep and think for days. He was so close to being out of jail. He told the police he drove the car to Canal Street on the morning of Bacchus because he was looking for girls.

I imagined him on our porch, looking through the oval window of our front door. He saw Malcolm’s wallet and keys on the hall table, so he tried that door. Locked. And then he tried the side door. Also locked. I knew this because I found some woman’s checkbook—her address a neighborhood away—that Micah had dropped there. Ours wasn’t the only house he walked into that night.

What if Andrew had locked the kitchen door? We’d still think crimes happened to other people. Since Micah we set the alarm even when we run to the store for milk. He made us afraid, and then he got me out of the house.

 

By now, I thought, Micah Howard should have completed serving his time. I looked him up online in the Times-Picayune. This January, he robbed at gunpoint a man carrying groceries on Harding Drive. He wanted car keys, but the man wasn’t carrying them, so Micah took the groceries and, inadvertently, an iPad that was in one of the bags. He dropped the bags but kept the iPad, so the man called 911. Micah led the police on a chase through Bayou St. John, a genteel neighborhood five blocks from our house. During the chase, Micah forced his way into a house on N. Dupre and was finally cornered by a police dog in a backyard on Dumaine Street. By then, he’d dropped the iPad and the firearm, which, he later claimed in court, was only a pellet gun. It was never found but the iPad was recovered.

Micah, 28, was out of prison after serving six years for the crimes he visited on my family and me, and on parole through February 2016. He was charged with armed robbery, simple burglary, illegal possession of stolen property, possession of a firearm by a felon, and resisting an officer. This time all the charges stuck. After five months of court delays and continuances, he pled guilty to all counts and was sentenced this May to twelve years. His sentences will run concurrently.

I didn’t know what he looked like until this second arrest when the newspaper ran his mug shot. He is hardened, staring down the camera, his jaw set as if to say, there’s nothing more you can do to hurt me. Is the defiance masking defeat? Does he know he’s serving a life sentence in installments?

At night I watch local news and squint at the blurry videos, the shootouts, and measure how close these battles are to where we live. It feels like no part of the city is safe.

The shooters and armed robbers I see on the news are strangers; Micah and I have a connection. I’d like to be a writer who gets in my car and drives up to Angola prison for restorative justice, to sit across the table from my offender. I’d like to be the writer who asks Micah why his crimes seem almost purposeful—i.e., from us he stole a car and some cash to buy dope and check out the girls on Canal Street. Had he dropped the stolen checkbook at my side door because he didn’t need it? He took off with the man’s grocery bags so the robbery wouldn’t be a waste? Was the iPad lagniappe? But these are logical, patronizing, white lady questions. Micah, is jail less uncomfortable than the streets? What are you afraid of? Do you ever see yourself out? I’d be afraid he’d look at me, disgusted and bored. I’d be afraid he’d say, “How about next time I’m out you give an ex-con a job?” I’m half victim, half apologist, and not someone who will ever look him square in the eye. Instead, I try to settle my fear of him by giving him a story.

On the way home from the grocery, I drive the route Micah’s recent crimes took, his attempted escape through shaded, triangulated streets named after U.S. presidents, across the narrow bayou, and into the fifth ward. Everything is calm, just people coming and going.

I tell Malcolm about Micah’s recent arrest, about how I looked up his docket on the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s website to see whether he’d been convicted, or if he was out on bail, walking around, looking again through our windows. I tell my husband the judge ordered that Micah complete his GED in prison.

That should be the hard labor,” my husband says, “to sit all day in a classroom.” He runs both hands through his hair. “This is making my head explode.”

I say, “He’ll be 40 now when he gets out.”