Proof of innocence a hard road for many freed Louisiana inmates seeking state compensation _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- After years behind bars, Kia Stewart walks out of the Orleans Parish Courthouse a free man Monday, April 13, 2015.

More than a year after Kia Stewart was freed from a life prison term — prosecutors having abandoned his murder conviction for lack of evidence — he still hasn't proved that the state owes him money for the decade he spent behind bars, a judge ruled Tuesday. 

Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter denied Stewart, 27, a slice of the state's Innocence Compensation Fund, though the judge did not preclude him from trying again.

In a seven-page ruling, Hunter said Stewart's attorneys didn't do enough at a June 21 hearing to prove that he was "factually innocent" in the July 2005 murder of Bryant "B.J." Craig — a high legal bar intended to weed out people released from jail on mere technicalities.

However, Hunter also said state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office hadn't made a strong case that Stewart didn't deserve the $25,000 per year of imprisonment — up to a total of $250,000 — offered under state law for those who can prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that they are innocent.

"We will be asking for another hearing," said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which helped Stewart gain his freedom. "We'll do whatever it takes, because it's clear Kia Stewart is innocent and is exactly the kind of person who should be compensated promptly."

Arrested for Craig's murder three weeks before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Stewart, then 17, was jailed without a lawyer for six months as the city's criminal justice system lay in tatters.

He remained there until a jury convicted him of the murder in 2009 on a 10-2 verdict, based largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness who still maintains Stewart was the killer.

Numerous other witnesses turned up later to finger another man, Antonio Barnes, as Craig’s killer, or to verify Stewart's alibi that he was asleep at a house nearby at the time. Several witnesses said Barnes confessed to them that he had killed Craig. Barnes himself was killed in 2006 during an attempted robbery in Houston.

Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny found earlier that Stewart's trial attorneys had failed him by ignoring potential witnesses while hanging their planned defense on the cross-examination of a police detective who never showed up in court.

Derbigny also found "an abundance of evidence that Antonio Barnes, not Kia Stewart, committed this crime," and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office agreed that "significant amounts" of new evidence warranted Stewart's release.

“We have to ask: Do we possess evidence to prove Kia Stewart committed the murder of Bryant Craig?” said Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, when Stewart went free. “No, we don’t have that.”

But on Tuesday, Hunter found that Stewart's attorneys needed to show more than the sworn affidavits from witnesses and stipulations by Cannizzaro's office vouching for those witnesses' credibility.

"The court needs the opportunity to speak with witnesses, judge their credibility, and address any conflicts within or between the statements," Hunter wrote.

Former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office frequently challenged such compensation claims, drawing the ire of advocates for freed inmates. Stewart's claim was the first under Landry, but with the message unchanged: If you can't prove you're innocent, you don't get the money.

A spokeswoman for Landry's office declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.

Maw, who noted that Stewart is a new father, said the fund was designed to quickly help the victims of injustice land on their feet — an effort she argued the Attorney General's Office is thwarting with a hard-line stance.

"It's a shame, given the amount of work by our office and the DA's Office last year," Maw said, "that significantly more resources and court time and lawyer time need to be spent now on making the case for compensation for someone who spent 10 years of their life wrongly imprisoned."

No date for a new hearing has been set.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.