In a ruling acquitting a 23-year-old Baton Rouge man of murder, a state district judge led with a lengthy preface on the history of north Baton Rouge, touching on issues from industrial pollution and white flight to substandard schools and local parks policy.
In the ruling, read in open court, Judge Trudy White pointed out numerous inconsistencies in witness testimony during the trial of Tajh Harris, a Baton Rouge man White found not guilty of second-degree murder in the July 2014 slaying of Javontia Davis, 24. The judge repeatedly referenced The Temptations’ 1970 hit “Ball of Confusion” — reading the lyrics in court — to describe discrepancies in the prosecution’s case against Harris.
White pointed to conflicts between statements given by witnesses to police and the testimony of those same witnesses at trial — particularly shifting accounts from the victim’s brother, Karshavis Davis, and his fiancée, Taneshia Burise, that the judge found minimized their own involvement in the exchange of gunfire in the 2600 block of Wenonah Street. Karshavis Davis initially told police Harris didn’t kill his brother. At trial, though, Davis testified he saw Harris fire the fatal shots and said he’d initially lied to police because “he wanted to take matters into his own hands,” according to White.
Before addressing the evidence in the case, however, White spoke at length about the history of the Istrouma subdivision where the shootings took place. The digression, which took up five pages in court transcript, began with the American Indian origins of the name. White then pointed to a litany of factors she said contributed to the neighborhood’s decline, including industrial pollution, “the growth of charter schools operated by for-profit foreign corporations with questionable track records,” a 2007 policy decision by BREC to emphasize community over neighborhood parks and “the failure of our universities to develop enough African-American student leaders, the failure of our law schools to develop more student who are committed to civil rights or social justice and the fragmentation of our African-American leadership.”
White went on to read most of the lyrics to “Ball of Confusion” and then noted, about a half page later, that all the attorneys involved in the case were black and that they “kept the court’s attention when they used urban linguistic language to describe conduct or activities” on the night of the shooting, including the phrase “parking lot fishing for women.”
The judge then went into a lengthy and detailed discussion of the evidence in the case, largely ignoring her initial digression outside of occasional references to “Ball of Confusion” and using a number of basketball metaphors to explain her doubts about the credibility of key witnesses.
White could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.
Harris, who was arrested five days after the fatal shooting after an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip named him as the shooter, waived his right to trial by jury and instead opted for White to hear the case at a bench trial.
Police discovered the victim’s body lying in the road near his home in the 2600 block of Wenonah Street just before 2 a.m. on July 12, 2014. They said Davis was killed by a single round from a 9mm handgun which was never recovered. Although Harris owned a pistol of that caliber and his cousin testified at trial that he’d seen Harris carrying it that day, White said prosecutors failed to prove Harris was the shooter — or that he didn’t shoot in self-defense. White also pointed to six .45-caliber casings discovered near a Dodge Magnum which the judge said had been fired by Karshavis Davis, the victim’s brother, who White claimed opened fire before Harris.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III sharply criticized White’s ruling Monday, saying he believed Harris “got away with murder.” Moore said the lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Will Jorden, cleared up the inconsistencies at trial and that White “picks and chooses” which evidence or testimony to address in her verdict.
Harris “wasn’t found innocent, he was found not guilty,” Moore said Monday. “We believe the case was proven, the police arrested the right person and that we proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Moore declined to add additional comment Tuesday.
Ronald Haley, one of Harris’ attorneys, said Monday he appreciated White’s lengthy and detailed ruling in the case, which he said took about 25 minutes to read in court.
“I did appreciate Judge White taking the time to do that, given the seriousness of the case and the seriousness of the law,” Haley said.