A man serving a life sentence for a decades-old killing in New Orleans was freed from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Friday after his lawyers unearthed a police report that cast doubt on the prosecution’s star witness.

Albert Wolfe, 43, was released after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter under a deal with the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. His attorney said the case underlined widespread ethical lapses among prosecutors as crime surged in the city in the 1990s.

The case is the second this week in which Cannizzaro’s office agreed to an early release for a man sentenced to life in a murder case clouded by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

“He’s always kept his faith because he knew he was innocent,” said Wolfe’s sister, Sherelle. “He basically held the family together.”

Wolfe has spent 22 years and six months in custody since his arrest in 1995 in connection with the killing that year of Zarnell King, 23.

A single eyewitness, Dewayne Thomas, claimed that he watched from his second-floor bedroom window a block away as Wolfe shot King on a St. Roch street corner. Wolfe fired once from a distance, then stood over King as he pumped two more shots into the victim’s body, Thomas testified at Wolfe’s trial.

King’s own cousin, who was also on the scene, said Wolfe was not the shooter. The conflicting accounts led to a hung jury in Wolfe’s first trial in September 1996. For the second trial, Wolfe’s new lawyer, Donald Pinkston, elected for a bench trial before Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker.

Parker convicted Wolfe of second-degree murder in June 1997 based on the word of the purported eyewitness. He sentenced Wolfe to life in prison.

State and federal appeals fell flat. Wolfe’s mother died in 2002, but before she passed away his siblings gave her a pledge.

“I promised my mom that I would do everything possible to bring her baby back home,” said Wolfe’s brother, John.

Wolfe kept pushing his case for the next decade. A series of attorneys failed to convince courts to free him, and years passed before one appeal was even considered.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” John Wolfe said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re handcuffed and you’re doing that time.”

In 2012, attorney Nisha Sandhu uncovered new evidence that changed the tenor of Wolfe's appeals.

Shortly before his first trial in 1996, Wolfe’s defense attorney at the time asked for a police report on the killing, hoping to see whether Thomas had offered any physical description of the shooter on the night of the killing. 

An assistant district attorney, Kevin Marks, assured the judge at a hearing that no such description existed. 

Based on the prosecutor’s word and without actually reviewing the police report, a judge denied the defense attorney’s request.

However, when Wolfe’s attorneys obtained the case file with the police report from the District Attorney’s Office in 2012, they discovered that on the night of the shooting, Thomas had offered a description, telling a detective that the shooter was a black male wearing an Indiana Pacers jersey.

Thomas had also given a detective on the case a starkly different account of how the shooting happened from what came out in the trials. Instead of saying that the trigger man stood over King, Thomas said the shooter hid behind a utility pole as he fired off three shots.

Wolfe’s appeals attorney, Paul Barker, called the withholding of the police report a “flagrant” violation of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prosecutors must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense.

Wolfe’s trial attorneys were never able to question Thomas about his shifting stories, Barker said.

The District Attorney’s Office did not admit error or wrongdoing in the case and kept fighting the appeals until Friday. That was when a prosecutor announced in court that the office had cut a deal.

In exchange for pleading guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter, Wolfe received a 40-year sentence. With credit for time served and so-called “good time” credit, he was eligible for immediate release, though he must serve 18 years on parole.

The audience in the courtroom of Judge Byron C. Williams burst into applause after the judge announced Wolfe’s imminent release. The judge then walked over to Wolfe and shook his hand.

As Wolfe broke down in tears, his sister said his release came as a surprise.

“They really got one over on me this time!” Sherelle Wolfe said. “I’m excited, and shocked.”

Efforts to reach King’s family were not successful.

After Wolfe was transported back to Angola for processing, he was released Friday afternoon.

His attorney said his main regret is that his client had to plead guilty in exchange for his freedom.

“I’m very happy for him and his family that he is free and can be a father to his kids and resume a normal life. I’m just a little disappointed that we weren’t able to vindicate him, because he is not the man who did this,” Barker said.

Barker said that with the newly unearthed police report, he believed Wolfe’s odds on his latest appeal were good.

“He accepted (the deal) with zero reluctance. I did not want him to take it, because (the appeal) absolutely, hands-down was going to be a winner,” Barker said. “But given his experience with the criminal justice system thus far, I couldn’t come close to blaming him.”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro said the deal was reached in part because the DA’s Office felt that Wolfe’s appeal “possessed merit.”

“In light of this, and after consulting with the victim’s family, the district attorney felt that this was the best outcome for the community, considering the difficulty in prosecuting a murder case that is more than 20 years old,” Christopher Bowman said.

The case is the latest in which a long-hidden police report led to the release of a man convicted of murder in New Orleans. In another case with striking parallels from the same time period, Cannizzaro’s office let Juan Smith plead guilty to reduced charges in 2014.

Several U.S. Supreme Court justices had lambasted the DA's Office for even arguing against a new trial for Smith in a bloody quadruple killing in 1995, given a failure by authorities to turn over conflicting statements from a key witness who had identified Smith.

Earlier this week, Cannizzaro also agreed to let Trenedad East plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter in connection with the 1995 killing of Latisha Brown. His appeals attorney argued that prosecutors failed to disclose that another suspect in the case had cut a plea deal with the District Attorney’s Office.

Judge Laurie White resentenced East to 32½ years in prison on Tuesday.

Bowman cited reasons similar to the Wolfe case for the reduced charge for East. He also noted that East still has roughly 10 years to serve on the lesser prison term.

In Wolfe’s case, Barker said that by resolving the issue with a manslaughter plea, Cannizzaro’s office avoided putting a former prosecutor on the stand.

Marks, who is now in private practice, declined comment.

“As long as this state remains unwilling to (admit) the serious and repeated ethical violations of their office, the scales of justice will remain unbalanced and the Albert Wolfes of this city will continue to be locked up for life for crimes they did not commit,” Barker said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432