New Orleans prosecutors said Tuesday they are dropping their case against John Floyd, the onetime Angola lifer who had his murder conviction thrown out last year after a federal judge concluded police had withheld key evidence at his trial more than three decades ago.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said he was abandoning a retrial of Floyd because of missing witnesses and the loss of crucial evidence — not because he thinks Floyd is innocent of the 1980 stabbing death of a Times-Picayune proofreader in the French Quarter.
Cannizzaro's announcement came the day after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from prosecutors to review lower court decisions tossing out Floyd's conviction.
Floyd learned the news as he visited relatives in Mississippi for Thanksgiving, said one of his attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans.
“He just said, ‘Thank God,’ ” lawyer Richard Davis said. “I think (he) was overwhelmed and just wanted to be with his family.”
Floyd’s holiday has been a long time coming. The 69-year-old spent 36 years behind bars in connection with William Hines’ death, most of them in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
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Police initially accused Floyd in the slashing death of Hines and another, strikingly similar killing in a two-day period. At a trial in 1982, now-retired Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg acquitted Floyd of the bloody slaying of Rodney Robinson at the Fairmont Hotel but found him guilty of stabbing Hines in his apartment on Gov. Nicholls Street.
Both victims were gay, and the killings raised alarms in the French Quarter’s gay community.
After Floyd was shipped off to Angola, he emerged as a model inmate who won the trust of longtime Warden Burl Cain. Meanwhile, his lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans said they managed to uncover convincing evidence that he wasn’t a killer.
Although police believed the two killings were linked, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said DNA evidence from the hotel solidified Floyd’s claim that he didn’t kill Robinson. Moreover, his lawyers said, the police never disclosed fingerprints from someone else that were found on a whiskey glass in Hines’ house. That detail was crucial because police theorized that Hines had invited his killer into his home for drinks, the lawyers said.
Defense lawyers claimed that Floyd, who has an IQ of 59, was coerced into confessing to both killings by a detective who bought him beer and later beat him. Detective John Dillmann denied that accusation.
The lawyers also pointed to a statement from one of Hines’ friends who said the proofreader preferred black men, despite Dillmann’s testimony to the contrary. Floyd is white.
In a May 2017 order, Vance gave prosecutors 120 days to release or retry Floyd. Both sides agreed to put that order on pause in June 2017, when Floyd won the right to supervised release from prison. Since then he has lived on a farm in Carencro, near Lafayette.
Floyd was visiting his family in Mississippi this week with the judge’s permission, Davis said.
Although prosecutors conceded that the aging Floyd was no danger to the public, they continued their bid to reinstate his conviction, which would have put him back in prison. They were rebuffed in April by a panel of judges at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who said the evidence of Floyd’s innocence outweighed their usual reluctance to wade into issues of state criminal law.
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Davis said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review the 5th Circuit ruling was the end of the line for prosecutors.
“They’ve always kicked the can down the road, because they’ve hoped to maintain or reinstate the original conviction,” he said.
“I think they were doing the wrong thing for all these years,” he said. “From our perspective, it looked a lot like they were defending the conviction for the sake of defending the conviction.”
Cannizzaro rejected that interpretation. “We had a duty and obligation to defend this conviction,” he said. “That was the least we could do for the victim of this murder, who has been all but forgotten in these years of legal machinations.”
The district attorney added that he still thinks Floyd is guilty.
“While we remain convinced that the guilty verdict rendered by Judge Jerome Winsberg was the correct decision, based upon the evidence and testimony at the time, we have exhausted our efforts to defend his ruling before the federal courts,” he said. “Our hope is that Mr. Floyd takes stock of his criminal past, appreciates his freedom in this season of Thanksgiving, and conducts himself in the years ahead as a law-abiding and productive member of society.”