A Walker man serving a life sentence in the 2015 vigilante-style slaying of his girlfriend's convicted molester in Zachary was granted a new trial Thursday.

A state appellate court threw out Jace Crehan's nonunanimous second-degree murder conviction and resulting mandatory life prison term, and sent the case back to the 19th Judicial District Court to be tried again.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge cited the U.S. Supreme Court's April ruling outlawing split-jury verdicts in criminal cases.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury voted 11-1 in 2017 to find Crehan, now 26, guilty of second-degree murder in the stabbing and strangling death of Robert Noce Jr. in Zachary. 

The 1st Circuit noted that Crehan claimed in a motion for a new trial and in his appeal that Louisiana's nonunanimous jury verdict provisions were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court's April ruling in the case of Evangelisto Ramos out of New Orleans held that the right to a jury trial under the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious crime.

"The Ramos Court further noted that its ruling applied to those defendants convicted of felonies by non-unanimous verdicts whose cases are still pending on direct appeal," the 1st Circuit said Thursday in setting aside Crehan's conviction and sentence and ordering a new trial.

The Supreme Court had sent Crehan's case back to the 1st Circuit a week after the nation's highest court issued its decision in Ramos.

One of Crehan's lawyers, Franz Borghardt, said the appeals court made "the right decision" based on the Supreme Court ruling.

"We plan to talk to our client and the East Baton Rouge District Attorney and move forward from there," he said. "It is always a good feeling when a life sentence is vacated and a new trial is ordered."     

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District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office respects the opinions authored by the U.S. Supreme Court and state 1st Circuit and "will move forward accordingly to ensure that our prosecution of this case is aligned with the opinions of those courts."

Crehan's girlfriend, Brittany Monk, 22, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the killing of Noce and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Crehan tried to plead guilty to the same charge before his trial, but prosecutors turned him down.

Noce, who two weeks before his death had been put on probation after pleading "no contest" to molesting Monk as a child, was stabbed, strangled and stuffed inside a 55-gallon barrel that Monk said Noce used to make wine.

Noce, 47, was a former boyfriend of Monk's mother and raised Monk for about 10 years after her mother abandoned her. He denied abusing Monk.

Monk was 17 and seven months pregnant with Crehan's child when she and Crehan broke into Noce's trailer the night of July 4, 2015.

Monk is now trying to have her sentence reduced.

Crehan told detectives that the knife he used to stab Noce was retrieved from Noce’s kitchen by Monk, at Crehan’s direction.

Monk testified at Crehan's trial that she sprayed Noce in the face with a man’s body spray while Crehan wrestled with him. She denied stabbing Noce but admitted punching him 10 to 15 times while Crehan held him down.

At the time of Crehan's conviction, split-jury verdicts were legal in Louisiana. In the fall of 2018 state voters approved a constitutional amendment doing away with Louisiana's Jim Crow-era nonunanimous jury law. The new state law applies only to crimes that occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2019.

The Supreme Court's April ruling applies to all future trials, and to inmates who were convicted by divided juries and haven't exhausted their appeals.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.