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Grandma accused of looting makes her case

After 16 days in detention 73-year-old woman sets the record straight

Merlene Maten, a 73-year-old New Orleans grandma and church elder, spent 16 days in prison held on a $50,000 bond for allegedly looting $63 worth of goods from a deli near New Orleans the day after Hurricane Katrina hit.  According to Maten's attorney, Daniel Becket Becnel III, she didn't steal anything. He claims that the food hat she was caught with were just part of the supplies that she took when she evacuated her home. 

Still, after being released from prison late on Friday, she will have to appear in court in October to fight the looting charge. Maten and Becnel appeared on 'The Abrams Report' on Monday to discuss the case.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

DAN ABRAMS: Merlene, tell me what happened when they arrested you.

MERLENE MATEN, 73-YEAR-OLD ARRESTED FOR LOOTING:  On Tuesday after the hurricane, they had a lot of water, we were lodging at Motel Six, and they had a lot of water out there.  I first went down to get some water to flush the toilet.  I went back down again and there were a lot of people out there, so I went to my car to charge my phone and to get some sausage out of my car, the trunk of my car. 

Well, I saw people scattered around but I didn't know what was going on.  So as I got my sausage and I looked down and there was a policeman there.  And he called me, come here, and I went over to him.  I looked up first, and I went over to him, and he said that that was out of some store and I was looting. 

First of all, I didn't know what looting meant, you know, so I said, I didn't go to any store.  I didn't break into any store.  And so God as my witness, I did not go to any store, I didn't  break in any store.  You know I'm a diabetic and why would I go kicking a store, go take something out of a store? 

ABRAMS:  Merlene, let me let you hear what the police chief had to say and I want you to respond to what he said about the incident.

-- Begin video clip -- CHIEF NICK CONGEMI, KENNER, LA POLICE DEPT.:  The only thing that we know is the police officers were dispatched to that particular location in response to a looting call.  And when they arrived they caught Mrs. Maten and a 16-year-old juvenile exiting the building with sausage and beer.  If she had taken the sausage and beer from her house, I have no idea why she brought it into the check in-check out to bring it out again.  You know it's just -- it's very confusing what her explanation would be.  -- End video clip --

ABRAMS:  So what is your explanation, Merlene? 

MATEN:  I don't drink, number one.  I had no beer.  I always have an ice chest in my trunk.  I always bring food in my trunk.  Everyone that knows me know I keep food in my trunk when I'm going somewhere.  I went to get the rest of the food so that I could feed my husband.  I have an 80-year-old husband that I left upstairs and when they arrested me I didn't see him anymore until Friday. 

ABRAMS:  Tell me, you spent 16 days in a state pen.  Tell me about that. 

MATEN:  No, they brought me to Gretna where I stayed, I think about a week from Tuesday to Tuesday to Gretna.  From there they brought me to the Greyhound Bus Station or the train station, and I slept on the ground that night.  From there they just wouldn't tell us where -- they wouldn't tell me where I was going.  They just kept transporting me.  The next morning they put me on a bus and that's when they brought me to Saint Gabriel, and I stayed there until Friday. 

ABRAMS:  How was the-what was the experience like there? 

MATEN:  It could have been better.  It was devastating, but it could have been better. 

ABRAMS:  All right, Mr. Becnel, $50,000 bond, what was the explanation for that? 

DANIEL BECKET BECNEL III, ATTY FOR 73-YEAR-OLD ALLEGED LOOTER:  Well, I've talked to the duty judge and the duty judge said that there were over 30 to 40 people arrested for looting that day and they were all given the same $50,000 bond.

ABRAMS:  Wait, no matter  ... no matter if they were accused of stealing jewelry or if they were accused of stealing food, same amount of bond? 

BECNEL:  That's correct. ... As you know, the courthouse was closed.  The bail bondsmen were closed.  The judges were evacuated so that's what made this such a difficult case, is we couldn't get in touch with anybody to reason with them and tell them the facts and circumstances.  And luckily once I was able to get in touch with (the) judge and she heard the circumstances and the facts she found it uncompassionate and was reasonable and allowing her on her recognizance to be released. 

ABRAMS:  Your position is that the sausage that she had isn't even sold at the deli that was looted, correct? 

BECNEL:  That's correct.  And also that they piled up other items, the police did, and if you had seen the items, there's no way Mrs. Maten could have handled all of those items. 

ABRAMS:  My guess is that these charges are going to be dismissed, but we will follow this case.  Merlene Maten, thank you for taking the time.  It's, you know look, this sure sounds like a case where there was a lot of mass confusion there at the time and my guess is -- and you know we'll see as this case moves forward -- my guess is that they're going to dismiss the charges and that Merlene Maten may be cleared of all of this and maybe even get an apology. ... Just a note, we did put in a call to the Jefferson County D.A.'s Office and they did not return our call. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.