John Floyd, who is serving a life sentence after he was convicted in the gory 1980 stabbing of a Times-Picayune employee, must be freed by September unless Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office quickly retries the 37-year-old murder case, a federal judge has ruled.
In a 33-page decision Monday, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance tossed out Floyd's conviction and ordered his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola within 120 days unless he is retried.
Vance said that no reasonable juror would have found Floyd, now 67, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in the slaying of veteran proofreader William Hines, given evidence including fingerprint test results that the state withheld from the defense and jury.
A federal judge in New Orleans is poised to throw out the murder conviction of a 67-year-old…
Those tests apparently excluded Floyd as a match to fingerprints found on a bottle of Puglia's scotch whiskey at Hines' neatly kept home on Gov. Nicholls Street. That's where the newspaperman's naked body was left coated in blood at the foot of his bed. Neither were the fingerprints on the bottle from Hines.
Other fingerprint test results, also excluding Floyd and suggesting a different killer, came from whiskey glasses found in the blood-splattered hotel room of Rodney Robinson. He was found stabbed to death in the hallway outside his room at the Fairmont Hotel, three days after Hines' murder.
The slayings, of two men who apparently had invited their killers back to their rooms for drinks and sex, sent chills through the French Quarter gay community.
Floyd, who has an IQ of 59, with the mental capacity of a 7- or 8-year-old, confessed to both murders, which police and prosecutors described as eerily similar. At the time of the killings, Floyd was a drunken, drug-addled drifter who admittedly traded sex for a place to sleep.
Floyd first denied his involvement but then confessed that he went "berserk" after each man "told me that he wanted to (have sex with) me." In both cases, he told police, he pulled a 6-inch buck knife from his boot, repeatedly stabbed the victim and ran.
One witness, a bar owner, testified that he had stopped Floyd from trying to enter his bar, from which he was banned. He said Floyd blurted, "Don't come (messing) with me. I already wasted one person," then confirmed he was talking about Hines.
Evidence in Robinson's hotel room, including seminal fluid that did not match either Floyd's or the victim's blood type, and a hotel security guard's testimony that she saw a black man running from the hotel, pointed away from Floyd, who is white.
In a bench trial in 1982, then-Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg convicted Floyd in Hines' murder but acquitted him in Robinson's.
Winsberg declined to discuss his split verdict on Tuesday, saying, "I think my ruling speaks for itself."
Since then, Vance wrote, even more evidence has emerged that Floyd didn't kill Robinson and that neither of his closely matching confessions can be believed.
Vance's decision was expected, based on a ruling last year in which she cleared a major legal hurdle for Floyd, finding his case warranted the rare exception to federal rules that ordinarily bar such belated challenges.
But Vance went further than U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Knowles, who found last year that the undisclosed fingerprint evidence alone warranted granting Floyd's habeas corpus petition, finding it violated Brady v. Maryland, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires the state to turn over all favorable evidence to a defendant.
Vance — who was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton — agreed, adding that an affidavit from a witness, contradicting the testimony of a former New Orleans homicide detective, John Dillmann, marked additional Brady material.
That witness said he told Dillmann that Hines favored black men. Dillmann, however, told the jury that Hines "was involved in sexual activities with both black and white males, and he was very indiscriminate and it didn’t make a difference."
The evidence was key, Vance found, in part because of numerous hairs from black people that were found at both murder scenes, while Dillmann's testimony was aimed at downplaying that evidence.
Floyd has maintained that Dillmann plied him with beer and then beat him into those confessions.
In an interview last year, Dillmann, now a cold-case investigator with the Lafourche Parish Sheriff's Office, called the allegation "ludicrous."
In her ruling, Vance found that the Louisiana Supreme Court misapplied Brady v. Maryland when, on a 4-3 vote, it declined to review a decision in 2010 by Criminal District Judge Benedict Willard denying Floyd's state bid to overturn his conviction.
Vance ordered the state to "either retry Floyd or release him within 120 days of this order."
Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, hailed Vance's ruling and urged Cannizzaro's office, which failed in an appeal of Vance's earlier ruling, to drop the case.
"It is another opportunity for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office to examine its position on a decades-old case of an obvious injustice and demonstrate a commitment to righting wrongs where they present themselves," Maw said.
"Whether or not they take that opportunity will be another test of that office."
Maw, who represents Floyd along with co-counsel Richard Davis, said the case shows "how hard it is for people to accept that somebody falsely confessed, when all of the objective forensic evidence points to another person being guilty of the crime."
She added, "It shows why we need the kinds of practices the NOPD now employs, videotaping interrogations, and why we need special protections for the vulnerable."
Cannizzaro's office can appeal Vance's ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The district attorney is still reviewing this decision, but at this point he intends to appeal," said the DA's spokesman, Christopher Bowman.