Proof of innocence a hard road for many freed Louisiana inmates seeking state compensation _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- After years behind bars, Kia Stewart walks out of the Orleans Parish Courthouse a free man Monday, April 13, 2015.

Declaring the former Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola lifer innocent, a judge has ordered the state to pay $180,000 to a New Orleans man who spent almost a decade behind bars on a murder rap.

Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter ruled last week that the state, despite its objections, must compensate Kia Stewart, whose conviction was tossed out two years ago with the consent of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. Several witnesses came forward to offer alibis for Stewart and to pin the shooting on another man.

Stewart, 30, was freed on the same day in 2015 that a state judge threw out his conviction. However, state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office fought to prevent him from receiving a payout from the state’s fund for the exonerated.

Stewart spent almost 10 years behind bars, much of that time in the maximum-security Angola prison.

Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said Hunter's ruling was "long overdue." Her group represented Stewart when he appealed his conviction.

Stewart will be paid $25,000 per year under state law. The judge’s ruling also permits Stewart to apply for an additional $80,000 in compensation for “loss of life opportunities."

"Kia’s young life was shattered by being arrested at 17 for a crime he didn’t commit," Maw said. "That this practical help has been so long coming has made it much harder for him to overcome an obstacle that most of us would find insurmountable."

Landry's office has not signaled whether it will appeal.

“Our office is disappointed in the ruling, but we respect the court’s decision,” said Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for Landry. “We stand by the evidence we presented in this matter and are currently weighing our options to determine how to best proceed.”

In winning the decision, Stewart overcame the high bar set by a state law that essentially reverses the burden of proof in criminal cases for those seeking compensation from the state. Beyond proving they were wrongfully convicted, former inmates must prove they were actually innocent of the underlying crime.

Hunter said Stewart’s lawyers had “proven that it is highly probable that he is factually innocent for the charge of second-degree murder.”

Hunter relied on the testimony of several witnesses who suggested that another man shot Bryant “B.J.” Craig to death in Treme on July 31, 2005.

The state’s sole witness at the trial said he was walking nearby when a man he identified as Stewart killed Craig near North Prieur Street and Orleans Avenue.

But in a series of post-conviction hearings, Stewart’s lawyers presented six witnesses who said another man, Antonio Barnes, was the killer. Five witnesses said Barnes confessed to them. Four witnesses backed up Stewart’s alibi.

Barnes died during an attempted armed robbery in Houston in 2006.

Citing a lack of evidence, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to abandon Stewart's conviction and dismiss the case in 2015. Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny ordered his release.

However, Landry’s office still fought to deny Stewart compensation for his time behind bars. It pointed to contradictions between statements that the alibi witnesses gave about where Stewart was when the shooting happened.

In a ruling last year, Hunter said Stewart’s attorneys still needed to produce more evidence to prove his actual innocence and invited them to try again.

Landry's office appealed that ruling. On Sept. 11, the state Supreme Court said Hunter had to decide with the evidence on hand.

Hunter said that in the end, he decided the alibi witnesses' statements could be reconciled after all.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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