A woman who police say confessed to killing a Vietnam veteran in a South Jefferson Davis Parkway apartment complex last year won’t be serving any more jail time for his death, according to court documents and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office.
Sentrelle Conerly was 37 when she was arrested for second-degree murder in the April 5 death of Harry Anderson Jr. She pleaded guilty this month to a reduced charge of failure to report a crime after describing her actions as self-defense, records show.
According to police, lawyers and a family member of the deceased, the story of Conerly and Anderson centers on a problem of violence perpetuated in New Orleans by inner-city drug use, distrust of police and the lack of mental health services available both for veterans coming back from service in combat zones and in the city as a whole.
Anderson, who served on the front line in Vietnam, was found stabbed to death next to his bed at around 5 a.m. following an emergency call to his apartment complex, located on 300 South Jefferson Davis Parkway, according to authorities and his family.
Conerly, who had been homeless, admitted to killing Anderson when she was picked up in Algiers on outstanding warrants, police confirmed in reports and to Mid-City Messenger. Immediately after her arrest, however, she raised a self-defense claim during her discussions with detectives, according to court documents filed by Conerly’s lawyers.
“In connection with that incident she used reasonable force against her assailant to prevent a violent and unwanted sexual encounter which was alleged by arresting officers to have resulted in the death of Harry Anderson, Jr,” defense attorney Patrick Joseph wrote in a court filing.
In the same Dec. 12 court filing, Joseph asked that his client be released from jail.
As a victim “who defended herself within the parameters of law, she should not be required to be held in custody having never been given the opportunity to enlighten the court about these facts that would suggest to the court that she did not have the requisite intent to obstruct justice, particularly at a time when she was merely defending herself against the brutal attack of her assailant,” Joseph wrote.
Court documents show that after Conerly was arrested she had been charged by police for one count of second-degree murder, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of failing to report commitment of certain felonies.
But in December, she pleaded not guilty to murder.
According to the documents, Conerly was only indicted on obstruction of justice. That’s because the district attorney’s office didn’t have enough probable cause to indict her for the murder, according to Christopher Bowman, the representative for the Orleans Parish DA’s’ office.
“The situation on this case was pretty simple. Yes, the person was arrested for second-degree murder, but we didn’t have enough to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, so the individual was not charged with murder,” Bowman said.
She was, however, charged with obstruction of justice for apparently clearing her fingerprints from the apartment where Anderson was found, Bowman said.
“The genesis of the charge was that she wiped her fingerprints off a door handle as she was leaving the apartment,” Bowman added.
Lauren Boudreaux, Conerly’s lawyer, said Conerly entered a plea last week to a reduced charge of failure to report a felony. Documents show she was sentenced to three months, and given credit for time served from her arrest in August. She is no longer listed in the Orleans Parish Prison, according to the jail website.
According to Dyan French Cole, a relative of Anderson’s known in her community as “Mama D,” the story was not as simple as it would seem upon first glance at police reports.
In a case sources say involves drug use and prostitution, Cole says that Anderson, whom she called “Junior,” was involved in a dangerous lifestyle, but that he had been put in a “compromising position.”
Cole objects to some accounts presented by Conerly’s lawyers. She says not all the facts were presented, mostly because people in Anderson’s community were distrusting and didn’t want to talk to police. Moreover, however, she says that a fractured system failed Anderson at a time when he needed help the most.
“It was devastating when he came back home,” Cole said, about Anderson’s time in Vietnam. “He’d get paranoid and go into military mode.”
Previously, Cole said, “Junior” had been an “intelligent young man” who did well in school, graduated from Joseph S. Clark high school and had worked as a mailman. She added that the family was “unprepared” for what happened afterwards, both in Vietnam and when he returned.
“Poor black people got hell coming out of Vietnam, in terms of benefits, and help,” she said.
Cole said that the family tried to get Anderson help in a facility in Mandeville, but that he was turned away.
After, she said, he fell into a culture of “drug military camaraderie,” which was exacerbated by an accident that nearly burned off one of his ears.
“He was on heavy medications for severe burns,” Cole said, adding that the drugs only magnified his “quirks” as a result of the trauma he still felt from Vietnam.
Cole said the story could have ended very differently if only the city had proper care for veterans like Anderson, suffering from the kinds of mental-health issues consistent with post traumatic stress disorder.
“You train them to put a gun in their hand, you have to have some kind of debriefing when they get back,” Cole said. “They need some kind of program. They have one foot in the grave and one foot out — you really don’t know what’s going to happen to these people.”
Cole compared the situation to trauma suffered following Hurricane Katrina, saying there haven’t been enough mental health services for either type of victim in the city of New Orleans.
“I’m still having flashbacks and I’m an old woman,” Cole said. “If you’re in a war zone and killing is part of daily life, you’ve got to have something when you come back.”
Anderson had a military burial in Biloxi National Cemetery on April 22.