A Jefferson Parish jury of four men and eight women Tuesday night found former death row inmate Curtis Kyles guilty of murdering Crystal St. Pierre, a 26-year-old woman who was found shot in the head in an overgrown lot in Avondale in 2010.
Kyles, who spent 11 years in prison for the 1984 shooting of an elderly New Orleans woman before the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction, showed no emotion after hearing the verdict that will get him mandatory life in prison without benefit of parole, probation or suspended sentence.
Jurors deliberated for more than two hours after hearing prosecutors and Kyles’ defense team present two vastly different interpretations of the previous four days of testimony.
Prosecutors Clif Milner and Shannon Swaim told the jurors during closing arguments that whatever they thought of Kyles’ alleged co-conspirator, Chicwanda Forbes, the evidence the state presented backed up her testimony that Kyles shot St. Pierre after a dispute over the value of a Louisiana Purchase food stamp card that St. Pierre had given them.
Lead defense attorney Paul Fleming Jr., however, told jurors that investigators had zeroed in on his client first and sought merely to build a case against him while ignoring other evidence.
“You’re supposed to let the evidence lead you to a suspect. Instead, they developed a suspect and gathered up the evidence to support their case against him,” he told jurors.
Fleming characterized Forbes, who was seen by witnesses kidnapping St. Pierre from an Algiers apartment complex with Kyles before the three drove off, as a woman lying to get herself out from under a murder charge.
Forbes, who is serving 15 years for the kidnapping, had the second-degree murder charge against her dropped in exchange for her testimony.
Swaim, however, told jurors that every major element of Forbes’ account was corroborated by witnesses and evidence: She and Kyles were captured on camera at an Algiers Winn-Dixie trying to buy $200 in groceries with St. Pierre’s food stamp card, only to find the PIN number didn’t work.
Witnesses at the Algiers apartment complex where St. Pierre was staying and where Kyles lived testified that Kyles showed up yelling for “my money” and suggesting he had a gun, before Forbes dragged St. Pierre down the stairs, punched her and forced her into the back seat of a car.
One of the witnesses, a bus driver named Sheridan Flax who had dropped by to have coffee with the woman who had put St. Pierre up for the night, briefly followed the car as it sped off and called 911.
Three successive cell towers — in Algiers, Harvey and then Waggaman — picked up Kyles’ mobile phone over a 26-minute period ending at 11:37 a.m. The Waggaman tower was only 400 yards from where St. Pierre’s body was found.
Fleming, however, told jurors the prosecution’s case held water only if jurors forgot about several pieces of evidence. Among them: a fresh cigarette butt found at the scene that wasn’t linked to Kyles, Forbes or any of the investigators; the fact that initial descriptions of St. Pierre had her wearing a blue, not white, shirt; the fact there was no stippling or contact wound on St. Pierre’s head where she was said to have been shot at point blank range; and the fact that Kyles did not appear upset in the surveillance video from the grocery.
He pointed jurors to testimony that St. Pierre had a drug problem and had stolen items before, and that she had borrowed money from her father to pay off debts in the past.
He said the prosecution’s case didn’t account for the likelihood that St. Pierre had paid Kyles what she owed him, was dropped off and then was killed by someone else.
Kyles will be sentenced Nov. 10.
His previous murder conviction — not admissible in the current case — was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court found the Orleans Parish prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have helped his case.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.