An East Feliciana Parish judge on Tuesday voided the first-degree murder conviction of alleged serial killer Ryan Sharpe after lawyers argued the jury's split verdict was unconstitutional.

A jury in December found Sharpe guilty in the killing of Brad DeFranceschi, 48, one of three men authorities say Sharpe gunned down during streak of violence in 2017. 

Jurors swiftly returned an 11-1 guilty verdict. Using a Louisiana case, the U.S. Supreme Court recently banned non-unanimous jury decisions in cases similar to Sharpe's. 

Defense lawyer Tommy Damico on Tuesday argued Sharpe's conviction should be voided and a new trial be set following the Supreme Court ruling. A district judge affirmed Damico's motion and set a new trial for Sharpe in December.

"He clearly was entitled to a new trial," Damico said following a Tuesday morning hearing in Clinton. 

In 2018, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment ending non-unanimous jury convictions in major felony cases.

The jury in Sharpe's case was allowed to return a split decision because the killings happened before 2019 and prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty. Under the law in place then, after the panel reached more than 10 guilty votes, it no longer needed to deliberate. 

"They had a legal verdict at the time," said District Attorney Sam D'Aquilla, who added that jurors could have deliberated for days, potentially, to reach a collective verdict.

Had Sharpe been sentenced before the nation's highest court weighed in, it may have resulted in a similar overturn through an appeal.

The Louisiana Attorney General's Office noted that roughly 100 cases could be impacted in a filing the office made last fall ahead of the Supreme Court ruling.

Though Sharpe's trial concerned the death of DeFranceschi, a Boy Scout leader and father who was fatally shot while trimming weeds in his front yard, prosecutors were allowed to present evidence linking Sharpe to three other shootings, two of which were fatal. 

Sharpe additionally was charged with second-degree murder in the July 2017 shooting of 62-year-old Tommy Bass, who was killed in the carport of his home; attempted first-degree murder in the September 2017 shooting of 47-year-old Buck Hornsby, who was wounded while exercising on his property; and second-degree murder in the September 2017 killing of 66-year-old Carroll Breeden, a former BREC commissioner who was fatally shot while doing yard work in front of his home in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Authorities said Sharpe circled the men’s homes and would leave his phone at home so investigators couldn’t track it.

The killings happened within a seven-mile radius of Sharpe's home near Clinton and put the Bluff Creek area on edge for months when authorities warned the public the shootings may have been related.

Like most of the other victims, DeFranceschi was killed outside in broad daylight.

Following his arrest, Sharpe told investigators the government ordered him to fill a certain amount of "tags" by shooting the men. In a taped interview that was presented at his trial, he told officials it was as part of a "big federal operation."

Several psychiatrists examined Sharpe but raised doubts he had a mental illness or an affliction that would impact his memory. 

Sharpe pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, which put the onus on his defense team to convince jurors he was unable to tell right from wrong. 

Sharpe's father and several of his friends testified they saw a troubling change in him. They recall him become more reclusive, neglecting his plumbing business and telling strange and farfetched stories the few times he socialized.

Prosecutors argued the bizarre confession was part of Sharpe's plan to build an insanity defense.

Sharpe has remained at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since his conviction and was awaiting sentencing. He also is awaiting a trial in Baton Rouge and another in East Feliciana related to Bass' killing. 

He faces a potential life sentence without the possibility of parole in his pending cases.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.