The recantation of a key witness is not enough to free a man serving life in prison for a fatal shooting outside the Superdome in 1999, an appeals court decided Wednesday.
The state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal said the recantation of William Varnado should be viewed with extreme suspicion, in large part because of jailhouse phone calls suggesting he was pressured to renounce his trial testimony.
Years after the fact, Varnado claimed that a notorious New Orleans Police Department detective coerced him into pinning the crime on Duvander Hurst, who was tried in 2000.
“The state maintains that the recorded conversations between defendant and his friends and family strongly indicate that Varnado’s recantation was a farce," the appeals court judges said. "Based on the record before us, we find, as did the trial court, that assertion has merit.”
Rejecting claims of a tainted police investigation, the same judge who sentenced Duvander Hurst to life in prison for shooting a teenager outs…
Hurst's attorney, Justin Harrell, said he will appeal.
The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has separately charged Varnado with perjury for recanting his statement in 2016. That case is pending.
Hurst, 46, was convicted of second-degree murder for killing Allen Delatte, 19, as a crowd mingled outside the stadium during an event on June 7, 1999.
Varnado, the sole witness, testified that he saw Hurst hop out of a car and shoot Delatte.
In 2013, however, an investigator hired by Hurst’s cousin took a statement from Varnado in which he said he had lied.
Varnado said he was facing two drug charges and withdrawing from heroin when Detective Archie Kaufman coached him through a taped statement implicating Hurst. Kaufman was later convicted in federal court of orchestrating the cover-up of the Danziger Bridge police shootings.
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Citing Varnado’s affidavit, Hurst appealed his conviction.
However, prosecutors said Varnado was motivated by fear rather than a guilty conscience. They said that after Hurricane Katrina, friends of Hurst moved to Varnado’s new neighborhood in Texas and threatened him.
The pressure has continued into the present day, Assistant District Attorney Kyle Daly said at a hearing last year. He said that in a series of phone calls from the Lousiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Hurst tried to conceal references to Varnado by calling him a woman. But sometimes he slipped up, Daly said.
Harrell dismissed most of the jail calls as “indecipherable.”
Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras denied Hurst's bid for a new trial in September, and the 4th Circuit sided with her ruling. Judge James McKay III wrote the court’s unanimous opinion on behalf of fellow judges Terri Love and Sandra Cabrina Jenkins.
The "recorded jailhouse phone calls, while not directly dispositive, taken as a whole, create extremely suspicious circumstances surrounding Varnado’s recantation and the extent to which defendant and/or his associates were involved in its procurement,” McKay said.
The appeals court’s decision is a major setback for Hurst. It is also a blow for Varnado, who faces his own legal problems.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office has aggressively prosecuted recanting witnesses like Varnado, whose perjury charge carries a potential sentence of five to 40 years. In Louisiana, a perjury charge requires only that prosecutors prove that a witness changed his story, not whether the new story is true or false.
Varnado was also arrested in a separate case in October. Prosecutors charged him with criminal trespass and theft under $1,000.
Harrell said he hopes the Supreme Court will reverse the 4th Circuit ruling, as it did before in the case.
He said he was "disheartened" by the ruling, "but I certainly feel like Duvander and I have been in this place before."
William Varnado says he just wanted to free his conscience.