The Orleans Parish judge who last year tossed out Jerome Morgan’s murder conviction and released him pending a new trial in a 20-year-old murder case agreed Tuesday to toss himself from the case at the behest of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.
Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny did not explain his decision in a brief ruling that sent the murder case to be re-allotted to another judge.
Derbigny early last year granted Morgan a new trial and set him free on $25,000 bond and an ankle monitor. He based his decision in large part on the testimony, in a 2013 post-conviction hearing, of two key witnesses who said they were coerced into identifying Morgan as the person who shot 16-year-old Clarence Landry in May 1993 during a birthday party in the ballroom of the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Road.
Those two witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, now face perjury charges for their changed statements — a move by Cannizzaro’s office that has riled Morgan’s attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans.
“The evidence presented before this court is wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion by the New Orleans Police Department,” Derbigny said in his order granting Morgan a new trial.
Derbigny found the new testimony from Shabazz and Johnson to be credible, saying in a written ruling that the NOPD “successfully diluted and polluted the minds of these two eyewitnesses.”
Derbigny has since denied a motion from Cannizzaro’s office to increase Morgan’s bond, while also ordering prosecutors to identify which new witnesses or evidence it plans to present at his retrial — a ruling that an appeals court partially overturned after a challenge by Cannizzaro’s office.
The DA earlier failed to convince higher courts to overturn the retrial order for Morgan.
In a motion to recuse Derbigny from the case, Assistant District Attorneys Donna Andrieu and Robert Freeman Jr. wrote this month that the veteran jurist was “predisposed in favor of” Morgan and has displayed “bias and personal interest in the outcome of the case.”
Derbigny taught law at Loyola University for a dozen years and supervised students in defense cases before he was elected to the Section J bench in 2002.
Morgan’s attorneys argued that the bid to dismiss Derbigny from the case was frivolous, citing higher court rulings declaring that a judge’s decisions in a particular case, or “even opinions formed during the course of proceedings,” are not valid grounds for recusal.
Derbigny offered no reasons for his ruling, which came shortly after Cannizzaro paid a visit to Derbigny’s courtroom.
IPNO Director Emily Maw declined to comment on the ruling or whether Morgan, 39, will appeal it.
The case will be assigned to a new judge by Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell’s office under what he has described as a random, computer-generated process. That decision had not been made as of late Tuesday.
The perjury prosecution of Shabazz and Johnson, the two witnesses who recanted, is before Judge Benedict Willard.
Cannizzaro spokesman Christopher Bowman did not respond to a request for comment.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.