Norris Henderson is a passionate advocate for Louisiana prison reform, and no wonder.
Watch him on YouTube and his outrage over the cruelty and injustice of the system shines through. “I spent 27 years, 10 months and 18 days for a crime I did not commit,” he declares.
He gets the hero treatment wherever he goes. Every time he is introduced at some forum, the audience will be told he was wrongfully convicted, and it is rare for the media to mention his name without attaching the word “exonerated.”
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It is such an inspiring story that nobody appears to have checked it out. The truth is that Henderson is a murderer, and, in all likelihood, a double murderer. The only reason he is not still in prison is that, under the law in effect when he did his killing, a friendly judge could let a lifer out.
The judge who gave Henderson his break in 2003 was Calvin Johnson, who has since retired and is now New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Criminal Justice Coordinator. When Henderson testified at the New Orleans City Council's latest hearing on expanding the parish prison, he took time to acknowledge, without elaboration, that he owed his freedom to Johnson, who was sitting nearby.
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Johnson didn't release Henderson because he thought him innocent. Indeed, it was Johnson who confirmed Henderson's guilt in a 1994 bench trial after his original conviction was overturned. Henderson was freed on grounds that his sterling work as a jailhouse lawyer on behalf of his fellow inmates indicated he was fully rehabilitated.
As director of Voice of the Ex-Offender and Safe Streets Strong Communities, Henderson has demonstrated a “commitment to the advancement of civil liberties,” the ACLU observed when he won its Ben Smith Award in 2009. Henderson had the ACLU suckered, too; its news release proclaimed him “wrongfully incarcerated.” He was also named an Open Society Institute Soros Justice fellow.
Henderson's subsequent career might be said to have justified Johnson's decision, but time has come to stop spreading the big lie. Louisiana has plenty of ex-cons released when they turned out to have been railroaded, but Henderson is not one of them.
When Henry Joseph was gunned down in the street in 1974, his sister, Betty Jean Joseph, was watching. She gave a statement to police fingering Henderson and Robert Benjamin as the killers, and said they had told her to keep quiet or else.
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Benjamin wound up pleading guilty, but Henderson was still on the lam the next year when Betty Jean Joseph, aged 19, was attacked and shot one morning on her way to summer school. As she lay dying, she identified Henderson as one of her assailants. A jury convicted him of her murder in 1977, and he was sentenced to life. Life means life these days, but at that time, it meant he could not be “eligible for parole, probation of suspension of sentence for a period of 20 years.”
Henderson won a retrial because he had been denied access to a police report and chose to go without a jury. That made sense, for Johnson always had a healthy respect for the rights of the defendant, but Henderson drew a blank again. The appeal court upheld the conviction, but, since Henderson had been resentenced under the old second-degree murder statute, the way was clear for Johnson to release him later on probation.
Johnson said Tuesday that he did not remember ruling in the Henderson case. He did, however, remember that he had been impressed by Henderson's legal prowess when he was in Angola. “Regardless of other factors — and there were many other factors — he did a lot of good,” Johnson said. Although Henderson's conviction stands, his claims of innocence are “his truth,” Johnson said.
Henderson was 20 years old when he murdered Betty Jean Joseph, and is no doubt a reformed character as he pursues the penological reform in which he has evidently become expert. Perhaps he is, as the ACLU has averred, “an inspiration to those concerned with the rights of the unrepresented and voiceless.”
But there is none so voiceless as Betty Jean Joseph.