William Varnado says he just wanted to free his conscience.
"Man, it's been weighing on me for years. I knew I didn't tell the truth," Varnado said of his testimony in a murder trial 16 years ago.
Varnado's eyewitness account helped send Duvander "Chevy" Hurst away on a life prison sentence for the killing of 19-year-old Allen Delatte, who was gunned down outside the Superdome as a crowd spilled onto Poydras Street from the Super Fair on June 7, 1999.
Now, Varnado faces his own hefty prison sentence after being charged last week with four counts of perjury resulting from a sordid tale of alleged misconduct by police and prosecutors that he told at a hearing in April on Hurst's bid for a new trial.
It marks at least the second time Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office has filed perjury charges against recanting witnesses, using a state statute that doesn't require prosecutors to prove when someone lied — then or now.
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Cannizzaro's office filed charges last year against a pair of witnesses who claimed police coerced their identifications of Jerome Morgan as the shooter in a 1993 killing in Gentilly.
Based in part on their recantations, a judge granted Morgan a new trial, and prosecutors grudgingly dropped the murder count against him in May, citing a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling that effectively gutted their case. But the perjury counts remain against the witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, whose trial is set for Oct. 7.
The perjury charge, coming in a murder case, carries a sentence of five to 40 years upon conviction.
Defense advocates argue that such prosecutions will only deter witnesses from coming clean about false testimony and perhaps keep them from revealing misdeeds by authorities.
Hurst's attorney, Justin Harrell, noted a well-chronicled history of misconduct by police and prosecutors in New Orleans. He also cited prior statements by Cannizzaro that his office would seek to redress wrongs from the past.
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"A charge of perjury is bound to have a chilling effect on people who might be aware of things going on, not necessarily during Mr. Cannizzaro's tenure, but with his predecessors," Harrell said. "It's obviously a mixed message."
A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office did not respond to questions about how often the office has deployed the perjury statute, or how it chooses which lying witnesses to prosecute. The office has a policy against commenting on open cases.
"We screen each case on an individual basis," spokesman Christopher Bowman said.
At Hurst's murder trial in 2000, Varnado refused to finger Hurst directly, but he said enough.
He testified that he went to the Super Fair on the night Delatte was killed, saw Hurst pass by in his distinctive red Chevy Cutlass just before the shooting and saw a man get out of a red Cutlass and start shooting.
He also told the jury that he wanted "nothing to do with somebody having life in prison." That same day, though, the jury convicted Hurst of murder.
Varnado, who was 19 at the time, returned to the witness stand in April, at age 35, with a far different account.
Weeping at times, he testified that he was nowhere around the Superdome that night. Instead, he claimed former New Orleans Police Department homicide detective Arthur "Archie" Kaufman — who recently pleaded guilty to federal charges for orchestrating a cover-up of the Danziger Bridge shootings — spoon-fed him a story about the killing.
Varnado, who knew Hurst from their Uptown neighborhood, had been picked up for crack possession to go along with a pending heroin count. He testified that he was getting sick from heroin withdrawal when Kaufman offered him a break if he would repeat a story about seeing Hurst outside the Dome firing a gun.
"I'll never forget it. He used the tape recorder. He told me the story, and he's like, 'What happened?' So I told him the story. He's like, 'That's not it,' and he restarted (the recorder) and made me say it again," Varnado said in a phone interview Thursday.
"He did that like six, seven times, over time, until I got to believe where he wanted it. I caught onto it. I was into the game to a point I was trying to get out of it. My plan was to do this, get out of jail and disappear."
Varnado said he was eager to back away from the case before Hurst's trial. But he said Lynda Van Davis, then a top prosecutor in former District Attorney Harry Connick's office, threatened to foist a 20-year prison sentence upon him on the drug counts if he refused to testify.
Davis went on to become a Criminal District Court judge before stepping down in 2012. She has since moved out of the country and could not be reached Thursday.
Kaufman pleaded guilty in April to falsifying evidence and conspiracy to obstruct justice, admitting his role in an elaborate whitewash of the fatal shootings on the Danziger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He agreed to a three-year prison sentence.
At a hearing in June on Hurst's post-conviction claim, Kaufman, 60, dismissed Varnado's story.
"Varnado alleged that I coerced him and coached him into saying what he did, which is absolutely false," Kaufman testified. "He alleged that he was strung out on heroin, and had that been brought to my attention, there would have been no statement taken. I would not have talked to him if he was in that condition."
Varnado also claims other police officers gave him cash — "$10, $20 here and there" — to feed his heroin habit in the lead-up to the murder trial. He said police booked him on a trespassing count for walking through an empty Winn-Dixie parking lot about a month before the trial, aiming to park him in jail prior to his testimony.
His story sits at the heart of Hurst's bid for a new trial, which remains pending before Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 30.
Varnado, a barber, said he was released from jail within days of his testimony against Hurst and left for a drug treatment program in Texas, where he settled.
He said he wasn't certain whether Davis, the prosecutor, was aware that his account of the shooting was manufactured.
Varnado said he reached out to Hurst's family after Hurricane Katrina to set the record straight. He first signed a sworn affidavit detailing his allegations in 2013.
"I didn't necessarily know the risks," he said of the perjury charges he now faces. "I didn't think they would even second-guess it."
John Hall Thomas, Hurst's defense attorney at his murder trial, said the case stands out for him as an example of injustice.
"I've been doing this for 31 years. There are certain cases that bother me. Duvander Hurst would be No. 1 on my list," Thomas said.
He said authorities learned after Hurst's arrest that he had left his red Chevy at a neighborhood auto shop for repairs before the shooting. Prosecutors then argued that Hurst retrieved the car with a spare key to commit the murder, later returning it to the shop.
Thomas called it "really bad public policy to go after somebody who comes forward and says he was induced into giving false testimony. The district attorney ought to be in the business of encouraging people to get to the truth."
For his part, Varnado said he's resigned to any consequences .
"I ain't taking it back. They're going to have to go and do whatever they need to do at this point," he said. "At the end of the day, Chevy did 17 years, and I don't even know if he did (the murder) or not. Honestly, I don't know. I was never there."