DA drops murder charge against Jerome Morgan for 1993 killing

Advocate photo by JOHN SIMERMAN -- Innocence Project New Orleans clients Jerome Morgan, right and Robert Jones are pictured here in this undated file photo. 

Jerome Morgan, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for the slaying of a 16-year-old youth in a Gentilly motel ballroom before a judge threw out his conviction two years ago, won’t be retried in the 1993 killing. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro grudgingly dropped the murder charge Friday.

Cannizzaro refused to proclaim Morgan innocent in the killing of Clarence Landry in a Howard Johnson motel ballroom. Instead, he cited a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling this month that denied prosecutors the chance to use transcripts from Morgan’s 1994 trial during a new trial that was slated to start June 13.

Prosecutors had wanted to use the older testimony of two key witnesses who have since recanted their identifications of Morgan as the shooter, aiming to let a jury decide between their contradictory statements.

Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny vacated Morgan’s conviction and life sentence in early 2014, endorsing the more recent claims by the two witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, that police steered them to identify Morgan, who also was 16 when Landry was slain at a birthday party.

Cannizzaro’s office proceeded to charge Shabazz and Johnson with perjury, leading the two men to exercise their Fifth Amendment right not to testify at a new trial for Morgan, for fear of facing new charges.

Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu recently acknowledged that the transcripts from the 2004 trial would be central to the prosecution, saying she hoped to tell a jury that Morgan’s attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans had coerced the two men to recant.

The Supreme Court decision, ruling out the transcripts unless Shabazz and Johnson were to testify in person, left Cannizzaro’s office “effectively prohibited from retrying the murder case against Jerome Morgan,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “Absent additional evidence, the DA’s Office will not be able to prosecute this case further.”

Friday’s decision ended a nearly quarter-century legal saga for Morgan, 40, who has remained out on bond with a curfew for the past two years.

He celebrated with his attorneys Friday afternoon at the Innocence Project’s Mid-City office, popping a Champagne cork into the trees and taking a swig from the bottle.

“I’m happy,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming for us.”

No longer tied to a curfew or other restrictions, he said he wants to travel outside Louisiana.

Morgan called the effort to retry him “a total waste. They’re wasting time pursuing charges against me when there’s evidence that really proves that I’m innocent, and then they’re prosecuting the witnesses who they initially coerced when they were 16 years old.”

Morgan said he never knew Landry, only learning about him while fighting his conviction from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“My heart goes out to his family. I was 16, too, and it could have been me. The roles could have been reversed. He could have been wrongfully convicted for my murder. A life is lost, and I keep that in mind,” he said.

The recantations from Shabazz and Johnson, a close friend of Landry, weren’t the only evidence that Derbigny cited in overturning Morgan’s conviction. He also pointed to a failure by authorities to disclose a police report that seemed to undermine the police claim that Morgan fatally shot Landry, ran away but then returned to the ballroom before officers locked it down.

The jury heard that police showed up more than a half-hour after the shooting. The withheld report, however, suggested the cops got there in six minutes. Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw said the report showed it was “physically impossible” that Morgan was the killer.

Cannizzaro conceded Friday that the Police Department conducted “what can at best be described as a lackluster homicide investigation” in 1993. He said Morgan’s prosecution was the result of a diligent investigation by Landry’s mother, Sandra Landry, who is now ill.

“What is most disappointing to me about this entire incident is that as Mrs. Landry (lies) in bed dying of cancer, the justice for which she worked so hard to obtain is ripped from her fingers and she is helpless to stop it,” the statement read.

Maw challenged that account, saying it is Morgan’s attorneys, and not prosecutors, who have kept in touch with Landry’s family.

“I’ve spoken to Clarence Landry’s parents,” Maw said. “They don’t want Jerome Morgan in prison. He didn’t do the crime. They are not sorry Jerome Morgan is out.”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro did not respond to questions about when prosecutors spoke to Landry’s family about their wishes concerning the prosecution.

Morgan’s attorneys — Maw, Kristin Wenstrom and Rob McDuff — claimed that prosecutors charged Shabazz and Johnson, the two eyewitnesses, to keep them from taking the witness stand in a new trial and scuttling the case against Morgan.

Yet as of Friday, the perjury charges against the two men remained, and Cannizzaro left little doubt that he intends to pursue them.

“What I do know for certain is that Johnson and Shabazz either perjured themselves in 2013 to allow a cold-blooded murderer (to) walk free, or they perjured themselves in 1994 to put an innocent man in jail,” his statement read. “Unfortunately, the passage of time, less than adequate investigative work at the time of the murder and legal procedures have made it impossible for us to determine which it is for sure. However, either way, they deserve to be punished.”

Shabazz and Johnson have been charged under a perjury statute that doesn’t require prosecutors to prove when they lied — in 1993 or two decades later.

Their attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, derided Cannizzaro’s statement.

“If the DA is eager to prosecute for perjury, then justice would dictate that he begin with prosecuting the corrupt NOPD officers who coerced false statements out of scared teenagers so they could close this case quickly rather than accurately,” Hjortsberg said.

“There is no justice for a victim’s family when the police don’t arrest the actual perpetrator,” Hjortsberg said, “and the Police Department will never correct these lazy, corrupt practices unless the DA begins to hold the department accountable and truly treats all the people of this city fairly.”

The decision by Cannizzaro’s office came a day after Morgan’s attorneys had asked Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich, who was to preside over the retrial, to question prosecutors about what evidence they had left to retry the case in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.