A state district judge on Tuesday denied Terry Speaks’ request for a new trial in the 2012 killing of Bourbon Street dancer Jaren Lockhart, saying that issues raised about the credibility of two inmates who testified against Speaks weren’t likely to change the verdict, given the totality of the evidence against him.
Judge Steven Grefer of 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna ruled after a hearing that included testimony from Elijah Sanford, an inmate in the Otisville, New York, prison where Speaks was incarcerated for several months for an unrelated sex crime before he was brought back to Louisiana to stand trial for Lockhart’s killing.
Sanford wrote a letter to the Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Office days before Speaks’ trial, but he sent it to the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office, where it languished until after Speaks was convicted and sentenced.
In the letter, Sanford said he had concerns about the validity of the testimony of Trevor Lucas, who testified against Speaks in the hope he would get his sentence reduced. Sanford said Lucas told him he had changed his story and had been fed information by investigators and by his own father, who had read about Speaks’ case on the Internet.
Sanford also raised concerns during Tuesday’s hearing about Christian Del Rosario, another Otisville inmate who testified that Speaks discussed details of the killing while in the prison.
Speaks was convicted of second-degree murder and obstruction of justice in June and sentenced to life in prison. His alleged co-conspirator, Margaret Sanchez, is scheduled to stand trial later this year.
Investigators say the two lured Lockhart from the Bourbon Street strip club where she worked to their Kenner apartment on June 6, 2012, with the promise of paying her for sex. There, they stabbed her once through the heart, dismembered her body and dumped it in the bayous of Mississippi, where the pieces washed ashore days later.
Sanford, still jailed in New York, testified Tuesday over the Internet about the credibility of Del Rosario and, primarily, Lucas, who Sanford said once offered him $100,000 to give false testimony in order to “set someone up.”
Sanford, who has paralegal training and offers to assist fellow inmates, testified he never met Speaks and knows nothing of his innocence or guilt, and that his only concern was that Speaks get a fair trial.
Assistant District Attorney Doug Freese, however, sought to undermine Sanford’s motives for coming forward to help a complete stranger, noting that Sanford hadn’t previously said anything to prison authorities about Lucas’ alleged offer to pay him $100,000 for false information. Freese also questioned why nothing in the letter Sanford tried to send to Speaks’ attorneys mentioned Del Rosario, who Sanford now says also told him he planned to present false testimony.
“Is that because you had an ax to grind with Mr. Lucas but not an ax to grind at that time with Mr. Del Rosario?” Freese asked.
“There was no ax to grind, so that answer would be no,” Sanford responded.
FBI investigator Patrick Strawn testified for the prosecution that he and investigators from Mississippi and Kenner never fed Lucas information about the case and that they recorded all their conversations with him.
John Benz, Speaks’ public attorney, said in closing arguments that the defense need only prove that the new evidence presented debatable issues that would probably lead the jury to a different verdict.
On the other hand, Freese said that Grefer, who presided over Speaks’ trial, was aware that the prosecution’s case hardly rested on Lucas’ and Del Rosario’s testimony.
In his ruling, Grefer said he had to consider the new information in the context of the rest of the evidence and testimony. He said the case against Speaks included a lot of other evidence, including incriminating emails and recorded conversations between Speaks and Sanchez, not to mention security- and license plate-camera footage supporting the prosecution’s case.
Speaks, who already has been sentenced to life in prison on the second-degree murder charge alone, likely will be resentenced as a multiple offender on Friday.
Benz said Speaks will appeal Grefer’s decision after the resentencing hearing.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.