The Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday upheld a judge’s decision last year granting a New Orleans man a new trial in the 22-year-old killing of a fellow teenager at a party.
In doubt now is when, or how, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office will retry Jerome Morgan in the 1993 killing of 16-year-old Clarence Landry. Two key witnesses in the case have recanted their testimony, and Cannizzaro’s office has since charged them with lying on the witness stand.
The state’s high court denied Cannizzaro’s appeal of a decision by Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny in January 2014 overturning Morgan’s murder conviction.
Derbigny said he found the case “wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion by the New Orleans Police Department.”
Among other reasons justifying a new trial, Derbigny wrote, was that police “successfully diluted and ultimately polluted the minds” of two young eyewitnesses who at the trial identified Morgan as the shooter.
Those witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, recanted at a hearing in 2013. They said police cajoled them into identifying Morgan after Johnson first pushed away Morgan’s image in a photo lineup, saying he wasn’t the killer, and Shabazz initially told police he didn’t see the assailant who shot him and killed Landry.
Cannizzaro’s office filed a bill of information in January accusing each man of perjury. Both have pleaded not guilty.
“They either put an innocent man in jail for 20 years or they lied to get him out,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Kirkham said of the allegations at a court hearing this month.
A Cannizzaro spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the Supreme Court’s ruling, which came without dissent, or on possible plans to retry Morgan. The office has a policy not to discuss open cases.
No new trial date has been set for Morgan, 38, who has been represented by Innocence Project New Orleans lawyers. He has remained free on an electronic ankle bracelet since early last year.
Cannizzaro’s persistence in challenging Derbigny’s decision and his decision to prosecute the two witnesses have rankled Innocence Project officials, who last year joined with the DA’s Office in a new Conviction Integrity Project, described as a first-of-its-kind joint effort by prosecutors and advocates to root out bad convictions from the past.
In Morgan’s case, his attorneys pointed out several other discrepancies in the evidence that may have swayed the jury to convict Morgan of murder, sending him away for life.
Among them was evidence that police reached the scene just six minutes after the shooting started on May 22, 1993, and locked down the ballroom at the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans East.
The jury was told that it took police more than half an hour to arrive.
Morgan’s attorneys argued that prosecutors withheld evidence about the quick police response and that it flew in the face of Johnson’s testimony that he chased the shooter out the door and down an alley.
When police arrived at the site of the party, Morgan was there. Prosecutors alleged at his initial trial that he managed to run away, hop a fence, stash the gun and return before police arrived.
The Supreme Court’s decision, which came without a written opinion, followed the same ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
“Every judge that looked at this (case) has affirmed the trial court’s decision to reverse Jerome Morgan’s conviction,” IPNO Director Emily Maw said. “We hope the district attorney looks at this case from a fresh perspective and (authorities) reopen the investigation into the shooting death of Clarence Landry, which has never been solved.”
Meanwhile, Shabazz, 38, and Johnson, 40, who are both free on recognizance bonds, are due to return to court May 20 on charges of giving inconsistent statements on the stand.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.