Friday, September 16, 2005
Gretna not the only home for Racists. Who sets $50,000 bail for a 73 year old woman accused of looting $63 worth of groceries?
By Kevin McGill and John Solomon / Associated Press
KENNER, La. - Merlene Maten undoubtedly stands 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, now sleeps among hardened criminals. Her bail is a stiff $50,000.
Police say the grandmother from New Orleans took $63.50 in goods from a looted deli the day after Katrina struck.
Family and eyewitnesses have a different story. They say Maten is an innocent woman who had gone to her car to get some sausage to eat but was wrongly handcuffed by tired, frustrated officers who couldn't catch younger looters at a nearby store.
Not even the deli owner wants her charged.
"There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them. Instead of chasing after people who were running, they grabbed the old lady who was walking," said Elois Short, Maten's daughter, who works in traffic enforcement for neighboring New Orleans police.
Short has enlisted the help of the AARP, the senior citizens lobby, the Federal Emergency Management Agency legal assistance office, made up of volunteer lawyers, and a private attorney to get her mother freed. But the task has been complicated.
Maten has been moved from a parish jail to a state prison an hour away. And the judge who set $50,000 bail by phone — 100 times the maximum $500 fine under state law for minor thefts — has not returned a week's worth of calls, her lawyer said.
"She has slipped through the cracks and the wheels of justice have stopped turning for Mrs. Maten," attorney Daniel Beckett Becnel III said.
The family has not been able to visit her during her two weeks of confinement and was allowed to talk to her by phone for only a few minutes. The state prison declined to let The Associated Press interview Maten by phone, demanding a written request.
Becnel, family members and witnesses said police snared Maten, a diabetic, 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 AARP 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."