Moments before he launched a Champagne cork into the Mid-City sky on Friday, Jerome Morgan repeated what he’s insisted for years — most of them spent in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
He said he never knew 16-year-old Clarence Landry, didn’t kill him in a Gentilly ballroom in 1993 and in fact couldn’t have done so, based on evidence from a police report that a jury never saw.
Morgan’s celebration came hours after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro dropped a bid to retry him in Landry’s killing. The district attorney refused to endorse Morgan’s claim of innocence, however, instead citing a recent state Supreme Court decision that he said “effectively prohibited” a retrial.
Regardless, Morgan, now 40, figures to face a stiff battle should he try, like dozens of others, to tap a state fund created by Louisiana lawmakers a decade ago to compensate innocent people for their years spent behind bars.
Even in cases where local prosecutors bless an exoneration, the state Attorney General’s Office has been loathe to cede ground on a 2005 statute that requires former inmates to prove “factual innocence” by “clear and convincing evidence,” a higher legal bar than what it took to set them free.
Advocates for former inmates have long claimed that the state’s strict reading of the statute — which they say was drafted to prevent payments to inmates freed on mere technicalities — has left the innocent forced to prove a negative — that they didn’t do it — to gain what amounts to a stipend for their lost years.
At stake is $25,000 for each year that an innocent former inmate spent behind bars, capped at $250,000. Freed inmates also can apply for as much as $80,000 for job training, medical costs and “the loss of life opportunities.”
Year after year, the list of those receiving money from the fund — an official state roster of injustice — fits neatly on a single page. It hovers around 20 names, with about 350 combined years of false imprisonment. The annual state payout in recent years has averaged about $600,000.
For Earl Truvia, it was a four-year fight to make that list before an Orleans Parish judge awarded him compensation in 2011.
Truvia and Gregory Bright had spent 27 years behind bars for the murder of a 15-year-old before they were freed in 2002 after it was revealed that the lone witness was a schizophrenic heroin addict who testified under a false name, among other troubles with the prosecution.
Truvia said the money barely covered what it cost his family and friends to maintain contact with him and feed his commissary fund during his quarter-century in prison.
“It was real disheartening to know the state of Louisiana acknowledged my criminal conviction was dismissed with volumes of evidence, and then they fought in opposition of a small compensation,” Truvia said.
“My whole life span was disrupted because the DA’s Office was seeking political ambition and they were cheating and lying. Not only here, but it’s all around the United States. What you think people get exonerated for? Because you’re cheated and lied on.”
Louisiana is among 30 states, along with Washington, D.C., that offer some form of compensation for the wrongly convicted. But the legal standards and dollar amounts vary widely.
Texas is the most generous, with a lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard for proving innocence, and up to $80,000 for each year of false imprisonment, plus an annuity in the same amount. Wisconsin offers just $5,000 for each year of false incarceration, with a cap at $25,000. Twenty states offer nothing.
“The instinct for a lot of these laws is they don’t want people who are actually guilty to get money, which is understandable. But you end up excluding a lot of actually innocent people,” said Amol Sinha, state policy advocate for the New York-based Innocence Project. “What we’re really talking about is severe injustice.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to rule on the “factual innocence” standard in a compensation case.
Under the state statute, factual innocence means “the petitioner did not commit the crime for which he was convicted and incarcerated, nor did he commit any crime based upon the same set of facts used in his original conviction.”
When the state opposes such a claim, a decision is left to local district judges or state appeals courts.
Advocates for prisoners long criticized former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office for what they viewed as a draconian stance on the policy.
Among other cases, Caldwell’s office fought a compensation claim from former inmate Glenn Ford, and a Caddo Parish judge last year agreed with it, denying payment for Ford’s nearly 30 years on death row despite a concession from prosecutors that he didn’t commit the 1998 murder of a Shreveport jeweler. District Judge Katherine Dorroh found there was evidence that Ford was aware of the plan to rob the jeweler and later sold some of the stolen items. Ford recently died.
‘Cannot be excluded’
The Attorney General’s Office also is challenging a petition for compensation by Damon Thibodeaux for the 15 years he spent on death row before Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. acknowledged doubts about Thibodeaux’s confession to raping and killing a 14-year-old girl, Chrystal Champagne, in Bridge City in 1996.
Attorneys for Thibodeaux, who was released from prison in 2012, argue that forensic testing found none of Thibodeaux’s DNA on the victim and someone else’s DNA on the wire used to strangle her. But state prosecutors have argued that “Damon Thibodeaux cannot be excluded as a suspect.”
Thibodeaux’s lawyers say the compensation claim is taking a backseat to his civil lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office for wrongful conviction. That trial is scheduled for December.
Kristin Wenstrom, an attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans who has handled several innocence compensation claims, said it’s frustrating when even a district attorney’s agreement to scrap a conviction, after extensive investigation, isn’t enough.
“The statute is written to be a fairly straightforward process, but it’s become complicated,” Wenstrom said of the decade-old law. “So much of this information should be taken for granted when you start with compensation, rather than have to redetermine what the facts are.”
This month, a bid to loosen the language of the compensation statute, filed by a Shreveport lawmaker, died in a House committee.
According to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, 43 people have applied for the Innocence Compensation Fund since the statute was signed in 2005. Of those, 27 have been granted money from the fund. Ten have been denied, with six applications now pending, spokeswoman Ruth Wisher said.
A closer look shows that in 15 of those 27 cases where the Attorney General’s Office agreed to compensation or the courts granted it over the state’s objection, DNA testing validated the innocence claim. In cases where DNA is not involved, opposition by the Attorney General’s Office is common.
An even higher burden
If advocates were hoping for a more liberal view under a new attorney general, it hasn’t come.
Landry’s office is opposing the only compensation claim to arise since he took office this year: the case of a New Orleans man whose release from prison last year drew praise from Cannizzaro, who called it “a wise decision.”
“Significant amounts” of new evidence had undermined the guilty verdict against Kia Stewart for the 2005 slaying of Bryant “B.J.” Craig, the district attorney acknowledged.
Several witnesses had stepped forward after Stewart’s trial in 2009, and many of them pointed to a now-deceased man, Antonio Barnes, as the real killer.
In dropping the case, Cannizzaro cited a dearth of evidence to convict Stewart in a new trial. Yet Landry’s office argues that Stewart still has failed to prove his innocence.
In a new twist, Landry’s office argues that Stewart needs to prove more than his innocence; he must also show that the new evidence “undermines the prosecution’s entire case” against him, according to a recent legal filing.
That language, plucked from a recent appeals court ruling in a Union Parish case, has Stewart’s attorneys crying foul.
In the Union Parish case, a state 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal panel found that former death-row inmates Albert Ronnie Burrell and Michael Ray Graham had demolished the state’s case against them for the double murder of a couple in 1986, discrediting the investigation and witness statements. But the court found the two men still couldn’t “prove their innocence.”
Landry’s office flipped that reasoning in its opposition to Stewart’s bid for state money. Last month, Landry’s office acknowledged “an abundance of evidence” that Barnes was the killer, but it also noted that one eyewitness remains steadfast in his identification of Stewart as the shooter. Therefore, Stewart, 28, “has not undermined the case the state presented at trial,” the state claims.
A hearing on Stewart’s claim for state money is scheduled for June 15 before Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter.
‘The rule of law’
Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw derided the new tack from Landry’s office on the 2005 compensation statute, saying drawn-out legal battles undermine the law’s purpose: helping the wrongly convicted land on their feet.
“Claiming that someone’s clear and overwhelming evidence of innocence is not enough to get them compensated defeats the purpose of that statute,” Maw said, “and the argument in court about the technical interpretations will probably cost more in time and resources than the wrongly convicted person will ever receive.”
Wisher, the spokeswoman for Landry’s office, declined to comment on how the new attorney general’s views differ from Caldwell’s, saying only, “Attorney General Landry is committed to ensuring the rule of law is followed.”
Not all freed inmates have had to fight it out in court, however, even without DNA evidence to clear them.
After an extensive investigation, Caldwell’s office last year found Reginald Adams factually innocent in the murder of a police officer’s wife, Cathy Ulfers, in 1979 in New Orleans East, after Cannizzaro in 2014 proclaimed that police and prosecutors railroaded him.
Caldwell’s office agreed that Adams “did not commit any crime based upon the same set of facts used in his original conviction,” according to a judgment granting Adams $250,000.
A major-league typo
But the case of Eddie Triplett, another instance of alleged police misconduct, stands alone.
Triplett, who received a $250,000 check on Oct. 13, 2013, occupies his own category on the state’s list of compensation recipients, records show.
He was serving a life prison sentence on a cocaine conviction as a habitual offender when he won his freedom in 2011, with Cannizzaro’s blessing.
Prosecutors under former District Attorney Harry Connick had violated Triplett’s rights by failing to turn over a police report indicating officers had arrested another man for the same offense — stuffing cocaine into his mouth — at the same location and time, Cannizzaro said.
The report indicated that two New Orleans Police Department officers, Jeffrey Keating and Edgar Staehle, lied on the stand, Cannizzaro said after agreeing to drop the case against Triplett following a federal judge’s decision to overturn Triplett’s conviction.
Yet Cannizzaro’s second-in-command, Graymond Martin, later insisted in a letter to then-NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas that the only mistake the officers made was transposing the other man’s name onto the police report for Triplett’s — a major-league typo, Martin wrote.
Serpas soon cleared the two officers of criminal wrongdoing, writing to Cannizzaro that the district attorney’s “recent public statements that the officers did lie is in contradiction to all of the available facts and information we have reviewed.”
The kerfuffle didn’t hurt Triplett, who secured his payment in exchange for his agreeing not to sue anyone involved. Caldwell’s office acquiesced to the deal in late 2012.
Suzanne Montero, Triplett’s attorney for his compensation claim, said the state also agreed to allow Triplett’s heirs to receive the payment if he died — an unusual condition.
Triplett, now 55, still lives on the same West Carrollton street where he was arrested. He said he netted $160,000, though he had wanted to sue.
“I got something in the bank, bought me a truck,” he said, “fixed my house a bit.”
He uses the truck now to make money doing odd jobs: cutting glass, cutting trees, “whatever it takes,” he said.
He said there’s one thing he never got and probably never will: “They didn’t apologize.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.