Fifteen years after a Baker man was convicted of murdering his daughter's boyfriend in Central and sentenced to life in prison, a federal appeals court has ordered a new trial because the defense failed to interview a key witness and her roommate.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also took to task the Baton Rouge judge who presided over George Hughes' 2006 trial, as well as a state appellate court and the Louisiana Supreme Court, for rejecting his request for a new trial.
"The Louisiana courts' denial of relief to Hughes is one of the rare 'extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice system' that we are obliged to correct," 5th Circuit Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote Aug. 5 for a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based court.
The central issue at Hughes' trial was whether he intended to shoot Drew Hawkins, 21, or if Hughes' .22-caliber handgun accidentally fired during a struggle on Nov. 19, 2004, outside an apartment shared by Hawkins and Hughes' daughter, according to the 5th Circuit's 18-page ruling.
Hughes, now 65, testified the gun fired accidentally when Hawkins pulled on the gun and the two men collided.
His testimony was contradicted by an eyewitness -- supposedly watching the fight from outside her apartment across the street -- who said she saw Hawkins backing away from Hughes with his hands raised at the moment the gun fired, the appeals court said.
Hughes' defense team never attempted to interview the eyewitness or her roommate, who would have testified that the eyewitness was actually inside their apartment at the time of the shooting, the court said.
The 5th Circuit called the eyewitness's testimony the "lynchpin" and "cornerstone" of the prosecution's case.
The defense's failure to do any sort of investigating work to clarify her statement given the importance of her testimony "belies reasonable competence," Higginbotham stated.
Hughes was found guilty of second-degree murder by an 11-1 vote and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison.
"Given the importance of (the eyewitness's) testimony to the State's case and the value of (her roommate's) impeachment testimony, we find that no fairminded jurist could conclude that the failure to introduce the roommate's testimony would not have `undermined confidence in the outcome,'" Higginbotham wrote.
Hughes' current attorney, Jane C. Hogan, said Wednesday she is "extremely encouraged" by the 5th Circuit ruling.
"Not only does it provide critical relief for Mr. Hughes, it also reaffirms that a trial lawyer has the duty to investigate and interview eyewitnesses," Hogan said in a written statement.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office is reviewing the appellate court ruling.
"We'll reach out to the victim's family and make a decision as soon as possible," he said.
The 5th Circuit decision affirmed an October 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, of Baton Rouge, who granted Hughes a new trial. The state had appealed Jackson's ruling.
Former 19th Judicial District Court Commissioner Quintillis Lawrence recommended in 2014 that Hughes be granted a new trial, but 19th JDC Judge Bonnie Jackson dismissed Hughes' post-conviction relief petition the following year. The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court also denied him relief on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Hughes' daughter testified at his trial that she saw him shoot Hawkins when her boyfriend was backing up, had his hands raised, and was about one or two feet away from Hughes. She also said that, as far as she could remember, she did not turn her back on the two men when they were fighting, the 5th Circuit said.
Her testimony contradicted her initial statement to police in which she said her back was turned at the moment the gun fired. Her sister also testified that she told her she did not witness the shooting because her back was turned while tending to her child, the federal appeals court stated.
The eyewitness who lived across the street testified she witnessed the altercation from outside her apartment. She said she heard arguing and went outside, where she saw two men fighting. She testified that one man backed away from the other with his hands raised and then she heard the gunshot and saw the man with raised hands fall to the ground, the court said.
The 5th Circuit panel of Higginbotham, Carl Stewart and Cory Wilson said her testimony was somewhat contradicted by her initial written statement to police, in which she said she was inside her apartment when she heard someone calling for help and a gunshot, which is what prompted her to go outside where she saw two men arguing.
"There is an obvious logical flaw in (her) written statement because she could not have seen Hughes and Hawkins arguing after the gun was fired," Higginbotham wrote in a footnote.
When asked at trial about that contradiction, the woman said she incorrectly "transposed" the events in her statement due to nerves, the appeals court said. She insisted she witnessed the shooting.
Last year, Jackson granted Hughes' emergency motion to release him from custody and put him on home confinement. Hughes had cited his advanced age, poor health and susceptibility to COVID-19 while incarcerated.