It’s easy to forget the humans behind the constant stream of stories of death and violence that New Orleanians see on local television or read in the paper. The weight of loss to this community, coupled with its failed institutions, is too much for anyone to bear on a daily basis. I used to gloss over these stories, too, until my best friend was murdered. As a result, I learned, firsthand, about the institutional rot and despair that’s the canvas upon which New Orleans is rendered.
On Tuesday, May 11, 2021, a neighbor found my best friend, Maria Pisaneschi, in her bed after her landlord noticed that her door had been left open. She had been shot in the head. No gun was found at the scene which, by virtue of common sense, ruled out suicide. Maria did not own a weapon, and she eschewed guns.
It has been over six months since that awful day in May, and the coroner still has not issued a complete autopsy report. The NOPD still labels Maria’s death as unclassified. And the state has not issued her death certificate. Maria loved New Orleans and lived here wholeheartedly. But the City and its institutions have treated her life and death as inconsequential, at best, or a bureaucratic bother, at worst.
Maria was a 54-year-old political science instructor at Delgado. She lived and died in a converted attic apartment in the 300 block of North St. Patrick Street next to Mick’s Irish Pub. Maria suffered from multiple sclerosis and was severely disabled, but she was so much more than her disability. She was kind, bright, lovable, and the Saints’ biggest fan. She was also a proud gay woman. She was at a point in life where the stars had started to align favorably. Her disability case was moving forward after a long delay; she had plans to move to a more accommodating apartment; and Delgado had just offered her more classes to teach. Even though Maria did not have blood relatives in the city, she did have a large cadre of friends who were as close to blood relations as could be. And I am lucky to be counted among them.
I contacted the Third District police on the day I learned of Maria’s death. I called between 90 and 100 times over the course of six hours, only getting a ringtone. When I finally reached an operator, I had to leave a message. A detective finally returned my call after 10 o’clock that night and asked a few rote questions about Maria. That conversation and later ones suggested that the NOPD hoped to take the easy way out and rule Maria’s death a suicide simply because gunshot residue was found on her hands.
What wasn’t found in her hands was a gun, which makes the suicide theory particularly dubious.
It’s difficult to conceive of a person administering a fatal gunshot to their head without a gun being left behind, much less someone like Maria who had hoped to donate her brain to MS research upon her death. Furthermore, nothing indicated that Maria had plans to take her own life. She had recently received great news on different fronts and had even made travel arrangements to visit my family and friends in Florida to celebrate my son’s fourth birthday.
Compounding this tragedy is the universal failure of New Orleans institutions. The NOPD did not contact Maria’s next-of-kin until two days after she was found dead. And that was only after I took the initiative to give the police her stepsisters’ contact information. When Maria’s stepsisters, friends, and I went to clean out her apartment, we noticed that the police had not collected anything to help them investigate her case. There was no residue from fingerprint powder anywhere, and Maria’s electronics, which would have revealed who she had been in contact with and might have shed light on her final movements, were left undisturbed. The only thing missing from the apartment was Maria’s mattress. There was a bloody smear down the walls of her staircase, reflecting its journey from her apartment to the door.
There has been little movement on Maria’s case, and things are now at a complete standstill.
The coroner said an autopsy would take between five and sixteen weeks to complete. But that timeline has now extended beyond six months with no end in sight. Our latest communication with the coroner revealed that he was waiting on information from the police before beginning the autopsy. But the detective told us he was waiting on the coroner’s report before proceeding with his investigation. Meanwhile, Maria has not been laid to rest more than six months after she was killed because of miscommunication and incompetence.
Maria’s friends and I gave the detective a letter containing facts that might help the investigation, but to no avail. The detective thought he had found video of Maria, but the woman on the film clearly wasn’t her. He also identified a “person of interest,” but he lost track of that person. The detective’s final piece of communication said that he was switching to a new position and would no longer be working on the case. I asked whether we would be contacted by a new detective or by a superior for updates. His response was, “I have absolutely no idea how that works.”
Worse yet, not a single news outlet has reported on Maria’s death because it was never classified as the murder that it was. So, for all the neighbors who live around Bienville and St. Patrick, you should know that a woman was shot dead in her bed last May. Please be cautious and take care of yourselves.
I’ve learned a couple things from this dismal affair:
- First, New Orleans’ citizens must be prepared to become full-time advocates if they want justice or even a scant resolution when a loved one is victimized.
- Secondly, the institutions tasked with investigating violent crimes know that 99.9% of New Orleanians can’t afford to advocate for their loved ones. They have jobs, families, and demands on their time – even without our disaster du jour, whether it’s a pandemic or a hurricane.
- Finally, I’ve learned that institutions rely on citizens’ inability to dedicate hours, days, weeks, and months as foot-soldiers to help solve the crimes that have taken their loved ones. So, murders like Maria’s can be swept under a rug of indifference and brokenness.
We deserve better, and Maria deserves better, too.
Dr. Erika del Pilar Burton-Minard is the Director of Operations at R&D Educational Systems, Inc.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at email@example.com.