A judge this week overturned the death sentence of an Algiers man who was one of the “Angola 5,” a group of Angola State Penitentiary lifers who were convicted of killing a prison guard, Capt. David Knapps, during a failed 1999 escape attempt.
Retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg, who is handling the case, ruled Thursday that prosecutors withheld a confession by another of the accused killers until after David Brown went on trial, according to Brown’s attorneys. He ordered a new sentencing hearing, they said.
A state prison inmate had given a statement saying Barry S. Edge told him that only he and a third man, Jeffrey Cameron Clark, committed Knapps’ murder. The statement emerged only when prosecutors turned it over before Edge’s trial last year.
Edge, the last of the five to stand trial, was convicted of first-degree murder, but a jury fell three votes shy of a unanimous verdict on the death penalty, leaving Edge to serve a new life sentence.
Brown’s attorneys argued that the failure to turn over the statement violated Brady v. Maryland, a 50-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires the state to turn over evidence favorable to a defendant.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, which was handling the case, argued that the statement was not “material,” meaning it wasn’t likely to have changed the verdict.
Winsberg overturned Brown’s death sentence but not his conviction for killing Knapps, according to his attorneys. Brown was already serving a life sentence for second-degree murder in a 1992 killing in Marrero.
Steve Wimberly, first assistant district attorney for Jefferson DA Paul Connick’s office, could not be reached for comment. The office is expected to appeal Winsberg’s ruling.
Knapps, 49, was killed during an escape from the Educational Building of the prison’s camp. A sixth inmate was shot and killed in the escape attempt.
The inmates had taken two other officers hostage, but they were rescued by a security team.
Juries convicted four of the five inmates who were prosecuted for the killing, sending two of them, Brown and Clark, to death row. Edge and Robert Carley received life sentences after they were found guilty. David Mathis pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received a life sentence.
Prosecutors from Jefferson and Caddo parishes tried Brown in 2011, playing a recording to the jury of Brown telling investigators he dragged Knapps into an employee restroom and held him there while a co-defendant hit him with a mallet.
State DNA tests found that Knapps’ blood was on Brown’s hands, shoelace and clothes, according to testimony in the trial.
Prosecutors argued later, at Edge’s trial, that it was Edge who pummeled Knapps with a hammer to the head.
In June 2011, before Brown went on trial, prosecutors Hugo Holland and Tommy Block, along with investigators for the Jefferson DA’s Office, interviewed a state inmate named David Domingue, according to court records.
Domingue told them that Edge explained that “we could have let (Knapps) live,” but that he and Clark decided on their own to kill the guard.
“He said him and Jeffrey did, were the only ones that were thinking rationally during this highly charged situation. And they made a decision to help their self to kill (Knapps). But they could have let him live.”
Domingue later repeated the statement in a hearing in September, as Brown’s attorneys sought a new trial.
Brown’s lawyers argued that the state’s position — that Domingue’s statement was not “material” to Brown’s case — was “similarly myopic” to one that Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office attempted before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Juan Smith, who had been convicted in a 1995 quintuple murder.
Some of the high court justices openly chided Cannizzaro’s office for even trying to defend a failure by prosecutors to turn over earlier statements from the lone eyewitness, who had said he couldn’t identify the shooter. The Supreme Court overturned Smith’s conviction on an 8-1 vote.
“There is nothing worse a lawyer can do than hide favorable evidence from a defendant facing the death penalty,” one of Brown’s attorneys, Billy Sothern, said Friday.
“We hope that the judge’s ruling affirming that principle by throwing out David Brown’s death sentence will allow for the resolution of this case after 15 years of litigation, expense and uncertainty.”
Sothern was referring to the high cost of trying the Angola 5 and defending their convictions. All told, the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections has spent about $10 million for prosecution and defense costs, expert witnesses, paralegals, court reporters and jury costs.
The hefty price tag has been a source of handwringing by some state legislators, who brought it up earlier this year during budget talks.
Clark’s appeal of his death sentence, meanwhile, remains pending.