William Varnado

William Varnado pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury and one count of theft on Monday under a deal with the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office that saw him sentenced to 5 years.

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A man who recanted his testimony about a 1999 murder outside the Superdome pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury Monday under a deal that will spare him a 20-year prison sentence.

Instead, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson sentenced William Varnado, 37, to five years in prison under the terms of his plea agreement with the office of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

Varnado’s case had drawn attention as the latest in which New Orleans prosecutors charged a recanting witness with perjury.

“We are very satisfied with the resolution of this case. It is extremely unfortunate when a witness testifies one time to a particular set of facts and then, years later, testifies to a completely different set of facts and expects there to be no consequences,” Cannizzaro said in a statement.

Varnado claimed he was pressured into falsely testifying that Duvander “Chevy” Hurst was on the scene of a shooting outside the Dome that claimed the life of a teenager.

Hurst has been in prison since his conviction in 2000 on second-degree murder in the killing of Allen Delatte.

Varnado testified at that trial that he saw Hurst pull up to a fair outside the Superdome in a distinctive red Oldsmobile Cutlass just before Delatte was shot. Prosecutors acknowledged that it was largely his account that put Hurst behind bars with a life sentence.

The case sat dormant until 2013, when an investigator hired by Hurst’s cousin obtained a sworn affidavit from Varnado saying that he had lied. Varnado, who had since moved to Texas, said he was in withdrawal from heroin and facing drug charges 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.

Varnado also claimed that Assistant District Attorney Lynda Van Davis threatened him with a 20-year sentence when he tried to back out of testifying on the eve of the trial.

In his affidavit, Varnado said he had no idea whether Hurst committed the killing. His recantation served as the basis for a motion from Hurst’s attorney to toss out the murder conviction.

Yet before Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras could rule on that motion, New Orleans prosecutors charged Varnado in August 2016 with four counts of perjury. Under Louisiana law they did not have to prove whether Varnado was lying at the trial or in his recantation — only that he had given inconsistent statements under oath.

Varnado’s former attorney, Justin Harrell, criticized Cannizzaro for bringing the perjury charges, arguing that they would create a chilling effect for other witnesses who might come forward to reveal long-ago police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Prosecutors, however, argued that Varnado was pressured into recanting by friends of Hurst who had moved to his Texas apartment complex. They also presented taped phone calls Hurst made from prison which they said showed that he had orchestrated the recantation effort from behind bars.

There were clear parallels between the Hurst case and that of Jerome Morgan, who was originally convicted of killing a 16-year-old at a Gentilly ballroom in 1993. Two men who later recanted the testimony they gave at Morgan’s trial were charged with perjury.

The District Attorney’s Office dropped a bid to retry Morgan after his conviction was overturned in 2016. Meanwhile, Criminal District Court Judge Benedict Willard acquitted both witnesses in that case at a bench trial last year.

Varnado was not so lucky. With previous felony convictions that would have qualified him to be sentenced as a habitual offender, he was looking at up to 20 years in prison if he went to trial and lost.

His legal troubles mounted in December when he was charged with theft. Harrell, his previous attorney, said Varnado was again struggling with drugs because of the stress of the perjury charges.

Harrell, who also represented Hurst, left the case after Varnado picked up the theft charge. Harrell said he believed that at that point, Varnado needed an independent attorney who could resolve all his charges with a plea deal if necessary.

The plea agreement also covered the theft charge. Varnado was represented Monday by the Orleans Public Defenders office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Buras denied Hurst a new trial in September.

Cannizzaro said it was clear Varnado lied either at the trial in 2000 or in the present day. “This defendant either lied 18 years ago to convict an innocent man of murder, or he is lying later to help set a murderer free,” he said. 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432