Friday, September 16, 2005

Older Woman Jailed for "Looting": Shared by Alicia Smash (SIS)

This came to me in an email from Alicia Smash. I thought I would share it with you at the risk of encouraging you to paste into the blog rather than write for the blog. Alicia did not ask me to share, but. . . .


Merlene Maten's bail was set at $50,000 and she spent over two weeks jailed over a sausage.Talk About It: Post Thoughts

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.

"There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them." -Elois Short

"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."


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