An Orleans Parish prosecutor said Thursday that a June 13 retrial for Jerome Morgan in a 1993 murder will go ahead despite a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling this month that will bar a jury from hearing pivotal evidence in the case.
Morgan’s attorneys asked Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich to dismiss the case, or at least to quiz prosecutors about what usable evidence they have left against Morgan in the killing of 16-year-old Clarence Landry during a birthday party at a Gentilly motel ballroom.
Zibilich gave Morgan’s attorneys until next week to file any motions to dismiss the case and for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to respond.
Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu gave no indication Thursday that Cannizzaro’s office was ready to drop the case.
A different Criminal District Court judge, Darryl Derbigny, tossed out Morgan’s 1994 conviction and life sentence two years ago and granted him a new trial. Derbigny cited the claims of two key eyewitnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, that New Orleans Police Department detectives had steered them to identify Morgan as the killer.
Derbigny also found that authorities had withheld a police report that cast doubt on the prosecution’s narrative of how the crime played out: that Morgan fired, ran off and then returned to the Howard Johnson motel’s ballroom before police showed up.
Cannizzaro’s office has since charged Shabazz and Johnson with perjury over their conflicting statements, and as a result, both have exercised their Fifth Amendment right not to testify at a new trial for Morgan. Morgan’s attorneys claim the perjury charges were intended to silence the two men.
Cannizzaro’s office has pressed for a new jury to be allowed to read transcripts of the men’s testimony from Morgan’s first trial and weigh that against their later recantations.
Zibilich agreed, but the state Supreme Court this month ruled that the transcripts are off-limits unless “these witnesses testify at the retrial.”
Defense attorney Rob McDuff argued Thursday that Cannizzaro’s office has no remaining evidence to retry Morgan.
“We have spent countless days and hours in this courtroom talking about this case, arguing motions,” McDuff said Thursday, “all of it premised on the state’s representation that their case is based on those transcripts.”
Andrieu has acknowledged that the conflicting accounts of Shabazz and Johnson stand at the heart of the case.
She has claimed that attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans coerced the two men to falsely recant their earlier testimony. But an appeals court has denied her bid to subpoena two IPNO attorneys and an investigator to testify about those allegations.
Zibilich set a June 3 date for another pretrial hearing while urging Cannizzaro’s office to assess its weakened position in the case.
“I would have thought they would have decided by now to dismiss this case,” McDuff said afterward. “Hopefully, with the judge’s encouragement, they will at long last do the right thing and stop this unconscionable pursuit of an innocent man.”
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