Criminal Justice

Former juvenile delinquent: There but for the grace of God—and white skin …

From the street, the tranquility of the Marigny driveway belies the violence that resulted from Merritt Landry's assumption that the teenager he shot planned to break into the house.

Nathan Martin

From the street, the tranquility of the Marigny driveway belies the violence that resulted from Merritt Landry's assumption the teenager he shot was planning to break into the house.

I’d like to meet Merritt Landry—or, rather, I’d like him to meet me. I’d like him to meet the type of person the boy who jumped into his yard late last month could have grown to be, had Landry not shot him in the head.

I’ve seen an argument emerging in the news and on social media that Landry is an upstanding citizen and the boy he shot, Marshall Coulter, who remains in critical condition in a New Orleans hospital, was merely disposable: a teenage criminal. This is supposed to make Landry’s actions not only justifiable, but in a sick way almost positive — as though there was no hope for the teenage criminal, and the world is better off without him.

This argument does not seem far from some of those swirling around the recent trial of Floridian George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. The latter’s marijuana use and suspension from school were cited not only to suggest he was capable of attacking Zimmerman, but that he was an all-around rotten apple.

Nathan Martin: Would you hire this man?

Nathan Martin: Would you hire this man?

I’m an upstanding citizen who, as a teenager, was also a criminal. I was first arrested, for shoplifting, when I was 12 — I was stealing CDs and selling them to my friends. Over the next five years, I racked up a number of curfew violations, drug- and alcohol-related offenses, and a felony charge for destruction of property (which I pled down to a misdemeanor). These were just the things I got caught doing. There were many more — and, yes, they involved hopping fences and going onto people’s property. One night, my friends and I were out late ringing random doorbells and then running when a man emerged with a shotgun. Like Landry, he thought we were trying to break into his house. We could easily have been shot, but he saw we were children and called the police instead.

I am eternally grateful, not only that the man did not shoot me, but that I wasn’t locked up for years or given another of the harsh punishments I see frequently doled out to teenagers — particularly black teenagers — who commit petty crimes. Today, I’m 30 years old and have a master’s degree, a good job, and a happy relationship. I’m the vice president of the board of a respected local nonprofit, I’m an engaged citizen, and a good neighbor. As you may have guessed, I’m white.

Of course, I’ve read the arguments claiming that what happened in that Marigny driveway had nothing to do with race, but I have a very hard time believing that if Landry had caught a white 14-year-old boy in his yard, he would have assumed that child had a gun and proceeded to shoot him in the head. The assumption that Coulter would not grow up to be an upstanding citizen also hinge on the fact that young black men who have committed crimes face mountains of obstacles that young white men who have committed crimes do not. The same racism that impels someone to pull the trigger on a black child exists among prospective employers who would not hire a black man with a criminal record, but would likely let my priors slide, dismissing them as a youthful aberration.

Even though I was a young criminal, I also had potential. The two things are not mutually exclusive. But when people like Landry see young black men, they don’t see potential. When a person is willing to shoot a child without doing everything possible to avoid it, I think it’s safe to say that not only do they fail to see potential, they don’t even see a human being — a person like them, with thoughts, hopes, hobbies, grandparents. They simply see a threat — even in an unarmed boy. They value the lives of young black men so little that, if they feel the smallest amount of fear, they feel justified in ending his life — just to be on the safe side.

Of course the Landry/Coulter case has key differences, but when thinking about the issue of fear, I can’t help but think of Zimmerman/Martin. Zimmerman got off because he allegedly feared for his life, a good enough excuse under Florida state law. Landry shot an unarmed boy because he allegedly feared for his and his family’s safety. But where does this fear come from, and is killing a rational response?

Statistically, other than the census category Asians/Pacific Islanders, white Americans are the U.S. demographic with the least chance of becoming victims of a home robbery or of a crime committed by a person they do not know, according to data from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sure, once in a while horrific things happen — I hear the name Helen Hill being thrown around. But if knowledge of past violence justifies fear, I look at the history of white-on-black violence, particularly in the South — from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow to retaliation during the Civil Rights movement to the extrajudicial killings of young black men by police and to shootings like Martin’s and Coulter’s today — and I can’t help but think that, if I were black, I would fear and feel threatened by nearly every white person I saw. Does that mean I could shoot them?

Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News.

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  • Nierue

    Thank you for telling the world about your example. Everyone – and especially kids – should have the opportunity to start fresh – regardless of their race.

  • cablegirls

    How can this writer presume to know what Mr. Landry experienced in those moments before he fired on the Coulter boy? How does he presume to know that whatever the figure he came face-to-face with in the dark couldn’t have raised in Mr. Landry any more than the slightest degree of fear? Does this writer think those who claim they shot in self defense aren’t aware of the world of complications that will automatically befall them upon deciding to injure or kill another citizen?

    Of course, the writer doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and so the rest of his suppositions are meaningless. Indeed, they’re far-reaching and rather ridiculous.

  • schoboat

    First off, there’s some pretty big 14 year olds out there that are not so discernible from any other dangerous criminal.

    But that is besides the point as Daniel Breaux found out. Daniel mistakenly thought the 14 year old that tried to rob him wasn’t a threat. He’s only 14 years old, right? So Daniel walks away and that innocent little 14 year old put a bullet into the back of his brain. (

    So Nathan, as you drink your latte, probably paying off your student loans for that master’s degree working for the non-profit and making the world an idyllic better place, there are some very nasty people out on the streets of New Orleans and some of them are “children” by age, but certainly not by innocence. They would put a bullet into your head just to have street cred.

    Until Al Sharpton and company spend half as much time challenging the culture that glorifies crime and the street life as they do giving a guy a hard time that defended his family from an intruder, nothing is going to change. But I guess your wonder Pres would have to turn down big $$$ fund raisers by Jay-Z to go against the gangsta culture ( for that to happen. The grievance and rap industry is too profitable and it convinces folks to willingly stay on the Democrat plantation that has no walls. What motivation do the so called leaders have to actually SOLVE any problems. Especially when their power and $$$ come from discord.

  • Superdeformed

    schoboat: You sorta had a point until your last two paragraphs.

  • Superdeformed

    It’s pretty damn tragic that a child was kill, be it a childish prank or attempted something. But this city is known for it’s rampant violent crime and highly unresponsive police force I can see how someone would want to defend themselves. But still, a head shot? I don’t know.

    Zimmerman stalked Martin, had the police tell him to leave him alone, and then shoot him after Martin kicked his ass. The only similarities here are “white dude kills back kid.”

  • letstalk

    This article is insightful and refreshing. This case is about race and the Trayvon Martin case was too. White people, like this writer, are so often given the benefit of the doubt, a second/third/fourth chance while black people are assumed criminals and written off as disposable.

    So many people appear to stand by Landry, relating to the fear that appears to have led to his decision, or reaction, to shoot Coulter in the head. Landry probably was very scared and depending on the outcome of the case may suffer greatly as well but instead of letting his fear justify the severe disabling of a 14 yr old boy we need to seriously address how our society instills fear in us and how the effects of this fear disproportionately hurt communities of color.

    I am not supporting or excusing crime, I just don’t think more policing or vigilante justice are working to stop crime. We have to wake up and see how our criminal justice system, the media, pop culture and certain political agendas as they are functioning now DO NOT PREVENT CRIME. They work to criminalize people of color which leads to huge numbers of young black and brown men locked up (and out of engaging in civil society once they are released which leads to more and more problems) and also leads white people, and people of other races, to assume black men are dangerous criminals and to shoot them before using other options like yelling at them to get out of the yard.

  • Richard Smith

    What a horridly narcissistic piece of entitled absurdity. Mr. Martin, right now you are just as disgusting as you were as a teenager, but even less, much less honest.

    Seeing the kind of “contribution” you bring to society, with such hypocritical, racialists pieces of nonsense, one should be excuse for regretting that you did not pay the price for your far from trivial crimes, at the time. You sound very much like a pedophile who claims he gave up his habit, yet offers himself as some kind of moral guru. Which you are not.

    If you REALLY regret all the stuff you’ve been doing, you wouldn’t offer yourself as an example to society. You would hide in shame, and be thankful you didn’t pay the price. You are a horrible person, with NOTHING of worth to offer.

  • Uh, Mr Nathan Martin, these black teens HAVE BEEN GIVEN PLENTY OF CHANCES and they ended up producing a city with a MURDER RATE that is TEN TIMES the national average.

    You see these recent Marigny Car Jackers? 18 or so years old.

    They were also behind the 2011 Halloween Shooting on Bourbon St.

    IF you really wanted to make a difference, you spend all your time trying to stop those Louisiana and New Orleans laws and polices that PROMOTE IRRESPONSIBILITY.

    24/7 alcohol, gambling, lottery, video poker, etc….

    Let’s see you were a really bad kid. Now why is that? Was it because of your PARENTS? Are any of your parents alcoholics, drug users, divorced, etc?

    Also you say your WHITE. So that means you have a support structure and culture that can turn teens around.

    However, BLACKS don’t have a support structure, but have a culture where at least one immediate family member is a criminal, typically male. That means any black teen is with the WRONG CROWD when they are with their father, brother, cousin, uncle, etc at any family gathering, e.g. football game, dinner, lunch, Final Four, SuperBowl, Mardi Gras, NBA games, etc…

    So what to do? Same what New York and other cities do with say, homeless.

    ONE-WAY TICKET to a better place and CULTURE, typically a family member if possible.

    BLACKS? OK, there are plenty of BLACKS who left NOLA after Hurricane Katrina and most are doing quite well.


    Send all juvenile offenders OUT of LOUISIANA with a ONE WAY TICKET
    …that would help a lot….as these teen offenders need to IMMERSED in a completely different world that is not NOLA with it’s 24/7 promotion of irresponsibility and Big Easy culture.

  • By the way, the current way has produced two lost generations of black teens who wear the pants on the ground and don’t know who they daddy is.

    Now who’s fault is it, where the black kid doesn’t even know who their daddy is?

    The Big Easy is culture of ENABLEMENT, blacks and white, which has produces a Louisiana and New Orleans with no companies and no good jobs. What’s the latest that local media is only mentioned once? McDermott International? Moved headquarters out of NOLA and also 350 jobs on Morgan CIty?

    And are local business groups surprised by loss of McDermott after more than 50 years in New Orleans? Look around, pan handlers and homeless on every corner and intersection of the city? car jackings in French Gutter, 20 shot on Mother’s Day, and the list goes on and on.

  • LGD

    FIRST Marshall Coulter does not deserve to die. I hope he recovers and can return to a normal life. However, Marshall Coulter was given a second, or third chance. He was not in juvenile detention for prior robberies/crimes. He was released in his mother’s recognizance. He was mixed up in a bad group of ‘friends.’ Coulter’s family acknowledged the teen’s history of burglary arrests. His older brother called him “a professional thief, sure.” I wish someone would have put the fear of God in him when he started to go astray. It worked for me.

    I wish there was video of what actions Marshall made prior to being shot. That would put an end to the speculative prosecution that the media has us trained to jump on to and blame. I do not place all blame Marshall, and I can not place all blame Merritt until I have more facts.

    PARENTS STEP UP! I am sure you would rather live with punishing your child, than having to watch them being beatdown and violated in jail, laying in a hospital, visiting their grave or crying over their ashes. It is not something you want to do.

  • LGD

    Marshall Coulter knows who his Daddy is. His father died three years ago of stomach cancer. When is the last time you reached out to help the single parents in your neighborhood? Have you vested any time in helping a kid on the edge in your neighborhood? Offered him a job helping you paint your trim, change your spark plugs, help with landscaping, or anything else that would instill a since of a pride and accomplishment in the child? We all want an acknowledgement of self worth.

    Help someone build pride oneself. Stop judging and blaming. Become part of the solution. Invest time and less than the cost of eating out once a month in improving not only your home, but also your community.

  • First off, stomach cancer?

    What increases the risk of stomach cancer? SMOKING…from 40% current smokers to 82% increase for heavy smokers. …Some studies show increased risk with alcohol consumption as well.

    Next off, Marshall Coulter’s family:
    “In that same interaction, it was established that the boy, the seventh of nine children, has a history of burglary arrests.”

    This 14 yr old professional thief had 6 other BROTHERS and SISTERS…WHAT ARE THEY DOING?

    BY THE WAY, DO YOU THINK everyone has FREE TIME to help every kids on the BLOCK?

    Many people are ALREADY are very busy with their OWN FAMILY trying to make sure they keep their own kids in line in a city that PROMOTE IRRESPONSIBILITY via 24/7 alcohol, gambling, etc.

    This 14yr old is SURROUNDED by probably a number of close family members who are ex-cons and criminals.

    “Invest time and less than the cost of eating out once a month in improving not only your home, but also your community.”

    This method of once a month, or once a week, will NOT WORK when this kid’s own family members are THE BAD CROWD that he hangs around with 24/7.

    SOLUTION: 1-way ticket from his own family to a place where he isn’t surrounded by the BAD CROWD.

  • “know thy enemy” Sun Tzu’s
    The social justice, the left, the Black Ministers (at least the few good ones) do NOT REALIZE who their ENEMY IS.

    Before it was the drug dealers at the play ground and street corners.

    Now, the ENEMY (brother, fathers, uncle, cousin i.e. drug dealers) sits with them at the dinner table, the TV, the Superbowl, the Final Four, the NBA Finals, every family party, every weekend and every holiday.

    Now, do you really think the 1 to 3 hours for one day out of month is going to make a difference like those Big Brother and Big Sister organizations? If it did, perhaps you can show some results that offset two lost generations of black boys.

    ALSO, the ENEMY also is NOT unopposed. That same family has members that warns about the BAD CROWD that the kid is not supposed to be around. And guess what? All the GOOD TALK is not having an effect.

    If a BLACK family member on the good side cannot reach a troubled sibling or brother, what makes you think a stranger, WHITE or NON-BLACK can reach a troubled kid?

  • Richard Dunn

    Nathan, it is hard to agree or disagree with your stance without knowing where you committed crimes as a kid. Coulter is described by his brother as a professional thief. that is far from boosting cd’s and playing ding dong ditch.

  • So you’re old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement, with Black folks getting bombed and shot daily by white people just for trying to exert our rights to personhood,

    But you’re here on the internet today telling us all how different you are, and how you don’t fear white people,

    Even as you lived through some of the worst violence committed by white people against Black folks.

    Be sure to babysit white folks’ feelings, now.

    What a SPECIAL snowflake YOU are!