Jurors were deliberating Thursday night the fate of a 24-year-old New Orleans man charged with first-degree murder in the April 1998 shooting of a security guard at a Lower 9th Ward chicken restaurant during an armed robbery that netted less than $200.
In the four-day trial before Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson, prosecutors argued that Blaise Fernandez killed Dolly Anderson in the Popeyes restaurant on St. Claude Avenue before she even had a chance to unholster her gun, then fled the restaurant on foot, only to be caught by New Orleans police less than two minutes later, his mask and weapons discarded.
His car was left running at the scene. So was a handgun registered in his name that matched one of the shots fired during the robbery, police said.
But defense attorneys said their client was a victim of tragic circumstances, among more than a dozen panicked customers who fled the restaurant. His attorneys said he was shot at by four police offcers and beaten into a false confession that was not recorded on audio tape or video.
"Blaise Fernandez on April 24, 1998, went into Popeyes with guns blazing, and he shot Dolly Ander son right away," Assistant District Attorney Aaron Greenstone told jurors in closing arguments Thursday.
Defense calls client victim of circumstance
"He executed that woman. He wanted to get $171 and change. Ask Dolly Anderson if her life was worth more than that that's all he got away with."
Fernandez, who had no previous criminal record and could face the death penalty if convicted, took the stand in his own defense Thursday, saying he fled with other customers when two gunmen entered the restaurant that night. All other witnesses said there was only one gunman.
Did you go into that Popeyes restaurant that night and shoot Dolly Anderson and proceed to rob the store?" defense attorney John Thomas asked Fernandez.
"No, sir, I did not," Fernandez said, answering questions slowly and deliberately during his testimony that stretched nearly two hours.
Throughout the trial, Thomas and defense attorney Jeff Smith attacked the police investigation, showing jurors that Fernandez's account of being beaten by police was corroborated by the mugshot of his swollen face. He said the statement in which his client confessed to the shooting and robbery was extracted by force by officers who took Fernandez back to the 5th District station for questioning. A videotape taken from the restaurant security camera that night was never produced. Police said the tape had not been rewound the night of the robbery.
"This is how New Orleans police get a statement!" Thomas demonstrated to jurors. "They pound a phone book in the back of your head. They forced him to sign this statement or threatened that he would be beaten again."
District Homicide Commander Addie Fanguy testified Thursday that he instructed detectives not to use a tape recorder for the statement. He later said outside the courtroom that this was his policy because the decentralization of NOPD several years ago slowed the process of transcribing taped statements.
Fanguy denied that Fernandez was abused. Later, a sheriff's deputy who booked Fernandez into the Orleans Parish Prison testified that she would have included abuse complaints on his booking form. There were none, although Fernandez said he was given painkillers when admitted to the jail.
"I couldn't lift my right arm," he testified.
Prosecutors David Weilbaecher, Alex Lambert and Greenstone detailed the trail of evidence they say led back to Fernandez: a disearded blue jacket, rubber work gloves two guns and a makeshift mask dropped along his path of flight and, most of all, the casing in the restaurant from his 380-caliber handgun, which records show he purchased the previous year.
After defense attorneys had Fernandez put on the gloves, saying they didn't fit, Weilbaecher donned them to show that the wearer could have still fired the guns, despite the gloves bulkiness.
"His car, his gun, his mask, his clothes — it's him," Weilbaecher said. "His plan fell through, and Dolly Anderson is dead."
The Times-Picayune, Friday, February 11, 2000
By Rhonda Bell, Staff writer
Jury deliberates murder case
Man accused in Popeyes killing
A New Orleans man who prosecutors say was desperate for cash was convicted Friday of first-degree murder in the April 1998 slaying of a security guard at a fried chicken restaurant.
Jurors, who reached a verdict after five hours of deliberation, today will decide whether Blaise Fernandez will be sentenced to life or death by lethal injection. Prosecutors say Fernandez 24, shot and killed Dolly Anderson, 42, before holding up a Popeyes restaurant in the 5600 block of St. Claude Avenue on April 24, 1998. Anderson, of St. Bernard Parish, was shot once in the leg and twice in the shoulder. Police said Fernandez, brandishing two handguns, then leaped atop the restaurant counter and held cashiers at gunpoint as they filled his bags with the night's cash.
Defense attorneys John Thomas and Jeff Smith said their client was not the shooter, but one of the fleeing customers that night. He was found within blocks of the restaurant after a two-minute foot chase by police officers. He was unarmed. But officers who chased him testified that he had ditched the two handguns, a .380-caliber and 9 mm, as he ran. Clothing and a makeshift mask that witnesses said the shooter wore were found in Fernandez's wake. A bag containing $171 also was found near the restaurant.
Although police say Fernandez gave them a typewritten statement about the crime, defense attorneys said police had beaten their client and then coached him on the specifics of the crime. The statement was not audio- or videotaped. None of Fernandez's fingerprints were found on either gun or any of the evidence, defense attorneys showed.
But Fernandez's car was left running in the restaurant parking lot that night just a few feet from a side door where Anderson lay slain. The .380-caliber handgun found in the Popeyes parking lot belonged to Fernandez, although he testified he'd left it in his car and never fired it. Ballistics tests showed that one of the casings found at the crime scene had been fired by Fernandez's weapon.
Anderson's family, including her mother from California, had no comment after Criminal District Judge Calvin Hunter announced the verdict, but later Fernandez's family reacted emotionally in the hallway of the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street. Some relatives wailed after jurors retired for the day
"They got themselves another black man," the defendant's mother, Gerald Fernandez, said outside the courtroom.
Assistant District Attorneys David Weilbaecher, Aaron Greenstone and Alex Lambert prosecuted Fernandez. His conviction was the first first-degree conviction since last November, ending a losing streak for Orleans Parish prosecutors in capital murder cases. In three months, four accused killers in capital cases were acquitted.
The Times-Picayune, Friday, February 12, 2000
By Rhonda Bell, Staff writer
Jury must decide on death penalty
N.O. man convicted in slaying of guard