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Vendetta In New Orleans
The city panicked with fear of the Mafia when the police chief was murdered
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Almost from the outset of the trial an undercurrent of insinuation and suspicion had swirled about the integrity of the jury. Gossip around the courthouse had it that “big money might be made by going on the jury and doing right.” The money reportedly pouring into New Orleans to finance the defense tended to substantiate widespread suspicion of jury tampering. Toward the end of the trial two agents of D. C. O’Malley, a private detective working for the defense, actually were arrested and charged with attempting to bribe prospective jurors.
On Friday, the thirteenth of March, an impatient throng milled outside the courthouse. The jury had been out since the previous evening, and its verdict was due soon. At 2:53 P.M. the jury re-entered the courtroom, and the foreman handed the verdict to Judge Baker. The judge stared at it a full minute before ordering the verdict read. In the case of Macheca, Matranga, Bagnetto, Incardona, and the Marchesis the jury found “not guilty.” In the case of Monasterio, Polizzi, and Scamdi the jurors had not been able to agree on a verdict and had declared a mistrial.
As the New York Times reporter saw it, “So strong a case had been made by the State, the evidence had been so clear, direct and unchallenged, that the acquittal of the accused today came like a thunder clap from a clear sky.” Among the crowd outside the courtroom disbelief soon gave way to outrage. The air was acrid with shouts and ominous mutterings. The frightened jurors prudently melted into the crowd.
But if, after the trial, the jurors worried about the public’s attitude toward them, they expressed no misgivings about their judgment. A reporter questioned them shortly afterward. Some refused to comment, citing a pledge they had all made not to discuss the case further. But others, including the jury foreman, were willing to talk and expressed a low opinion of the prosecution’s case. Why hadn’t the prosecution called such obvious witnesses as Captain O’Connor and another police officer who had happened onto the murder scene? How reliable were eyewitnesses late on a rainy night in a dimly lit street ? And hadn’t the prosecution let the defense alibis go uncontradicted? One juror, acknowledging that the verdict may have “astonished” people, concluded, “If anybody could do any better than we did with the evidence, let them try.”
The nine defendants could not be freed immediately after the trial, since technically they still faced another charge, “lying in wait with intent to commit murder.” But in a day or two the state could be expected to drop this charge and set them free. Back in their cells the nine who had just been tried and the ten men still awaiting trial rejoiced in the verdict.
Along the Levee, people from the Italian colony began to gather in a festive mood. Italian boat owners in Lugger Bay near the French Market hoisted two flags on their masts—the Italian flag above, the Stars and Stripes below, upside down.
But as Italians celebrated on the Levee angry men met in another part of town to denounce the verdict and ponder other paths to justice. Several members of the Committee of Fifty had reconvened to form a “Vigilance Committee. ” That the Hennessy jury had been tampered with, the jurors bought off, and justice perverted was outrageously obvious to these men. Hadn’t the defense somehow secured the list of prospective jurors even before the judge released it? Hadn’t they been approached at home or on their way to the courthouse by defense emissaries with insinuations or outright offers of payment? Hadn’t two of these bribers actually been arrested just before the trial ended? And what about the huge sums the defense had available to work its will?
Members of the Vigilance Committee labored until midnight drafting an appeal for a mass protest. It was signed by more than sixty prominent citizens. Their work done, the committee sent copies of the statement to the local newspapers.
Saturday, March 14, the morning after the trial, dawned cool, clear, and sunlit after a week of steady rain. Sheriff Gabriel Villère read in his newspaper the statement the Vigilance Committee had issued: Mass Meeting All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14 at 10 o’clock A.M. , at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case. Come prepared for action.
If the call for action worried Sheriff Villère, he must have brushed his fears aside when he got to the Parish Prison and found nothing out of line. At 8:30 A.M. the sheriff left the prison in charge of his deputy, Captain Lem Davis, and headed for his office in City Hall.
Out on the Levee the city’s Italians renewed the festivities of the night before and prepared for a victory banquet. A mile away, at the statue of Henry Clay, the sun was drawing a crowd certain to please the Vigilance Committee. Just before 10 A.M. W. S. Parkerson, a leader of the committee’s call for action, a respected attorney and prominent politician, arrived on the scene. After leading a brief march around the base of the statue Parkerson mounted the pedestal and began to address the throng.