A pair of witnesses who recanted their pivotal testimony in a 20-year-old murder case, helping to sway an Orleans Parish judge to grant Jerome Morgan a new trial, arrived in court Thursday to answer to perjury charges for changing their stories.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office filed a bill of information in January against Hakim Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, accusing them of giving inconsistent statements on the witness stand.
The decision to charge the two men drew a bitter response from Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Morgan and has since teamed with Cannizzaro’s office on a new project aimed at rooting out bad convictions from the past.
“This action runs counter to the DA’s stated intention to right past injustices, which has received significant support,” IPNO Director Emily Maw said in a statement.
Just when the two men allegedly perjured themselves is uncertain. The bill says the alleged crimes happened sometime from Sept. 7, 1994, to Oct. 10, 2013.
The allegation: Shabazz and Johnson either lied as teenagers in a 1994 murder trial when they identified Morgan as the man they saw fire a half-dozen bullets into a crowd at a Sweet 16 birthday party, piercing Shabazz through the side and killing 16-year-old Clarence Landry; or they lied as grown men in 2013, when both denied seeing the triggerman and said police prodded them into fingering Morgan.
As Assistant District Attorney Matthew Kirkham described the allegations in court: “They either put an innocent man in jail for 20 years or they lied to get him out.”
Johnson, 40, pleaded not guilty on Thursday, while Shabazz entered the same plea last month. Criminal District Court Judge Benedict Willard set a $20,000 recognizance bail for each man, allowing them to remain out of jail.
Kirkham sought a $50,000 bail for each man, pointing to criminal records from the late 1990s that include an armed robbery conviction for Johnson, a father of 11 who is now a film actor and who said he manages the Carver Theater in New Orleans. Shabazz, a married father of two, said he runs an auto body shop in Chalmette.
As teenagers, their testimony proved key to convicting Morgan, who was 16 when he was accused of killing Landry.
Shabazz and Johnson had been with Landry at the birthday party on May 22, 1993, in the ballroom at the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Road. A fight broke out between two groups, and someone pulled a gun and opened fire.
Landry was hit in the neck and the shoulder, while Shabazz was shot through the side. Another youth also was struck, in the thigh.
When police arrived at 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 jury in the 1994 trial never heard evidence that police reached the scene just six minutes after the shooting started and locked it down.
Instead, the jury heard that it took more than a half-hour for police to arrive. Morgan’s attorneys with Innocence Project New Orleans argued that prosecutors withheld the evidence and that it flew in the face of Johnson’s testimony that he chased the shooter out the door and down an alley.
In 2013, Johnson testified that the victim was his best friend and he was getting pressured to identify Morgan, whose name was circulating on the street as the shooter. He first dismissed Morgan’s picture from a photo lineup, then did so again seven months later. He said a detective then pushed the picture back into the mix.
“Are you sure it’s not this guy right here?” the detective asked him, according to an affidavit Johnson signed.
He said the detective told him the photo was of Morgan. Johnson said he figured everybody else must be right.
Shabazz spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from his wounds, then got a call from a detective who asked him if he knew who had shot him. Shabazz said he didn’t, that he never saw a face.
The detective allegedly said, “Jerome shot you,” then asked Shabazz to come to the station to give a statement.
The detective pressured him to point out Morgan and made him feel he would be doing a public service if he did so, Shabazz said in 2013.
“It’s almost like they painted this picture for me, that it was him,” he said on the witness stand, adding that he’d been wracked with guilt for years.
“What I did, it just wasn’t right.”
With Shabazz and Johnson changing their stories, Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny granted Morgan a new trial last year. Released on bail with an ankle bracelet, Morgan, 38, remains free pending an appeal by Cannizzaro’s office that is now before the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“Just knowing the truth kept me sane,” Morgan said in an interview with The New Orleans Advocate shortly after his release.
“Being incarcerated for something that you had nothing to do with is very difficult. Some people don’t make it. They don’t make it to see this day because they can’t handle the trauma and just the torture of being there.”
Derbigny, in his ruling, indicated he was convinced the men recanted to free themselves of guilt.
“The evidence presented before this court is wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion by the New Orleans Police Department,” Derbigny wrote in his order granting Morgan a new trial.
Prosecutors pledged to defend Morgan’s conviction to the state’s high court.
At the time, they did not mention charging Johnson and Shabazz with perjury. Under the law for making inconsistent statements, prosecutors don’t need to prove whether the two men lied in 1994 or in 2013.
“This was a re-enactment of something 20 years ago I didn’t want to relive,” Johnson said outside the courtroom Wednesday. “It’s overwhelming.”
Shabazz declined to comment on the case.
Johnson’s attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, noted that Morgan was prosecuted under former District Attorney Harry Connick during a 30-year reign that was marred repeatedly by documented cases of prosecutorial misconduct.
Hjortsberg harkened back to the case of John Thompson, who was freed from death row, then won a $14 million judgment against the DA’s Office that was overturned by a narrow U.S. Supreme Court majority in 2011.
“This DA’s Office was nearly bankrupted as a result of DA Connick’s impropriety. It’s absurd for them to stand in front of this court and act as if these improprieties did not occur under that regime,” Hjortsberg said.
Maw, the IPNO director, said the nonprofit group was “very alarmed and disappointed in the DA’s surprise decision in this case. We believe it will hinder efforts to root out past wrongful convictions by discouraging people from coming forward and correcting previous untruthful statements or testimony.”
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office did not immediately respond to messages. Cannizzaro’s office has a policy of not commenting on open cases.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.