Louisiana’s compensation fund for wrongfully convicted defendants would seem to be tailor-made for tragic situations like Glenn Ford’s.
Ford endured more than three decades on death row at Angola for a deadly armed robbery that prosecutors now concede he didn’t commit. The fund provides for a relatively modest maximum settlement of $250,000, or $25,000 per year behind bars, plus up to $80,000 for lost opportunity for defendants whose convictions are subsequently deemed unjust. One plus one equals two, right?
Not always, apparently.
In a case so shocking that it’s earned national headlines, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell instead is relying on something of a technicality to try to block a payout to Ford, who was released from Angola last year after prosecutors in Shreveport came upon new evidence during an unrelated investigation.
And so far, it’s working. Late last week, Caddo Parish District Judge Katherine Dorroh sided with Caldwell and ruled that Ford had not demonstrated his factual innocence, a step beyond legal exoneration that the compensation law requires.
Ford’s lawyers will appeal, but time’s not on their side. Ford, it turns out, has terminal lung cancer. Since his release, he’s been living in New Orleans on donations, including help from fellow exoneree John Thompson, who did receive state compensation. He’s been trying to experience some of life’s little pleasures — time with family, a day at Jazz Fest — while he can, even as he struggles with the effects of his illness.
While Caldwell and Dorroh acknowledge that Ford did not participate in the robbery and murder of Shreveport jeweler Isadore Rozeman in 1983, they noted that he took stolen items to a pawn shop. Dorroh concluded that he knew of plans to rob Rozeman ahead of time and attempted to destroy evidence.
Ford, who has always maintained his innocence, has said he didn’t know the items were stolen, let alone taken during the course of murder. After Dorroh’s ruling, his attorney blasted the decision.
“The ruling inflated the fact that Mr. Ford knew the people who committed the crime and insinuated that Mr. Ford was more involved in the crime than the facts in the record indicate. This is the latest in a series of great injustices that Mr. Ford has suffered over the last 30 years,” Kristin Wenstrom, of the Innocence Project New Orleans, told The Shreveport Times.
Yet even if some of what Ford knew or did is disputed, there’s no question that his punishment was far worse than what he would have earned otherwise — had he, say, been allowed to serve as a cooperating witness against his original co-defendants, none of whom went to trial. Police reports at the time suggest he was willing to do just that. One of those co-defendants now has been implicated in the Rozeman killing and five others, according to news reports, and is now behind bars on yet another murder charge while investigators build new cases.
But don’t take my word for it. Or those of Ford’s lawyers or the various journalists who’ve tried to draw attention to the case, or of the editorialists at The Shreveport Times, who’ve labeled the arguments against paying up “hogwash” and pronounced the situation a second “raw deal” for Ford.
Just listen to the case’s original lead prosecutor, who penned a wrenching mea culpa in The Times.
Marty Stroud III wrote that he was insufficiently inquisitive and too set on proving Ford guilty to seriously consider evidence that would have suggested otherwise. He wrote that he did not question the fairness of Ford being saddled with appointed attorneys who lacked criminal experience, or of an African-American defendant facing an all-white jury. Worst of all, Stroud wrote, he pursued victory over fairness.
“In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie ‘And Justice for All,’ ‘Winning became everything.’
“The system can never give Ford those decades back, but at the least he should be completely compensated to every extent possible because of the flaws of a system that effectively destroyed his life,” Stroud continued. “The audacity of the state’s effort to deny Mr. Ford any compensation for the horrors he suffered in the name of Louisiana justice is appalling.”
The statement should be a must-read for every law student, certainly those hoping to work in district attorney, state attorney general or U.S. attorney offices or one day assume the bench.
It’s a powerful argument against the death penalty, something Stroud said he now considers “barbaric.” Human beings are too imperfect and certainty too elusive.
But it’s a more powerful plea that lawyers and judges not leave their humility, their humanity and their sense of proportion at the courthouse door.
Clearly that’s a lesson that some people in positions of power have yet to learn.