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New Orleans judge lowers defendant’s bond in first-degree murder case to $7,600

Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 1:34 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A defendant charged with first-degree murder had her bond reduced by an Orleans Parish judge from $302,000 to $7,600 on Monday, a decision that District Attorney Jason Williams’ office immediately said it would appeal.

Criminal District Court Judge Angel Harris ordered the bond reduction Monday (Feb. 14) for Byrielle Hebert, a 20-year-old woman charged with two other teens in connection with the slaying of 63-year-old Zelda Townsend. The New Orleans grandmother was shot in the head and killed during an alleged botched car burglary in Mid-City on May 8, 2019.

Assistant District Attorney Alex Calenda gave immediate notice of the state’s intent to appeal the judge’s decision, and Harris set a March 14 deadline for Williams’ office to file a writ request with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

“Our ADA vigorously objected against the reduction of Hebert’s bond,” Williams’ First Assistant Ned McGowan said in a statement. “Our office believes that Hebert is a danger to the community and do not support the court’s position.”

New Orleans police and prosecutors said Zelda Townsend joined her husband Danny in confronting Hebert and two accomplices burglarizing their car outside their Cleveland Avenue home. Investigators said Zelda Townsend was shot in the head and killed, and her husband wounded in the arm, when at least one of the teens opened fire on the adults confronting them.

Hebert, Emanuel Pipkins and Alvin Robinson -- who were 18, 17 and 16 at the time -- were indicted three months later on first-degree murder and other charges by an Orleans Parish special grand jury.

“The tragic murder of Zelda Townsend was not simply part of some one-off, youthful indiscretion,” former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said in announcing the indictments. “This investigation has revealed that these teens were engaged in a deliberate, planned series of car burglaries in which they used stolen cars and were willing to shoot people without hesitation once they were cornered.”

Defense attorney Eusi Phillips on Monday had asked the judge to order Hebert’s release from custody outright under Article 701, which governs Louisiana defendants’ right to a speedy trial, since his client has not had her day in court in nearly three years since her arrest. But Harris, a former public defender who unseated longtime incumbent Judge Franz Zibilich for the Section L seat in November 2020, opted instead to reduce Hebert’s bond by 97.5 percent.

“I think it sends the wrong message to the public that people that are committing the most serious crimes aren’t being treated appropriately by the criminal justice system, which undermines confidence in the entire criminal justice system,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the independent watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission.

Court records show Hebert’s trial delay has not been exclusively the fault of prosecutors. The state is on record having one continuance granted in September 2019, while defense attorneys were granted three continuances in the proceedings -- in November 2019, December 2019 and July 2020.

Hebert’s path to trial also was interrupted for three months in 2019, when defense attorneys asked the court to evaluate her mental competency. After examining the defendant, court-appointed doctors testified to their findings, and Zibilich in November 2019 found Hebert competent to stand trial. Other proceedings in the case have been delayed by the court’s own closures for COVID-19 mitigation and Hurricane Ida, and a successful effort by the defense to get an incriminating statement by one of the defendants suppressed by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Harris on Monday set a trial date of June 6 for all three defendants.

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The consideration Harris extended toward Hebert is not the judge’s only controversial bond decision in her first 13 months on the bench.

Former City Councilman Jay Banks last June publicly questioned Harris’ decision to reduce a $250,000 bond set by Zibilich for armed robbery defendant Brian Andry to $100,000. Harris lowered Andry’s bond in February 2021 -- her second month on the bench -- and Andry was freed a month later after making the lowered bond. Three months after that, Andry was arrested again, accused of stabbing 7th Ward physical therapist Portia Pollock to death and stealing the 60-year-old woman’s car.

Harris also set the $12,500 bond for New Orleans teen Tyrese Harris last November, after Williams’ office refused to prosecute an armed robbery count and instead charged him with aggravated flight from an officer after a man’s car allegedly was stolen at gunpoint last August. Tyrese Harris made that bond in December, and was out on it when police say he murdered 12-year-old Derrick Cash on Jan. 3 and injured realtor Kelleye Rhein during a carjacking from the Costco gas station on Feb. 3.

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