Kia Stewart walked into an Orleans Parish courtroom Monday clad in orange jail scrubs and saddled with a lifetime prison sentence for a fatal shooting a month before Hurricane Katrina.
Moments later, he walked out smiling in a red polo shirt and his black Angola State Penitentiary-issued sandals, for lack of fresh footwear.
Faced with “significant amounts” of new evidence — mainly the statements of numerous witnesses who turned up after his 2009 murder trial — Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to abandon a murder conviction that relied on a single eyewitness and no testimony from the lead detectives who investigated the case.
Stewart, 27, was ordered released by Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny, who presided over the trial in the killing of Bryant “B.J.” Craig.
In a seven-page order, Derbigny found that Stewart’s trial attorneys had failed him by ignoring potential witnesses while hanging their defense on the cross-examination of a detective who never showed up in court.
Hugs and back slaps awaited Stewart outside the courtroom nearly 10 years after an eyewitness first fingered him as the shooter.
“Man, I’m feeling good,” he said. “I had to see it to believe it. I’m gonna live. I’m here.”
Cannizzaro’s office agreed both that Stewart deserved a new trial and that it wouldn’t seek one for lack of any compelling evidence against him.
The judge’s order addressed only the first of 10 claims that Stewart made for a new trial. It noted that six witnesses have since pointed to another man, Antonio Barnes, as Craig’s killer. Barnes was killed in 2006 during an attempted robbery in Houston.
Five more witnesses said Barnes confessed to them that he had killed Craig. Three other witnesses said it wasn’t Stewart, and four more corroborated Stewart’s alibi.
None of them testified at the murder trial.
“We have to ask: Do we possess evidence to prove Kia Stewart committed the murder of Bryant Craig?” said Christopher Bowman, the spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office. “No, we don’t have that.”
According to court records, Craig was gunned down on his way to his mother’s house to celebrate his 28th birthday.
Stewart, then 17, was accused of shooting him after Craig supposedly almost struck him with a vehicle on North Prieur Street near Orleans Avenue.
A man who had been walking alongside Craig, James Alexander, gave police a statement about the July 31, 2005, shooting and identified Stewart as the gunman in a photo lineup.
Stewart’s attorneys at the Innocence Project New Orleans said it was a bad identification.
IPNO Director Emily Maw said Alexander had failed just after the killing to spot Stewart as the shooter in a crowd near the Lafitte housing development, close to where the shooting happened. Stewart had been in that crowd, having come outside from a house around the corner where he had been sleeping, Maw said.
Amid the post-storm chaos, Stewart was jailed without an attorney for more than six months. He was indicted in February 2006 and found guilty at a trial in April 2009. A jury convicted him on a 10-2 vote.
Stewart’s attorneys complained years ago that Katrina had complicated the case on many levels, making it difficult to locate potential defense witnesses because the neighborhood where the killing happened became largely vacant after the storm.
Still, detectives who investigated the case knew about Barnes as a possible suspect, and that information was turned over to Stewart’s trial attorneys.
Neither of the detectives involved in the case ever testified. One of them, Laflora Young, was fired before the case came to trial. The other, Herman Franklin, was never called to the stand. Stewart’s original attorneys with Tulane Law School’s Criminal Litigation Clinic couldn’t track Franklin down with a subpoena.
Derbigny’s order takes the clinic to task for failing to conduct a proper investigation before the trial. The failure, the judge found, left Stewart’s lawyers scrambling when prosecutors announced just before the trial that they weren’t calling Franklin — who around that time faced allegations of working off-duty police details while on the NOPD clock, according to city records.
But Derbigny also noted that “Kia Stewart was arrested shortly before the most catastrophic natural disaster in this city’s history. As a result, the criminal justice system in this city was in complete disarray.”
It wasn’t long after Stewart’s trial that his attorneys turned up new witnesses who testified at a pair of unsuccessful hearings trying to overturn the conviction.
A Tulane spokesman issued a statement Monday praising Stewart’s release and defending the clinic’s representation of him, saying it stepped in while the Public Defender’s Office was in tatters.
“We represented Kia when no one else would and zealously defended him. Only after he was convicted did credible witnesses come forward to declare his innocence,” the statement read. “With the availability of these witnesses we worked to get him a new trial. When that failed, we contacted the Innocence Project and asked them to work on behalf of Kia. We were shocked when Kia was convicted, heartbroken when he lost his appeal and in the courtroom to share his joy and hug him when he was finally released.”
Maw, of the Innocence Project, said most of the post-trial evidence was uncovered only recently.
She called it a cautionary tale for police investigations that identify a suspect and basically stop there.
“If the be-all-and-end-all was not to get an eyewitness identification and move on, we wouldn’t be here,” Maw said. “It’s a shame the police investigation lasted a few hours.”
Maw credited prosecutors in Cannizzaro’s office with acknowledging a bad conviction. Last year, the IPNO and the DA announced a joint “Conviction Integrity Project” to root out bad convictions from the past. Maw said Stewart’s case was one in which the pilot project, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, bore fruit.
The joint investigation into Stewart’s case resulted in 90 “stipulated exhibits and eight pages of factual stipulations” submitted to the judge.
It was also unusual in that Cannizzaro’s office was conceding that a bad conviction happened under his own watch. Most recent exonerations involved cases from the era of longtime former DA Harry Connick.
“It is impressive that individuals in the District Attorney’s Office were willing to re-evaluate their earlier position,” Maw said. “I think credit is due. It took courage and real intellectual honesty for them to honestly re-examine this case.”
Cannizzaro, in a written statement Monday, said, “It is disturbing to me that all these witnesses were available for the 2009 trial but for a myriad of reasons did not participate in it.”
Monday’s developments were nevertheless distressing for Craig’s mother, Connie Craig, who now lives in Mobile, Alabama. She remained adamant that the right man was convicted, adding that Alexander had no reason to lie.
“If you were with my son and had seen (Stewart), would you have doubts?” she asked. “How can you just put something on a dead person?”
Stewart said Monday that he harbors no ill feeling for Alexander.
“I don’t feel no way about that guy,” he said. “They just made a mistake.”
Shipped to Angola in September 2009, Stewart has remained there since, with the exception of a month at the Avoyelles Correctional Center because of a Mississippi River flood threat in 2011.
Stewart’s mother, Terry Stewart, said Monday that she turned in her son when he was pegged as the suspect. After Katrina, she left for Texas.
“I can breathe again. Y’all took me out of prison today,” she said upon her son’s release. “I feel like a whole building taken off my shoulders.”
Also standing in the courthouse hallway Monday was a smiling Jerome Morgan.
Last year, Morgan won a new trial in a 1993 killing after two witnesses recanted and Derbigny found a police probe “wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion.”?In contrast with Stewart’s case, Cannizzaro’s office continues to pursue a new trial for Morgan, with a retrial now scheduled for September.
Morgan, who is out of jail after two decades behind bars, said he helped counsel Stewart while they both were at Angola.
“He had a challenge with just keeping calm. It’s the waiting process. They hope you fall short before you get to your destination,” said Morgan, who turned 39 on Monday.
“It’s the best reason to come to this courthouse, to see someone get out.”
Stewart said his future includes finding a job. Armed with the judge’s order, he also figures to seek state compensation for his time behind bars.
But first, he headed for Panera Bread on North Carrollton Avenue. He ordered the Napa chicken salad, no bread, with lemonade.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.