LIVINGSTON — A former death row inmate who maintained he was innocent in the 1998 killing of a pizza-delivery boy outside Albany pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Wednesday and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
With credit for time already spent behind bars, Michael Wearry has served most of his prison term. He had been sentenced to death at his first trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court set his conviction aside in 2016, ruling prosecutors failed to disclose information that could have aided his defense.
A Louisiana death-row inmate will be tried again in the brutal slaying of an Albany teenager after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed t…
In accordance with a plea agreement reached among prosecutors and defense attorneys, 21st Judicial Judge Robert Morrison sentenced Wearry to 25 years for the death of Eric Walber, a 16-year-old Albany High School honor student and football player. Wearry was among six people initially convicted of killing Walber, who was robbed, beaten and run over with his own car after he had finished his pizza delivery shift April 4, 1998.
The case shook a rural community and went unsolved for two years before a man in prison came forward to police, claiming he had information about the crime.
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Wearry's retrial on a first-degree murder charge had been set to begin Jan. 22. Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said Wednesday the decision to seek a plea agreement instead of going forward with a retrial came after a “real, honest evaluation of the evidence in the case.”
“Do I feel vindicated? I don’t know, to be honest with you,” Perrilloux said during a news conference after the hearing. “It was a professional decision. My personal opinion is that he rots in hell.”
He noted that no physical evidence ever tied Wearry or his five co-defendants to the crime scene. Some of the state’s witnesses are currently in custody, creating credibility issues at trial, he said.
“When you put the devil on trial, you have to go to hell to get your witnesses,” Perrilloux said.
The state’s key witness at the first trial, Sam Scott, was arrested on drug charges less than two weeks ago.
The plea Wednesday provided some comfort for the victim’s mother, Cherie Walber-Hoyt, who said she fought for 20 years to hear someone admit to killing her son.
The other co-defendants in the case were either found guilty at trial or entered “no contest” pleas, according to the district attorney’s office.
“My biggest thing is he had to admit he killed Eric, because he did kill Eric. And all the smoke and screens that the lawyers do, it’s just smoke and screens,” Walber-Hoyt told The Advocate after the court hearing.
Two decades ago, 16-year-old Eric Walber — an Albany High School student and football player — was found slain off the side of a road in Tangi…
During the hearing Wednesday morning, Perrilloux read out a factual basis for the plea. He said Wearry and co-defendant Randy Hutchinson flagged Walber down as he was making pizza deliveries, pulled him from the car and shoved him in the hatchback. With several others, Wearry beat Walber and assisted in running the victim over with his own car, Perrilloux said.
Morrison asked Wearry if Perrilloux’s statement was true.
“Yes, sir,” Wearry said. He did not elaborate.
Wearry’s attorney, Rachel Conner, declined to comment after the hearing.
The Walber murder case has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past several years. While on death row, Wearry appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In ruling to throw out Wearry’s conviction, the justices compare the Perrilloux’s case to a “house of cards built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than Wearry’s alibi.”
Wearry long claimed that he was at a wedding reception in Baton Rouge when Walber was killed. Scott, the jailhouse informant who broke the case open for law enforcement by implicating himself in the crime, said he spoke in order to clear his conscience. But over the course of five statements he gave to law enforcement, his version of events changed dramatically. For instance, he initially said Walber was shot, which he was not.
The high court pointed to three specific pieces of evidence that were withheld.
• Medical records indicated Randall Hutchinson, who is accused of beating and dragging Walber, was recovering from an operation on his knee that had been performed just nine days earlier.
• Witness Eric Charles Brown had asked prosecutors for a deal on his drug sentence.
• Scott had told another inmate he wanted to "make sure (Wearry) gets the needle ‘cause he jacked over me."
A nonprofit civil rights law firm has also accused the district attorney and a sheriff's deputy of coercing a 10-year-old into giving false testimony in Wearry's murder trial. Perrilloux has maintained there was nothing improper.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys identified alternative suspects to the crime, and a flake of skin found on Walber’s car that was being tested for DNA evidence did not match any of the convicted men, according to defense attorneys.
The Supreme Court’s decision led two of Wearry’s co-defendants, Darrell Hampton and James Skinner, to appeal their life sentences for murder.
Perrilloux said the guilty plea Wednesday should aid his case against Hampton and Skinner.
“Having Mr. Wearry stand up in court today and admit to his participation and also admit to the other individuals being someone who is there, Wearry (is) now implicating the other individuals who have already been convicted,” Perrilloux said.
But Jee Park, Skinner’s lawyer and the executive director of Innocence Project New Orleans, said Wednesday’s proceedings showed the opposite.
Every evening for months after her son was murdered, Cherie Walber walked along road ditches in her area, looking for some kind of clue.
“By dismissing the murder indictment so Mr. Wearry can be freed and at home by this summer, the State is essentially admitting that the trials against Mr. Wearry and his co-defendants were unfair,” Park wrote in a statement. “A fair-minded DA would revisit the convictions of Mr. Wearry’s co-defendants — and not arbitrarily single out Mr. Wearry -- and offer them the same bargain.”
And a lawyer for Hampton, Marquest Meeks, said he expected his client to benefit.
"It is great news that Mr. Wearry will be home with his family sometime next year. Mr. Hampton maintains his innocence and is confident that fairness requires that he be permitted to return home to his family ...," Meeks wrote in an email.
Despite Park and Meeks' expectation that Wearry could be released in the coming months, it isn’t clear when Wearry might complete his sentence.
Perrilloux said his conversations with corrections department officials has led him to believe Wearry will serve out most of the rest of his sentence. Wearry was credited good time dating back to March 5, 1999, when he was revoked from probation for a robbery charge, Perrilloux said.