Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office is accusing lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans of coercing two eyewitnesses into recanting their testimony against the alleged gunman in a 1993 murder, a jarring new claim that was immediately dismissed by a judge Monday as “outrageous.”
The allegation that IPNO Director Emily Maw and staff attorney Kristin Wenstrom wheedled false recantations from two witnesses in the case against Jerome Morgan was greeted with reproach by Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, who will preside over a new trial for Morgan scheduled for next week.
A different judge tossed out Morgan’s conviction two years ago based in part on those recantations.
Zibilich brusquely rejected a request by Cannizzaro’s office to subpoena the two IPNO lawyers for Morgan’s new trial. Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu then pulled back a motion she filed last week asking Zibilich to dismiss the two IPNO lawyers outright from the case.
The District Attorney’s accusation, one of numerous salvos in the lead-up to a high-profile retrial, comes several months after Cannizzaro’s office and the Innocence Project abandoned a joint, city-funded project under which they were to work together to root out bad convictions.
Morgan, now 40, was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of fellow 16-year-old Clarence Landry during a birthday party in the ballroom of a Howard Johnson motel in Gentilly.
Judge Darryl Derbigny overturned Morgan’s conviction in early 2014. Derbigny found that prosecutors had failed to turn over a key police log, and he endorsed the more recent testimony of Hakim Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, who claimed detectives steered them to identify Morgan as the shooter shortly after the killing.
After an appeals court upheld Derbigny’s ruling, Cannizzaro’s office filed perjury charges against Shabazz and Johnson over their conflicting statements. The law doesn’t require Cannizzaro’s office to prove on which occasion — in 1994 or two decades later — the two men lied on the witness stand.
The pending perjury counts have rendered Johnson and Shabazz speechless; fearing further charges, they have invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify at Morgan’s retrial. Instead, the jury will view transcripts of their 1994 trial testimony and their recantations in 2013.
In her motion to jettison Maw and Wenstrom from the case, Andrieu wrote that if Morgan’s attorneys present the jury with evidence that the two men’s original statements to police were coerced, prosecutors would introduce “evidence that, in fact, the 20-year-later recantations of the witnesses’ affirmative identifications were coerced by IPNO.”
Maw and Wenstrom would be among the witnesses prosecutors would call “to establish this fact,” Andrieu said.
Zibilich didn’t buy the argument at a hearing Monday. He asked Andrieu to explain why the push to toss the IPNO lawyers came less than two weeks before the trial. He also pressed Andrieu to explain why Cannizzaro’s office didn’t charge the lawyers with a crime if it has evidence of coercion.
“You’re accusing the attorneys for Innocence Project with suborning perjury. That’s what you’re doing. That’s pretty strong, ma’am,” Zibilich said. “Why don’t you step up to the plate and indict these folks?”
Andrieu declined to confirm that she was accusing the lawyers of a crime. But she said the District Attorney’s Office realized only recently that Shabazz and Johnson had changed their stories after meeting with IPNO attorneys with no other witnesses present.
“It’s clear the controversy that will be at the center of this trial are the recantations (by) two individuals who positively identified Jerome Morgan, and following interviews with IPNO, their stories changed,” Andrieu said. “It’s like for 19, 20 years they’ve been sitting and waiting for Innocence Project to come, and, voila.”
Morgan’s attorneys described the allegation as “baseless and unsupported,” adding that, unlike prosecutors or police, “there is nothing IPNO could do to coerce anyone.”
Zibilich said prosecutors and defense attorneys both have the right to interview witnesses.
Last week, Zibilich rejected a motion by Cannizzaro’s office to impose a gag order in the case. He also ruled that no one can wear “Justice for Jerome” T-shirts during Morgan’s retrial.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.