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New Orleans slaying suspect freed

The Nation

Garelle Smith is seen by some as an example of the city's troubled criminal justice system.

March 21, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Garelle Smith, a resident of one of New Orleans' toughest neighborhoods, was already a sort of poster boy for the city's troubled criminal justice system before prosecutors declined to charge him this week in the Aug. 4 slaying of Mandell Duplessis.

When Smith was arrested in January, an editorial in the Times-Picayune newspaper noted that he had been a suspect in two previous slayings but never went to trial.

The paper called Smith "the beneficiary of a gummed up criminal justice system." If he wasn't put away this time, the paper said, the police chief and head prosecutor would "face the full brunt of an angry public."

Smith, 25, was released from jail Tuesday.

Craig Famularo, chief of the homicide division in the Orleans Parish district attorney's office, said the evidence against Smith was thin.

Famularo said police arrested Smith because someone had heard him admit the crime. But two witnesses said Smith was not at the scene.

So far, four men have been arrested on suspicion of killing Duplessis, a 24-year-old drug dealer and aspiring rapper. But each has been released because witnesses were either not credible or uncooperative.

It is a familiar story in New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, a study by the Metropolitan Crime Commission found that only 12% of homicide arrests resulted in jail time.

Many cases fall apart because of notoriously fickle witnesses. Some mistrust the New Orleans Police Department, which has a long history of corruption. Some adhere to a street code that discourages snitching. Others fear retaliation from suspects.

The low incarceration rate for violent suspects adds to the fears because witnesses don't trust that the people they identify will be locked away.

Duplessis' mother, Nadine Finister, said Tuesday that she was concerned the investigation into her son's slaying was going nowhere. She said no one from the prosecutor's office or Police Department had called her.

"It's a mess," she said. "It's a real mess down here."

Smith was a suspect in the 2003 slaying of James Tapp, a 25-year-old gangsta rapper who performed as Soulja Slim. And he was suspected of killing another rapper, Spencer "Funk" Smith Jr., that same year. Both cases fell apart.

In January, police accused Smith of tearing down a fence in the St. Bernard housing project. He later was named a suspect in Duplessis' slaying.

Smith still faces a criminal damage charge in the fence case.

He was released from jail after posting a $2,500 bond, said a spokeswoman at the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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