John Floyd was trimming the trees in his sister’s yard when he got the news just before Thanksgiving.
More than 37 years after his arrest for a 1980 killing in the French Quarter, and months after a federal judge set him free, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office was dropping its bid to put him on trial again. An unfavorable decision from the U.S. Supreme Court had proven too much for prosecutors.
Floyd set aside his chainsaw and sat down.
“It was shocking,” he said recently. “Made me feel so good.”
Floyd, 69, was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola last June, after a federal district judge tossed out his murder conviction in the slashing death of Times-Picayune proofreader William Hines.
The judge cited evidence that was never turned over to Floyd's defense team decades before, including a fingerprint from someone else on a whiskey bottle inside Hines' home on Gov. Nicholls Street. Police had theorized that Hines had invited his killer inside for a drink.
But Floyd hadn’t been all the way free, since Cannizzaro still had a chance at restoring his conviction. Floyd still had to check in with a probation officer and receive a judge’s permission to leave the state.
“I feel 20 times better” after the decision to drop the case, Floyd said.
Floyd was an oilfield worker and a self-described alcoholic when New Orleans police said he confessed to two fatal stabbings that occurred days apart in late 1980.
A judge acquitted him of one killing but convicted him in the death of Hines. In the decades since, Floyd sent hundreds of letters proclaiming his innocence to senators, judges and lawyers.
He also became a favorite of prison administrators at Angola, earning privileges to roam the prison grounds and aid in the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
With his appeals ongoing, Floyd was not at liberty to speak about why police said he confessed.
His case is finally over. But Floyd said his memory of the night New Orleans Police Department detective John Dillman found him in a French Quarter bar — his last night of freedom — isn’t great.
Decades later, he also isn’t sure why Dillman chose him for what he calls a “set-up.”
“You see, I was drinking that night, and they got me drunk in a bar down there,” Floyd said. “He made the confessions. I didn’t give him a confession, but he made two confessions of both murders. And he had beat me up and all kind of stuff.”
Dillman has denied that he did anything wrong.
Floyd said he doesn’t want to dwell on that night or his long incarceration. Instead, he’s settling into his new life on a Carencro farm, where he lives in a Winnebago camper.
On a sunny day a week before Christmas, his outfit was full country. His company’s white Ford F-150 was parked behind the Innocence Project New Orleans headquarters on Ulloa Street, and he was wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses and a Realtree cap.
His speech, thick with the accent of his native Puckett, Mississippi, often turns back to animals — the dog he gave to a family friend, his cat, the chickens on the farm or the animals at a shelter where he volunteers.
“It’s a pitiful way that people do their animals," he said. "I see animals on the road and everything. They just throw them out. Why they do it, I don’t know.”
Even while dropping the case, Cannizzaro made it clear that he still thinks Floyd is a killer. Floyd said he thinks the district attorney simply never read the full case record. He added that he forgives Dillman and everyone else involved in his long incarceration.
“I forgive the cops who set me up. I forgive the judge who sentenced me,” he said. “If you can’t forgive, you can’t move on with your life. I see so many people get out of Angola with anger and bitterness. And it keeps you down.”
Still, Floyd said he does not stop when driving through Lafourche Parish, where Dillman works now as a cold-case investigator. He thinks Dillman isn’t fit to work in law enforcement.
And if Cannizzaro runs for district attorney again in 2020, Floyd is mulling a move to New Orleans.
“I did get a card yesterday. I can vote now,” he said. “One vote can make a change. I might have to come down here and vote for the new district attorney.”