An Orleans Parish judge on Monday acquitted two men facing perjury charges for identifying Jerome Morgan as the shooter in a fatal 1993 killing in Gentilly, then returning to court 19 years later to deny that and to claim police coerced false identifications from them.
Criminal District Court Judge Benedict Willard found that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office failed to prove that Hakim Shabazz, 40, and Kevin Johnson, 41, were guilty under a perjury statute that doesn't require proof of when they lied — only that their testimony was inconsistent.
Willard offered no explanation for his verdict, which followed a bench trial Friday that saw City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney representing Shabazz, trade heated words with Assistant District Attorney Francesca Bridges over the tactics of her boss.
On the council, Williams recently helped spearhead a $600,000 cut to the DA's budget in response to Cannizzaro's aggressive prosecutorial policies, sparking an ongoing war of words between the DA and city leaders.
A rash of public bickering this week between Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzar…
The running feud colored a trial that lasted little more than two hours on Friday, with little evidence presented beyond transcripts of the testimony of the two men.
"The judge's ruling was as swift as it was righteous. It spoke to the exorbitant amount of man hours and resources spent on a wrong-minded prosecution, designed to put a chilling effect on real truth and real justice," Williams said in a statement following the verdict.
"These efforts of bullying our citizens to prop up broken practices create widespread distrust and significantly damage public faith in the criminal justice system."
Cannizzaro saw the verdict quite differently. In a statement, the DA quoted the text of the perjury law, then chided Willard for ignoring it.
Shabazz and Johnson either lied in 1993 to send Morgan to prison, or else they lied to get him out, Cannizzaro said.
"Either of the two possibilities is antithetical to the existence of law and order in a civilized society, and when such actions are allowed to persist without consequence, they are absolutely corrosive to a criminal justice system," he said.
"Interestingly enough, the defendants ... opted to have their case adjudicated by a judge rather than a jury. In reaching the verdict, the only explanation provided by the court was that the state failed to meet its burden. I must ask: What did the state fail to prove?"
The testimony from Shabazz and Johnson landed Morgan a 1994 conviction and life prison sentence for the slaying of 16-year-old Clarence Landry after a fight broke out in the ballroom of a motel during a party.
Shabazz also was shot in the ballroom. Johnson, a close friend of Landry, watched him die.
Their contrary testimony in a post-conviction hearing in 2013 helped set Morgan free. Neither of them immediately identified Morgan in 1993, and both later said that police spoon-fed them Morgan's name and pressured them to identify him.
"The detectives were so adamant that, 'This was the person.' I told them, 'That's not the person I saw.' I told them 'people.' They didn't want to hear that. They were so engulfed in a corrupt system that was way beyond a 16-year-old kid," Johnson said after the verdict.
"The powers that be should have been charged and tried. Because I was a kid. They misused me and abused me."
Johnson, who is now an actor, dismissed a theory that Williams and defense attorney Robert Hjortsberg presented at the trial, suggesting that Landry's now-deceased mother also pressured them to identify Morgan.
Sandra Landry, who escorted Johnson to the police station after the shooting, only urged them to tell what they saw, he said.
"Jerome didn't kill my friend. I saw the killer. I'm happy (Morgan) is out of jail," Johnson said. "He never left the ballroom. The person I saw, I ran after him. When I come back in the building, I don't see the person I ran after. I see my friend on the ground, dying."
Their recantations weren’t the only evidence that a different judge, Darryl Derbigny, had cited in overturning Morgan’s conviction. Derbigny also pointed to a failure by authorities to disclose a police report that seemed to undermine the police claim that Morgan fatally shot Landry, ran away but then returned to the ballroom before officers locked it down.
The jury heard that police showed up more than a half-hour after the shooting. The withheld report, however, suggested the cops got there in six minutes.
Johnson said he regretted his initial testimony but also said he was "disappointed" in Morgan "by being with the group he was with."
He said Morgan's name surfaced because of street bragging about the killing.
"That's how you get caught up in that," Johnson said. "I hated that an innocent man was in prison. You understand, I hate that. I don't have anything against him or for him."
He said Landry had gone back inside the ballroom to find his cousin after the fight broke out. The gunfire erupted almost immediately, he said.
"Clarence taught me how to play the trombone, how to cut hair. If I felt a certain kind of way talking to a girl, he'd give me words to say," Johnson said. "This was truly my best friend."
Reached after Monday's verdict, Morgan denied being a part of the group from which the gunfire erupted. He said he may have been mistaken for one of them by the clothes he wore.
"I was not a part of that group of young boys. I was part of another group," he said.
Last year, Cannizzaro's office dropped its bid to retry Morgan in the killing after the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to allow prosecutors to show a jury the prior testimony of Shabazz and Johnson unless they also took the witness stand in the new trial.
Both men refused, invoking their right against self-incrimination. However, the DA's Office continued to pursue the perjury charges against Shabazz and Johnson, which were filed in early 2015.
Morgan offered effusive praise of Shabazz and Johnson for the risk they took in recanting.
"For a person to come back and admit they were wrong, and have no reason for them to risk their own liberty to rectify a mistake they made, I feel like they rank high in their integrity, their ethics, in what they did," Morgan said. "This is what we ask for in our public officials: to be honest, to be able to recognize a mistake and correct it."
The entire saga, spanning nearly 24 years, was "a total waste," he added. "It's a magnitude that you can't really measure, because all of it is so unnecessary."