BAYOU SORREL — A grieving mother who is convinced that her son was murdered 13 years ago in an arson attack is waiting on the courts to decide whether the accused killer will stand trial again.
“I’ve been waiting so long, and it just keeps dragging and dragging on,” Adrina Moses said.
Her son, Leander “Lee-Lee” Johnson, 29, died in May 1998 when his Bayou Sorrel trailer caught fire.
Moses believes Johnson’s former friend, Clint Martinez, also of Bayou Sorrel, set the trailer ablaze and killed Johnson in what prosecutors have described as a “love triangle killing.”
The trouble started when Johnson began dating Martinez’s estranged wife in the late 1990s, Moses said.
Martinez, 44, threatened to kill Johnson several times after finding out about the affair, Moses said.
“My son was scared,” Moses said. “Clint said he was going to burn down his trailer and kill him, and that’s what he did.”
On May 30, 1998, Johnson attended a crawfish boil with his lover, prosecutors said. Later
that night, his trailer went up in flames. Investigators determined that Johnson died of asphyxiation caused by flash fire.
Prosecutors allege that an enraged Martinez, humiliated by his wife’s public appearance with her lover, went to Johnson’s mobile home, cut the telephone wire, subdued the victim, doused him with an accelerant and then ignited the fire.
Defense attorneys argued that Martinez was asleep at his father’s home when the fire started.
They further claimed that impatient investigators failed to follow the evidence, and instead, jumped to conclusions in ruling the fire an arson.
Nevertheless, a parish grand jury charged Martinez with one count of second-degree murder in 2000.
The subsequent murder trial in 2002 was moved from Iberville Parish to Pointe Coupee Parish because of its high-profile nature, attorneys said.
But the case ended in a mistrial after the jury deliberated for three hours, summoned state District Judge James Best and told him the members were deadlocked at 9-3 with nine jurors voting to acquit Martinez and three jurors voting to convict him, court records show.
When Best declared the mistrial, the decision set off a flurry of legal motions as the case jumped from a state appeal court to federal court and finally to a federal appeal court where it stands now.
Defense attorneys claimed that Best improperly declined to tell them the jury was one vote away from acquitting Martinez.
Charles “Chip” Marionneaux, one of the defense attorneys involved, said Friday that he would have objected to the judge’s decision to declare a mistrial had he been informed which way the jury was leaning.
When defense attorneys learned that the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office was planning to retry Martinez for murder, they moved to quash a second indictment, Marionneaux said.
Marionneaux argued that a second trial would subject Martinez to double jeopardy — the clause in the U.S. Constitution which protects a defendant from being tried twice for the same offense.
In considering the double jeopardy motion, state ad hoc Judge Jerome Winsberg ruled that the state couldn’t retry Martinez, court records show.
Winsberg concluded that Best, the trial judge, inadvertently influenced the defense to go along with the mistrial.
The state appealed that decision to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, which then overturned Winsberg, records show.
The 1st Circuit ruling opened the door for the state to retry Martinez by ruling that Judge Best did not intend to provoke a mistrial when he withheld knowledge of the 9-3 jury vote from the defense.
But Martinez’s attorneys persisted, taking their double jeopardy argument to federal court in Baton Rouge, where U.S. District Judge James J. Brady ruled in March 2010 in their favor and barred the state from retrying Martinez, records show.
The state Attorney General’s Office appealed Brady’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, where a three-judge panel ruled June 15 that the state could proceed in retrying Martinez, said Kyle Duncan, an attorney with the state Attorney General’s Office.
“At this point, the defense has lost,” Duncan said Thursday.
But Martinez’s lawyers have petitioned the 5th Circuit to reconsider its decision, which is where the case currently stands.
Meanwhile, Moses, Johnson’s mother, said the legal sparring has taken its toll on her.
“My son was a good-hearted person. He never had a mean bone in him,” Moses said. “I’ve been waiting way too long to get justice for my son.”