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Defendant pleads guilty to burglary of disabled Hollygrove man

According to the nola.com

A woman accused of trying to smother a disabled Hollygrove man during a burglary of his home – and the defense attorney who represented her – were each led away in handcuffs Friday (Jan. 13) in the bizarre finish to the woman’s trial.

Lottie Hibbler, who faced 10 to 50 years if convicted of attempted second-degree murder and up to 30 if found guilty of aggravated burglary, opted mid-trial to take a plea offer bearing a 12-year prison sentence. The defendant made the decision after hearing damaging morning testimony from her younger sister Loretta Norman, with whom she conspired to rob partially paralyzed victim Roy Payton on Nov. 20, 2013.

With Payton’s assent, Criminal District Judge Darryl Derbigny sentenced Hibbler to 12 years for aggravated burglary and 10 for aggravated second-degree battery. The judge credited her with time served since her November 2014 arrest and ordered the sentences to be served concurrently. With discounts for good behavior, she could wind up serving closer to 71/2 or eight more years, defense attorney Gary Wainwright estimated.

After thanking jurors for their service and dismissing the panel, Derbigny ordered Orleans Parish deputy sheriffs to handcuff and remand Hibbler to the Orleans Justice Center jail. Then Derbigny ordered the same for Wainwright, whose courtroom behavior about two hours earlier had prompted the judge to find him in contempt of court, in the presence of the jury.

Wainwright was led away for what, by state law, could be a jail sentence of 24 hours. The attorney protested and offered to pay a $50 fine instead, but Derbigny was unmoved. The state’s statute for punishing direct contempt allows for the 24 hours in jail, a fine of up to $100, or both.

The earlier courtroom scrapping between Wainwright and assistant district attorney Michael Danon, who prosecuted the case with Elise Madere, appeared to have agitated both the defense attorney and judge. Wainwright repeatedly objected to what he considered leading questions by Danon during Norman’s testimony, and said that in 27 years of practice he had not seen a prosecutor permitted to publish evidentiary photographs to a jury in the piecemeal manner Danon chose to employ.

But it was during one sidebar meeting with the lawyers that Derbigny’s tolerance for Wainwright’s commentary reached its limit. Apparently in mocking reaction to a ruling by the judge, Wainwright startled the courtroom with a jarringly loud burst of laughter. The judge was not amused, and angrily scolded the lawyer before the saucer-eyed jurors and defendant.

“There is nothing funny about this,” Derbigny snapped. “This is not a joke and that is entirely inappropriate. You are held in contempt, sir. That was a totally inappropriate outburst.”

Rather than apologize, Wainwright goaded the judge further.

“I’ll just have a seat, sir,” Wainwright told Derbigny. “(Danon) will just keep doing what he wants to.”

With that, the judge ordered the case attorneys into chambers for a meeting that spanned nearly 30 minutes. Norman would testify only a few more minutes, after which jurors were dismissed for a lunch break that stretched an extended time as the plea agreement was negotiated.

Reached by phone Friday evening, Wainwright said that despite being led away in handcuffs, he did not go to jail.

“I was never put in jail for contempt of court,” he said. “Not for a second.”

Wainwright said he and the judge instead had a “professional conversation.”

“We shook hands and everything was fine,” Wainwright said.

According to Wainwright, Derbigny had complained that Wainwright was yelling during the trial. Wainwright said he explained to the judge that he was simply projecting to compensate for the courtroom’s “bad acoustics” and the sound of jackhammers being used in construction work on the floor directly beneath the courtroom.

Wainwright said court officials had considered moving the trial to a different courtroom due to the noise but that did not happen.

Erroneous mistrial call by New Orleans judge overturned
Erroneous mistrial call by New Orleans judge overturned
An appellate court ruled that Judge Darryl Derbigny erred when he waved off the attempted murder trial of Lottie Hibbler before selected jurors were sworn in.

Jurors for the case were selected Wednesday, but Derbigny on Thursday declared a mistrial before they had even been sworn in, a decision opposed by both Wainwright and the state, and one that was overturned late Thursday afternoon by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Derbigny had said he felt the jury panel had been tainted, presumably by discussions regarding the shifting charges against Hibbler.

New Orleans police initially booked her in November 2014 with aggravated burglary and cruelty to the infirmed. After screening the case, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office upgraded the charges to aggravated burglary and attempted first-degree murder.

But the aggravated burglary accusation underpinned the attempted first-degree murder, leading Wainwright to protest that it violated his client’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy. The state essentially conceded the point, and on Friday morning amended the charges to aggravated burglary and attempted second-degree murder.

Danon said in his opening statement that Norman, the younger of the two sisters, had worked as an in-home nursing aid to Payton for nearly a year and a half. But after being fired about two weeks previously, she and Hibbler hatched a plan to rob the victim after his night nurse left, using a hidden key Norman knew of and the PIN codes to his bank cards to which she previously had access.

Danon said the two sisters were caught on surveillance video purchasing masks and gloves at a nearby Family Dollar store about 30 minutes before the burglary. He said they entered the house, with Norman going one way to steal valuables and Hibbler pressing a brown throw pillow over the victim’s face.

“In that moment,” Danon said, “that pillow was no different than a knife or a gun.” The prosecutor said Payton had to flail with all of his limited strength and mobility, fighting for his life by biting Hibbler’s finger and hand until the burglars fled.

The women ransacked the house for less than 10 minutes, Danon said, but during that time Payton caught a glance of Norman without a mask and recognized his former nurse. The sisters were later caught on surveillance cameras attempting to withdraw funds from Payton’s account at two branches of Chase Bank, and using his card to purchase gas at a Carrollton Avenue Shell station, the prosecutor said.

Norman, who was arrested the next day, pleaded guilty four months later to reduced charges of simple burglary and simple battery. In March 2014, Derbigny sentenced Norman to 12 years, but suspended 11 years of the sentence, ordering the woman to pay court fees and $780 in restitution while staying out of trouble during a five-year probation. Court records show Norman failed to complete her restitution payments and has been jailed since last October on a material witness bond to ensure her testimony in Hibbler’s trial. She was brought to the witness stand Friday in an orange jail jumpsuit and shackles.

But Norman’s testimony stayed in line with previous statements, verified prosecutors’ version of events, and pinned the idea for the crime on Hibbler.

“When she came to my house, that’s when she planned the burglary of Mr. Payton,” Norman testified. “Lottie said we were going to go in his house and take some money from him. So, I agreed, because she’s very manipulating.”

Hibbler sat at the defense table, shaking her head at her younger sister’s testimony.

Before his client changed her plea, Wainwright had suggested in his opening statement that Norman was being used as a pawn by the DA’s office. She faces revocation of her probation and possibly the reinstitution of her 12-year sentence at a scheduled Jan. 24 hearing, but told jurors she had been promised nothing for her testimony.

Wainwright suggested his client was a victim, a mother of three who had managed a McDonald’s in Amite before being misled by her younger sister.

“Her sister entreated her into this misadventure,” Wainwright said after the guilty plea was entered. “(Hibbler’s) mistake was that, once she was inside that house and realized what her sister was doing, she didn’t that second run out of that house. Instead, she picked up that pillow and placed it near (Payton’s) head, in the hope that he couldn’t see her sister’s face.”

Wainwright decried prosecutors’ insistence on 12 years as their final sentencing offer.

“The rationale for that was, ‘We don’t want her getting less than her sister got,'” Wainwright told the judge. “Well, we hope the State of Louisiana makes those words come true and makes her sister do those 12 years, too.”

After watching the spectacle unfold over much of the past three days, Payton steered his motorized wheelchair out of the courtroom Friday and said he was glad to have the ordeal behind him.

“I’m satisfied (with the sentences), and I’m glad it’s over,” Payton said. “It’s been a lot of restless sleep. But I’m pleased to the very best I can be after what happened.”