Death and Dysfunction in New Orleans
There isn’t much to distinguish Merline Kimble’s house from every other double-shotgun dwelling in New Orleans. The façade, which hasn’t been painted in a generation, has hints of blue. A string of bells brightens the front door. A lone roof vent hangs precariously above, waiting to be repaired.
Sitting on her stoop, Kimble looks away. She is still haunted by that vent. “I just keep thinking that if Raymond hadn’t come to fix it,” she says, eyes downcast as the rain pours around her, “he might still be alive today.”
One month before Katrina ravaged the city, Raymond Robair showed up to work on her house. It was early on a Saturday and Kimble was still asleep, so Raymond sat down to eat. The 48-year-old roofer knew this Treme neighborhood well – some of his handiwork down the street would survive the storm. Robair, however, wouldn’t make it past breakfast.
According to prosecutors, New Orleans police officers arrived and began to brutally beat him. Witnesses recall hearing a piercing scream. The officers then put the unconscious Robair into their squad car and drove to Charity Hospital where they dropped him off without identifying themselves. Robair would die from his injuries on the surgery table.
Civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, who filed suit on behalf of the Robair family in 2006, told FRONTLINE in an interview last year that tensions had been building for months before Katrina after a series of incidents involving the NOPD. What happened to Robair, she says, was the final straw. “People were very upset by this death.”
Earlier this month, nearly six years after events took place, a federal jury convicted the two officers in Robair’s death. Melvin Williams a department veteran is expected to face life in prison for his part in the death and subsequent cover up; and his rookie partner Matthew Dean Moore up to 25 years for his part. The two men will be sentenced later this year.
According to Howell, the Robair case shows how dysfunctional the criminal justice system was pre-Katrina. “Katrina didn’t create the problems, it just exposed them.”
“I Have to Believe the Cops”
In the Robair case, the problems started at the coroner’s office.
Before a ruling was made on how Robair had died, the coroner Dr. Frank Minyard said officers Williams and Moore had gone to speak with him. Minyard says they told him they had found Robair writhing in pain on the ground, presumably from a fall.
“I have to believe the cops,” Minyard told FRONTLINE this week. “They are my eyes and ears. I have never had the cops lie to me before.”
Minyard signed the death certificate without knowing if Robair’s death was truly an accident or a homicide. So he called it neither. “That’s why I classified it as ‘unclassified’,” he said.
The officers were seemingly in the clear.
But Minyard’s pathologist Dr. Paul McGarry, hadn’t performed a complete autopsy. Nonetheless, McGarry called the death “accidental” on his initial report. Howell requested and received a copy of his findings.
“It was a mistake that it got out,” Minyard said. “It got all twisted up because McGarry called it an accident.”
“If I know that Dr. McGarry has done the autopsy, and if I know that it is an in-custody death, I am routinely going to do a second autopsy,” Howell told FRONTLINE. “If the family wants it, I’m going to recommend it to them. And that’s what we did with Robair.”
Robair’s daughter, Judonna Mitchell, took Howell’s advice and ordered the second autopsy. “I didn’t realize that they could cost so much more. Everybody is not able to come up with $4,000 in time of death.” Mitchell spoke with FRONTLINE last week. “My family helped out a great deal, and I was blessed for them to come up with the funds. It had to be done.”
When the results of the second autopsy came back, performed by an independent medical examiner in Georgia, Robair’s death was determined a homicide. Howell told reporters that the second autopsy showed that Robair had suffered trauma to his lower body. She also said that in Dr. McGarry’s first autopsy, he had failed to do a full examination. The second autopsy recorded 23 separate bruises on his body consistent with a beating.
With this new evidence in hand, it took more than a year for the NOPD, in disarray after Katrina, to refer the case to the district attorney’s office. Another year passed before the D.A.’s office decided not to pursue a criminal prosecution, although it issued a written statement saying there was “ample evidence” to bring a federal civil rights suit.
In 2010, following an extensive investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, officers Williams and Moore were indicted. Both pleaded not guilty. To this day, they continue to maintain that they acted heroically by rushing him to the hospital.
“What they were saying, it was an insult to an intelligent person,” Mitchell told FRONTLINE. “It was a classic case of trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
FRONTLINE left multiple messages for the attorney of the defense, but did not get a response.
After the trial, attorneys Frank DeSalvo and Eric Hessler told reporters that the jury’s decision to convict their clients was proof that a New Orleans police officer could not get a fair trial in the city anymore.
Coroner Minyard said the officers “are obviously guilty. If they lied to me that’s their fault.”
A Need for Deep, Wide Cultural Change
While Mitchell described herself as “overwhelmed with gratefulness” for the justice her father received, Howell remains dubious that any one case can change the way the criminal justice system works. For that to happen “there has to be a cultural change, deep and wide.”
“People don’t have faith in their institutions, they are not confident about calling the police, have no confidence in the coroner’s office, or the D.A.’s office, especially when it comes to in-custody deaths.”
Unfortunately, the coroner’s office is literally falling apart.
When FRONTLINE spoke to Minyard Monday morning, he reported that their office had just suffered an electrical fire and was now unusable. They had been moved to this temporary facility after their previous office was flooded during Katrina. During the move, their staff was cut from 30 employees to nine. One was living in a trailer in the back of the office.
But now, in Minyard’s words, the coroner’s office is “homeless again.”
As he sat on the sidewalk of Martin Luther King waiting for the fire department to clear the building, a gun battle raged down the street. As Minyard describes it, they’re located in the “killing fields,” and he needs to find a place to do five to ten autopsies a day. “Who knows what tonight will bring? We could have a rash of murders.”
When asked if the Robair case would change anything, he flatly said, “No, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing.”