New Orleans prosecutors don't care if John Floyd stays free. Yet on Monday they nonetheless asked a federal appeals court to reinstate his conviction for a 1980 slashing in the French Quarter.
Floyd left the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in June after 36 years behind bars for the 1980 killing of a Times-Picayune proofreader.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance overturned his conviction, finding that his trial was marred by missing evidence and a dubious confession. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office agreed to his release from prison pending the outcome of its appeal of Vance's ruling.
Since then, Floyd has lived inside a donated Winnebago Adventurer on a farm near Lafayette.
Floyd put on a suit Monday and sat in the ornate main courtroom of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear arguments on whether he can continue his peaceful life.
The DA's Office says Vance overstepped her bounds as a federal judge when she tossed out Floyd’s state conviction, which the Louisiana Supreme Court had upheld.
If prosecutors win, Floyd could land back in Angola.
The three judges on the panel did not issue a ruling Monday, but they subjected prosecutors to pointed questions.
For John Floyd, freedom is a flip phone.
Judge Rhesa Barksdale seemed perplexed about why the DA’s Office is fighting tooth and nail to restore Floyd’s conviction.
How could prosecutors argue that Floyd’s innocence has not been established, Barksdale said, “in light of your concession in your reply brief that Mr. Floyd should not be in prison?”
“The state just simply isn’t comfortable with the precedent that the district court opinion establishes,” Assistant District Attorney Mithun Kamath said.
Prosecutors expressed concern that Vance's opinion, declaring Floyd "factually innocent" of the crime, could provoke an avalanche of appeals in federal courts.
In her ruling, Vance pointed out that Floyd was originally arrested on suspicion of two fatal stabbings of gay men in November 1980. A state judge convicted him of one, the killing of Times-Picayune employee William Hines, but acquitted him of the other.
Police believed the murders happened when the victims invited the killer up to their rooms for sex. Floyd confessed to both killings, although his attorneys suggest he was coerced into giving the statements.
Vance said Floyd’s defense attorney was denied crucial fingerprint test results from both crime scenes, as well as a statement from one of Hines’ friends that he preferred African-American lovers. Floyd is white.
Judge Stephen Higginson said the lead detective on the case believed that Hines drank whiskey with his killer. Prints were lifted from a whiskey glass, but they didn’t match Floyd's.
Until Thursday, the last time John Floyd enjoyed freedom was about 5 p.m. on a chilly Monday in January 1981.
“The government’s got in its possession (evidence) that the drinks could be someone else’s, but not his,” Higginson said.
Kamath said the presence of someone else’s prints at the crime scene on Gov. Nicholls Street did not rule out Floyd as the killer. “Those could have been placed at any point prior to the crime,” he said.
For Higginson, however, the fingerprints were the “biggest issue” in the case. He seemed to suggest that if they were crucial exculpatory evidence, then Vance had the right to step in to free Floyd.
Floyd’s attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans, Richard Davis, said there was a “clear distinction” between an absence of fingerprint evidence altogether and the presence of someone else’s prints at the crime scene.
Davis also pointed out that former NOPD Homicide Detective John Dillmann never mentioned in his police reports a statement from Hines' friend John Clegg about Hines preferring black men.
Floyd’s lawyers tracked Clegg down in 2008 and collected a statement about his interactions with Dillman, who testified at Floyd's trial that Hines' "sexual preference was not to any one race."
“What Mr. Clegg stated in 2008 is not necessarily inconsistent with what was reported by Detective Dillman,” Kamath said.
Prosecutors said in one court filing that Hines could have decided to have one drunken fling with a white man.
Davis said after the hearing that if the appeals court overturns Vance's ruling, he believes his client would have to go back to prison. Prosecutors in the past offered Floyd his freedom in exchange for a guilty plea to a manslaughter charge, but they would not be obliged to do so again.
Lawyers for a man whose conviction in the 1980 killing of a Times-Picayune proofreader was tossed out earlier this month are urging a federal …
Floyd, who can’t leave his farm in Carencro for more than 18 hours at a time, expressed faith in his future.
“I think everything went well,” he said. “I’m anxious to get all this over with and get on with my life.”