DA drops murder charge against Jerome Morgan for 1993 killing

Advocate photo by JOHN SIMERMAN -- Innocence Project New Orleans clients Jerome Morgan, right and Robert Jones are pictured here in this undated file photo. 

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office agreed Friday to delay a trial for two men who were charged with perjury last year after they recanted their identifications of Jerome Morgan as the shooter in a 1993 killing, pending a meeting between Cannizzaro and the victim's mother.

Attorneys for Hakim Shabazz, 40, and Kevin Johnson, 41, claim Sandra Landry, the mother of homicide victim Clarence Landry, who was 16 at the time, doesn't want them prosecuted.

Shabazz and Johnson were teenagers when they named Morgan as the person who fired a half-dozen bullets into a crowd at a Sweet 16 birthday party in a Gentilly motel ballroom. Their testimony was pivotal in landing Morgan, who also was 16 at the time, in prison on a life sentence for murder.

But at a hearing in 2013, both men testified that police steered them to falsely identify Morgan. Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny endorsed their claims and, finding other problems with the police account, overturned Morgan's conviction.

Cannizzaro's office pressed to retry Morgan while also filing charges early last year against Shabazz and Johnson under a statute that doesn't require proof of when they lied, only that they made inconsistent statements.

“They either put an innocent man in jail for 20 years or they lied to get him out," one prosecutor said in summarizing the case against Shabazz and Johnson, who face five to 40 years in prison if convicted of perjury.

Assistant District Attorney Fran Bridges joined in requesting a delay in a trial that was scheduled to start Friday. Bridges told Criminal District Court Judge Benedict Willard that Cannizzaro was open to meeting with Sandra Landry but that it needs to be in person.

Johnson's attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, said Friday that he will arrange for Sandra Landry, who is ill, to travel to New Orleans to meet with Cannizzaro. He said he is not certain where she is now. 

Willard pushed the trial date back to Dec. 9.

Cannizzaro's office has pressed on with the perjury case even after grudgingly dropping the murder case against Morgan in May, on the eve of a retrial. 

Cannizzaro blamed a ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court that barred prosecutors from showing a jury transcripts of the 1994 trial testimony of Shabazz and Johnson unless they also took the stand. The two men had invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to testify, fearing additional perjury counts if they did so.

Prosecutors had hoped to persuade the jury that Morgan's attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans coerced Shabazz and Johnson into recanting their original statements. The high court ruling stymied that bid.

Cannizzaro discounted Morgan's claim of innocence, conceding only that police conducted what he said “can at best be described as a lackluster homicide investigation.”

“What is most disappointing to me about this entire incident is that as Mrs. Landry (lies) in bed dying of cancer, the justice which she worked so hard to obtain is ripped from her fingers and she is helpless to stop it,” Cannizzaro said in a statement.

Cannizzaro said Morgan's original prosecution was the result of Sandra Landry's diligent efforts. A 1994 story in The Times-Picayune credited her with tracking down Shabazz and Johnson herself after Morgan, the "prime suspect," was released from jail for lack of witnesses.

The story said she drove Shabazz and Johnson to the district attorney's office herself, in her van.

"I have no business going out trying to gather up witnesses to prove that this kid shot my son. They should have done it," the story quoted her as saying.

But Morgan's attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans have said Sandra Landry wanted no part in a new trial for Morgan.

The same goes for the perjury case, Hjortsberg said.

Attempts to reach Sandra Landry on Friday were unsuccessful.

In the meantime, City Councilman Jason Williams, whose practice as a defense attorney has taken a back seat to city politics for the past couple of years, signed on Friday to represent Shabazz.

"The criminal justice system has a history of young black men falling through the cracks," said Williams, who also sits on the Innocence Project board. "I'm going to do my part to see that that doesn't happen."

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.