Orleans jury convicts ‘3NG’ gang leader after 10-day racketeering trial _lowres

Kentrell 'Black' Hickerson

A feared Central City gang leader who was sentenced last year to 100 years in prison now claims prosecutors let a pivotal witness lie at his trial while concealing a quid pro quo offered for his testimony.

An attorney for Kentrell "Black" Hickerson, a notorious leader of the "3NG" gang, is asking Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras to throw out his 2016 conviction on state racketeering and drug conspiracy charges.

Attorney Kevin Vogeltanz argues that evidence revealed in the recent federal trial of 10 accused "39'ers" gang members — including phone calls between cooperating witnesses and prosecutors — amounts to a smoking gun proving a promise of leniency that the witness, Tyrone Knockum, denied on the stand.

Knockum testified at both trials, and his account of Hickerson killing Omar Breaux in 2009 changed dramatically from one trial to the next.

At the first trial, he testified that Hickerson called him, saying he'd spotted Breaux at a Popeyes restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. Knockum said he jumped in a car and headed that way, but that he was in contact with Hickerson only by phone before Breaux's killing.

At the 39'ers trial, however, Knockum testified that he handed Hickerson a .223-caliber assault rifle, then drove to the scene in a separate car before the murder.

Confronted with his jailhouse phone calls while testifying in the 39'ers trial, Knockum agreed that he had lied at Hickerson's trial when he told the jury "ain't nothing promised" in return for his testimony.

In the recorded jail calls, state prosecutor Alex Calenda is heard assuring Knockum shortly before his testimony against Hickerson that he was "in a good position, and you just got to do what you got to do ... and everything else is going to be handled."

A few days after Knockum testified, Calenda told him that "one day you are coming home, and it's going to be sooner than later." The prosecutor added a dinner invitation for Knockum, who goes by the nickname "T-bone."

"I expect me and you to go have a steak dinner, and I don't expect you to get a filet mignon, I expect you to get a T-bone," Calenda joked.

In a later call, Knockum told a woman, "I might have two years left, ya heard me?"

Vogeltanz said the calls showed that Knockum and Calenda "were not truthful about the true nature of the plea arrangement."

In the 39'ers trial, "Knockum is very forthcoming that, hey, 'Alex Calenda was promising me benefits,' and the essence of the benefit was, 'I'm going to get out of jail early,' " Vogeltanz said.

The fact that no agreement was formalized, or that a judge — not prosecutors — will make the ultimate call on Knockum's sentence, doesn't matter, the attorney insisted.

"What matters is: What did Knockum believe the agreement was" when he testified, Vogeltanz said. The new evidence, he said, raises "a bona fide possibility that Knockum just made it all up."

Knockum was the only trial witness who tied Hickerson to the two killings — of Breaux and Durrell Pooler — that supported the racketeering charge against him.

In his bid for a new trial, Hickerson's attorneys secured a sworn affidavit from the jury foreman at his trial. That juror, who voted guilty, said Knockum's credibility weighed heavily in the jury's guilty verdicts.

Before his testimony, Knockum, 26, had cut a "global" plea deal with state and federal prosecutors. He pleaded guilty in state court and accepted a 20-year prison sentence, becoming one of 19 men to plead guilty in the sprawling gang case targeting 3NG, named for their turf at Third and Galvez streets.

Knockum also pleaded guilty in the federal 39'ers case, admitting he drove the car in the 2010 group slaying of acclaimed bounce rapper Renetta "Magnolia Shorty" Lowe and Calliope housing complex gangster Jerome "ManMan" Hampton.

He faces a maximum life sentence, with no minimum, on the federal charge, under a plea deal that was disclosed to the jury at Hickerson's trial. Knockum is slated to be sentenced on June 13 along with fellow cooperators Rico "Freaky" Jackson and Washington "Big Wash" McCaskill.

U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey will decide Knockum's fate. Should Zainey sentence Knockum to less than 20 years in the federal case, his state sentence would be reduced accordingly.

Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office, declined to comment on Hickerson's bid for a new trial, citing office policy. But Bowman said Cannizzaro "stands behind the work of Assistant District Attorney Alex Calenda and does not believe he did anything wrong in his handling of the case."

Neither does David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who reviewed Hickerson's bid for a new trial. Weinstein cited the fact that Calenda's overt promise to Knockum came only after Hickerson's trial.

"Now that the trial is over, the prosecutor can say whatever he wants," Weinstein said.

He noted that federal prosecutors turned over the recordings of the jailhouse calls prior to the 39'ers trial, allowing defense attorneys to grill Knockum about them in front of the jury that convicted all 10 men in that case.

Calenda's earlier assurances to Knockum are the kind of conversations that "happen all the time, and there's nothing improper about those. What you can't do is tell the defendant, 'If you testify, I guarantee I will reduce your sentence' or 'I will not file charges against you,' " Weinstein said.

"It's a delicate balance you have to play, between what you're promising and what this person thinks, and ultimately what the jury knows," Weinstein said. "The state prosecutor is going to have to defend making those statements, but everybody knows what (Knockum's) motivation is. He's not up there because he's a good citizen."

More troubling, Weinstein said, are the conflicting stories that Knockum gave about Breaux's killing. But "that's on him for testifying falsely about it," he said.

Knockum's conversations with Calenda were among several thousand jail calls that federal prosecutors turned over in the 39'ers case — a trove that opened a rare window on the dirty work of gaining the cooperation of witnesses who in fact are brutal killers seeking freedom in return for ratting out their fellow assailants.

Admitted 13-time killer Gregory "Rabbit" Stewart, the government's star witness in the 39'ers case, called it a "chess game," and he and McCaskill urged federal prosecutors to divvy up the pawns — jailed gang associates — between the two men. Their aim: to solicit details on heinous crimes and draft their former killing partners to play for "Team USA."

"I just want you to put certain ones over here by me and certain ones over there by Wash, and the case gonna be, you know, over with fast," Stewart told Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurice Landrieu in a May 2015 phone call. "They gonna follow our lead."

"OK. Well, we gonna take care of that one," Landrieu responded.

Knockum apparently was among the potential witnesses assigned to either Stewart or McCaskill. He would be jailed near McCaskill, and both men would plead guilty before working overtime for the government. Vogeltanz argued that McCaskill mentored Knockum to fabricate testimony.

Placing witnesses together in jail raises concern that they will have plenty of time to line up their stories, true or not, Weinstein said. But jockeying among cooperators to earn credit with the feds, and the stoking of those efforts by authorities, is nothing new. 

"I don't think anybody doubts that part of the ugly underbelly of the federal prosecution system is witnesses who trade their testimony to reduce their sentences," Weinstein said. "And those who know more tend to do better than somebody who knows nothing."

Buras set an Aug. 4 hearing date on Hickerson's bid for a new trial.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.