Friday, September 16, 2005

Churchgoing Grandma Jailed Over Sausage

Accused of Looting, She Spent Over Two Weeks Locked Up

KENNER, Louisiana

(Sept. 16) - Merlene Maten undoubtedly stood out in the prison where she has been held since Hurricane Katrina. The 73-year-old church deaconess, never before in trouble with the law, spent two weeks among hardened criminals. Her bail was a stiff $50,000. Her offense? Police say the grandmother from New Orleans took $63.50 in goods from a looted deli the day after Katrina struck.

Family and eyewitnesses insisted Maten was an innocent woman who had gone to her car to get some sausage to eat only to be mistakenly arrested by tired, frustrated white officers who couldn't catch younger looters at a nearby store. Despite intervention from the nation's largest senior lobby, volunteer lawyers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even a private attorney, the family fought a futile battle for 16 days to get her freed. Maten's diabetes, her age, not even her lifelong record of community service could get the system moving.

Even the store owner didn't want her charged. "She has slipped through the cracks and the wheels of justice have stopped turning," her attorney Daniel Beckett Becnel III said, frustrated. Then, hours after her plight was featured in an Associated Press story, a local judge on Thursday ordered Maten freed on her own recognizance, setting up a sweet reunion with her daughter, grandchildren and 80-year-old husband. It was unclear whether she would be released Thursday evening or Friday. "I'm just gonna hug her and say 'Mom, I'm so sorry this had to happen."'

Maten's tearful daughter, Elois Short, told AP shortly after getting the news. Maten must still face the looting charge at a court hearing in October. But the family, armed with several witnesses, intends to prove she was wrongly arrested outside the hotel in this New Orleans suburb where she had fled Katrina's floodwaters. "There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them. Instead of chasing after people who were running, they (police) grabbed the old lady who was walking," said Short, who works in traffic enforcement for neighboring New Orleans police.

The path to freedom was complicated amidst the chaos of Katrina. Maten has been moved from a parish jail to a state prison an hour away. Her daughter had evacuated to Texas. And the original judge who set $50,000 bail by phone - 100 times the maximum $500 fine under state law for minor thefts - hadn't returned a week's worth of calls. Becnel, family members and witnesses said police snared Maten in the parking lot of a hotel where she had fled the floodwaters that swamped her New Orleans home. She had paid for her room with a credit card and dutifully followed authorities' instructions to pack extra food, they said.

She was retrieving a piece of sausage from the cooler in her car and planned to grill it so she and her frail 80-year-old husband, Alfred, could eat, according to her defenders. The parking lot was almost a block from the looted store, they said. "That woman was never, never in that store," said Naisha Williams, 23, a New Orleans bank security guard who said she witnessed the episode and is distantly related to Maten. "If they want to take it to court, I'm willing to get on the stand and tell them the police is wrong. She is totally innocent."

Police Capt. Steve Carraway said Wednesday that Maten was arrested in the checkout area of a small store next to police headquarters. The arrest report is short and assigns the value of goods Maten is alleged to have taken at $63.50. The items are not identified. "When officers arrived, the arrestee was observed leaving the scene with items from the store.

The store window doors were observed smashed out, where entry to the store was made," police reported. Williams, one of the witnesses, said Maten was physically unable to get inside the store - even if she had wanted to. "She is not capable of even looting it the way the store was at the time. You had to jump over a counter, and she is a diabetic and weak-muscled and wouldn't be able to get herself over it. And she couldn't afford to step on broken glass," Williams said.

Williams said she tried to explain that to police but was brushed off. "They didn't want to hear it. They put handcuffs on her. They just said we were emotional. It was basically, 'Just shut up,"' she said. Maten's husband was left abandoned at the hotel, until family members picked him up. He is too upset to be interviewed, the family said.

Christine Bishop, the owner of the Check In Check Out deli, said that she was angry that looters had damaged her store, but that she would not want anyone charged with a crime if the person had simply tried to get food to survive. "Especially not a 70-year-old woman," Bishop said.

Short, Maten's daughter, did not witness the incident. She said her mother has led a law-abiding life. She is a deaconess at the Resurrection Mission Baptist Church and won an award for her decades of service at a hospital, Short said. "Why would someone loot when they had a car with a refrigerator and had paid with a credit card at the hotel?

The circumstances defy the theory of looting," said Becnel, Maten's lawyer. Robin Peak, a legal analyst from the AARP senior lobbying group who assisted Maten's family, declined to discuss the case. She wrote colleagues an e-mail earlier this week about the elderly woman's plight. It was titled, "50K: The Price of Freedom in New Orleans." Associated Press writer John Solomon contributed to this story from Washington.

09-16-05 04:26 EDT

No comments: