NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge Wednesday approved a 30-year plea bargain for a man who admitted killing an off-duty police officer and four other men, including a witness to a roadside double killing.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said she did so only because there was an unacceptable risk that Steven Wayne Hardrick might walk free from a trial.
Several members of the victims’ families walked out of the courtroom as Hardrick, 27, began apologizing to them. Others wept or muttered mild expletives to describe him or his statement. Neither Vance nor the bailiff said anything to them.
The families had pleaded with her at an earlier hearing to reject the deal made when Hardrick pleaded guilty in December, but declined an offer to speak in court on Wednesday.
Earlier, Vance had told the families, “I understand you feel this plea agreement is an affront to you. ... If I reject this plea agreement and Mr. Hardrick goes free there will be more violence, more crimes and more victims. ... I hope you take solace knowing that other families will not have to face the pain.”
The judge also ordered Hardrick to spend five years on probation once he gets out of jail, with a long list of requirements including holding a job and entering mental health and anger control programs. He must also pay $14,000 in restitution to the family of Dwayne Landry, who was killed trying to get back a gun that Hardrick had stolen from him. Prosecutor Elizabeth Privitera said Landry’s family was the only one that submitted a statement for restitution.
As Vance listed the five counts to which Hardrick had pleaded guilty, she described two as murders: Landry’s and that of detective Thelonius Dukes, who was shot during a home invasion. Brett Jacobs and David Alford were killed as a result of a carjacking and Howard Pickens as a result of witness tampering, she said.
“I should have shot him when I had the chance,” Theodore Robinson, who identified himself as Landry’s brother, said outside the courtroom. “That would have been justice. An eye for an eye.”
He said a jewelry thief would get more than 30 years. “Ain’t no justice even for a police officer,” Robinson said.
Vance said her only choices were to accept the plea bargain or reject it, opening the way for trial — and she agreed with prosecutors’ arguments that there was a substantial chance of acquittal. She listed some of them: None of Hardrick’s bullets was found in any of the bodies; there were no witnesses to Dukes’ and Landry’s murders; and a ballistics report showed that the only witness who described Hardrick as shooting victims had lied when he claimed that he himself did not have a gun.
Pickens’ fiancée, Vernella Rogers, had no comment afterward.
Jacobs’ uncle, Art Monroe, said he would have no comment until two codefendants are sentenced.
According to a memorandum filed by Hardrick’s attorneys, the case rests largely on the testimony of Robert Hart and Marvin Pierre, both of whom contradicted themselves in different statements and both of whom face substantially less than 30 years.
Hart pleaded guilty to two counts carrying a maximum total of 20 years and Pierre to one count with a maximum sentence of 15 years. Sentencing has not yet been set.
Hardrick’s brother, Devin Hardrick, said, “My brother is innocent. ... At the end of the day, you have to follow the dots. And the dots weren’t leading exactly to my brother.”
The attorneys’ memorandum also included a description of a childhood taking care of his sick mother and his younger brothers while his father fought addiction in another city. Letters from his parents, who are both pastors, and three other people including another pastor, show that he could be rehabilitated, the attorneys wrote.
The slain policeman’s brother, Leroy Dukes, called those arguments rubbish: “Our father wasn’t around. Our mother raised us by herself. She had three sons. None of us killed anyone.”
The judge told Steven Hardrick: “You’re the son of two preachers. I don’t think there’s really an excuse for anything you did. ... While you’re in prison I hope you grow up and reflect on how you wasted your life so far and how you ruined the lives of many other people.”
And, she told him, “If you return to a life of crime in prison or after you get out, that life sentence you avoided will be waiting for you.”