Big Easy Bounce

New Orleans, LA

A Bourbon Street bouncer did nothing wrong in helping restrain a Georgia college student – face down with three other bouncers pressing him to the sidewalk for 14 minutes – on New Year’s Eve 2004, a Calcasieu Parish jury ruled Thursday, March 27, 2008.

The 10-2 verdict, reached after a little more than one hour of deliberations and four days of testimony, freed Arthur Irons from any criminal wrongdoing in the death of Levon Jones, who stopped breathing after a clash with white bouncers outside Razzoo Bar & Patio.

Jones, 26, and a friend had just confronted a doorman over a supposed dress code that they were told barred them from entering the club. In a rare change-of-venue decision out of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, the trial was moved to Lake Charles due to national publicity about the last moments of Jones, a black college student who came to New Orleans to play in a national flag football tournament that was part of the Sugar Bowl celebration.

Irons, 43, of Slidell, bowed his head when the verdict was read, as one of his lawyers whispered in his ear. He and his former employers still face a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2005 by the victim’s family. That case is at the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, but is on hold until the criminal charges against the bouncers are resolved.

Acting Orleans Parish District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson said the acquittal changes nothing when it comes to three additional manslaughter cases awaiting trial.

“We accept the jury’s verdict,” said spokesman Dalton Savwoir Jr. “We are proceeding with the next set of cases.”

Three bouncers await trial for the same charge. Brandon Vicknair, Matthew Taylor, and Clay Montz all are free on bond, and Vicknair chose to testify on behalf of Irons this week, waiving his 5th amendment right to remain silent while he remains a suspect.

None of the three will face trial in Orleans Parish. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that all four bouncers may have a trial in another parish with a jury chosen there and not from Orleans, due to the widespread commentary by public officials and pundits after the death.

“The bouncers killed that man,” Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard told television news outlets. His office ruled the death a homicide, caused by asphyxia that arose after “excessive physical force.

A criminal conviction can damage a defendant’s chances in civil courts, where the burden of proof is lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” hurdle that criminal law places in front of prosecutors.

The only outburst in response to the verdict was a cry of relief from a woman supporting Irons. “I’m sorry,” she said, before sinking into the courtroom bench, in tears.

“I have very, very good news,” the club’s owner, Gaetana Edin said into a cell phone after the victim’s family had left the courtroom.

The victim’s family, including his parents and college buddies, absorbed the verdict in silence until they left the courtroom. Outside, Jones’ girlfriend, Glenda Milton, sobbed while her friends tried to console her.

“I can’t believe it,” Milton said. “I can’t believe it.”

The jury was made up of nine white women, two white men and one back man who served as the foreman. Attorney Sidney Arroyo released a statement on behalf of the club’s management after the acquittal came down.

“While the owners and staff of Razzoo are saddened by any circumstance when a tragic loss of life occurs, after four days of trial the evidence convinced the jury that their verdict of not guilty was proper and just,” Razzoo said. “Since cases related to this incident continue to be pending before our justice system, we must respectfully withhold any further comment at this time.”

Veteran defense attorneys Ralph Whalen and Donald Hyatt told the jury all week that Jones’ death was an accident that had nothing to do with the restraint holds that the bouncers used on him.

Jones was a drunken, rowdy college student who had spent the evening with his friends downing “Jagerbombs,” Whalen repeated. The drink – one shot of Jagermeister, the 70 proof German liqueur flavored with herbs dropped in a glass of the energy drink Red Bull – can cause the effects of alcohol to be masked for some time, Whalen told the jury. Jones was legally intoxicated at the time of his death, the coroner’s office found.

Irons testified that he was only afraid – never angry – when Jones hauled off and punched him in the face. He said the blow sent his glasses flying and led to the bouncers pinning Jones on the ground, face first, until a mounted police officer arrived 14 minutes later to handcuff the man beneath the Razzoo employees.

In 11 years running clubs on Bourbon, Irons said he had never had to wait more than a few minutes for NOPD to arrive. This night, however, it took more than 10 minutes. When Officer David Gaines arrived, on horseback, he offered his handcuffs to one of the Razzoo bouncers – who refused, citing club policy.

Jones was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. The bouncers said they did nothing but protect themselves and bystanders outside 511 Bourbon Street.

“What’s to say he didn’t have a knife or gun on him?” Vicknair said during testimony.

Irons told jurors earlier Thursday, “He comes at me, not in a threatening manner at the time. When he lunged at me a second time, he lunged directly into me. I raised my hands and he came into me. I did not shove him. I told him he needed to calm down. He took a step away, turns around and throws a punch. It knocks my glasses off. I spun around. I grabbed him so he couldn’t hit me again Officer David Gaines testified that Jones still struggled when he tried to handcuff him. But prosecutors said that was to cover his own mistake of handcuffing a man who had stopped breathing.

The jury, chosen in Lake Charles, also heard from a medical expert presented by the defense team. Dr. Bruce Wainer testified that he rejected the coroner’s findings, saying that the CPR done on Jones – and the two times he was intubated – caused damage as well. Jones stopped breathing due to a mixture of booze he drank that night, a childhood diagnosis of a heart murmur, and the physical exertion he caused by throwing punches at Irons before the bouncers restrained him.

Wainer said that there was only bruising patterns on Jones’ head, consistent with a “headlock,” he told the jury, and not a “chokehold.” His lungs were damaged by the work medical workers while trying to save his life, Wainer said. “There is no way to tell what condition his lungs were in” before the ambulance arrived, Wainer said. Assistant District Attorney Greg Thompson told the jury that Wainer did not view the corpse like Dr. Jeffrey Traylor of the coroner’s office did.

The bouncers were not police officers, Thompson said. They had no right to confine or detain any patron that night until the police arrived. Louisiana law only allows someone to detain a person if they are believed to have committed a felony, he said. Even if Jones did throw a punch – and prosecutors said he did not, rather he flailed his arms as he was falling backwards from a bouncer’s shove – that is a misdemeanor.

Prosecutors charged the four bouncers with manslaughter, but not the kind in which someone has claimed he acted in self-defense because he was afraid of impending death. In Louisiana, the charge Irons faced is called “misdemeanor manslaughter,” still punishable by zero to 40 years in prison. The difference is that it is a manslaughter that is caused, even in part, by the illegal actions of the perpetrator.

Irons illegally “falsely imprisoned” Jones that night by pinning him down Jones became irate when two friends of his were denied entrance to Razzoo only because they did not meet the “dress code” of the club. Anthony Williams, a friend and fellow flag football player, was the first to confront the doormen over the ban. When a bouncer grabbed Williams and said he was calling the police, Jones continued to demand an answer about the dress code. That’s when Irons, who had 11 years’ experience managing clubs on Bourbon Street, was called to the entrance.

The much talked about videotape from Razzoo’s security cameras played a supporting role at the trial, as the testimony of two bouncers – Vicknair and Irons – drew the rapt attention of the jury.

In contrast, the security videotape was a time-lapsed, blurry visual aid with opposing narration from prosecutors and the defense. After 20 minutes of watching the debut of the footage – four split screens from different vantage points of the Bourbon Street night scene – several jurors said they couldn’t make out what was happening. Even Irons said that the footage misrepresented his own actions: When it appears that he is using Jones’ skull as a brace to prop himself up.

“I did not slam his head into the pavement,” Irons testified. “I know it looks bad, but there was no ill intent in any of that…I did stand up with my hand on his head and my right hand on his shoulder. I would have fallen on top of him if I didn’t.”

Irons remained in the courtroom as Jones’ friends and relatives exited the courthouse, after four days of detailed testimony, including Irons and Vicknair, who recalled the incident as one that Jones started with a wild sucker-punch thrown at Irons Irons told jurors that as a former lifeguard he knew CPR and that he would have used it if he even thought Jones had stopped breathing beneath the bouncers’ weight.