A suspect in the high-profile 1998 murder of an Albany teen has filed suit in federal court accusing local law enforcement officials of coercing a 10-year-old boy to testify falsely against him at trial, a claim the Livingston Parish District Attorney calls “ridiculous.”
The boy's testimony was provided at the trial of Michael Wearry, who was sentenced to death in the murder of Eric Walber, a high school football player found beaten to death near the Livingston/Tangipahoa Parish line while delivering pizzas.
Wearry's conviction was overturned in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court, setting the stage for a new trial. Wearry's attorney says he is innocent of the crime.
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…
The civil suit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana against Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux and former Livingston Parish Sheriff's Deputy Marlon Kearney Foster.
The lawsuit claims Perrilloux and Foster "provided the adolescent with a completely fabricated story to adopt and repeat, implicating Wearry in Walber's murder."
"The abuse of power by District Attorney Perrilloux and Mr. Foster is an outrage that should disturb anyone who believes in justice,” Jim Craig, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Louisiana office, said in a statement.
The MacArthur Justice Center, a civil rights law firm, is seeking punitive damages on behalf of Wearry.
Reached by phone Thursday, Perrilloux called the lawsuit "ridiculous" and said the allegations are "just not true."
"The allegations are totally without merit insofar as the coercion of testimony,” Perrilloux said.
He said he doesn't recall meeting personally with Jeffery Ashton, the witness named in the suit who was 10 years old at the time of the Walber's killing and 14 at the time the trial was held.
Perrilloux questioned the timing of the civil suit filed against him and Foster.
“I don't have any question they’re using it as a distraction, and trying to obstruct in the pending case,” Perrilloux said.
Foster declined to comment, saying he had not yet been served with a copy of the suit.
The allegations in the civil suit arise from an investigation conducted by Wearry's defense team in preparation for the new trial he was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The trial has been continued twice, most recently due to newly recovered evidence that is undergoing DNA testing.
Wearry's defense attorney Rachel Conner said there has been some coordination with the MacArthur lawyers, but she is not involved in the civil suit.
At a court hearing for Wearry in November, Ashton testified on the stand that Foster convinced him to lie at Wearry's capital murder trial in 2002.
"It was forced," Ashton said of his earlier statements. "Everything was, 'Oh you have to say this, you have to say that. If you don't, you know what the consequences is.' "
Ashton was in trouble with the law around the time of the investigation and trial. He said at the November court hearing that he had been in jail for fighting and was participating in an anger management program through family court.
“Ashton was subject to juvenile court proceedings at the time and was vulnerable to intimidation by authorities such as Perrilloux and Foster,” the lawsuit says.
Ashton testified at the trial that he went to a music event at his church the night of Walber's murder, April 4, 1998. As he was walking home alone, he said, he heard footsteps and hid under a house. From his position, Ashton testified, he saw Wearry throw Walber's cologne bottle into a ditch and get into Walber's car.
The lawsuit says Ashton's testimony was used to "corroborate" statements from Sam Scott, a jailhouse informant who broke open the case for investigators two years after the murder. Scott testified at Wearry’s trial that he, Wearry and four others kidnapped Walber, beat him and ran him over with his own car.
Since the 2002 murder trial, Ashton signed a sworn affidavit prepared for him by Wearry's defense team after three interviews with him recanting his earlier statements.
"I went along with it, because I was just ten years old. I was scared," the affidavit says.
At the hearing in November, Ashton said Foster and several other officers picked him up from Springfield Elementary School in April 1998 after his teacher overheard him talking about the case, according to a transcript. Ashton said he was telling a friend he had seen previously the car being shown on TV that was owned by the murdered teenager.
Ashton said at the hearing that detectives took him to Perrilloux's office in Hammond and questioned him — without his mother present.
Ashton said that over the course of several meetings with Foster, the Livingston Parish sheriff's deputy, the deputy coached him to testify falsely at the trial.
"Every time he would ask me to repeat what all I can remember, and he will add something on, and I will have to try to remember it, too," Ashton said.
Ashton testified at the November hearing that he was actually at the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival the night of the murder and had never seen Wearry in person until trial.
When Wearry's case was overturned, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Wall and a Livingston Parish Sheriff's detective went to visit Ashton in jail to ask him about his earlier testimony.
Perrilloux noted that Ashton stood behind his trial statements when asked about them by law enforcement officials in 2016.
"I believe Wearry’s legal team has reached him and probably had a chance to convince him to make certain comments," Perrilloux said.
Ashton said in court that he did not feel comfortable speaking only to the two law enforcement officials and rather wanted to speak in court.
"I would rather speak it today in front of a judge," Ashton said. In his affidavit, he added that he has a "guilty conscience about what happened to Michael Wearry."
Ashton also said in the affidavit that the law enforcement officials who visited him in 2016 told him, "If you help us, we'll help you" and warned him against speaking to Wearry's team.
Wearry's attorneys claim their client is innocent in Walber's murder. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction based on evidence the court thought the prosecutor should have turned over to defense lawyers.
The court said the trial evidence “resembles a house of cards built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than Wearry’s alibi.”
“Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in Wearry’s conviction,” the court ruled.
Wearry is staying in the Livingston Parish Detention Center awaiting a new trial. His attorney said there are multiple witnesses who say he was at a wedding reception at the time Walber was killed.