Norris Henderson and his many supporters — the latest is New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell — will evidently never quit declaring that he is innocent of the murder for which he did 27 years in the state pen.
He and his supporters mostly refuse even to acknowledge that he was convicted in two trials and the judge who finally let him out of prison expressed no doubt about his guilt. Henderson's brother and co-defendant is still doing life.
Norris Henderson is beyond question spectacularly rehabilitated and has been frequently honored for his work on behalf of other present and former cons. For the ultimate social outcast to become a leading social reformer is an astonishing achievement, and bespeaks such intelligence and strength of character that he is a worthy addition to Cantrell's transition team.
But that is not enough for Henderson and his legion fans, who have managed to create the impression that he is one of the many Louisiana inmates released because they were exonerated. When I pointed out last year that Henderson in truth remains a convicted murderer, bien-pensant liberals suffered paroxysms of wrath, resorting to the personal abuse that may herald an inability to make a rational argument.
A philippic by one Jordan Flaherty in the Huffington Post didn't waste time addressing the point at issue but needed only a single line to dismiss the entire question. Without dragging in such legal niceties as trials and verdicts, Flaherty baldly asserted that Norris Henderson “did not commit” the murder before proceeding to list his numerous, nowhere disputed, achievements in the field of penal reform since his release in 2003.
According to Flaherty, my “shameful attack” on Henderson was just another example of the “mediocre writing, faulty argument and ignorance of basic facts” of which I am miraculously guilty “several times a week” in columns that appear only on Thursdays and Sundays. Flaherty continued in this vein for a long time without ever threatening to get to the point.
Much pithier, if no more pertinent, was the response from Emily Maw, an attorney who, as head of the New Orleans Innocence Project, has sprung many a wrongfully convicted inmate. Success in the noble vocation of correcting injustice can engender an impudent sense of moral superiority, so it came as no surprise to receive an email that simply asked how long the DA's flak had been writing my columns.
There was only one attempt — and a feeble one at that — to justify the claim that Henderson was bum-rapped. It came in a letter to the editor from Marjorie Esman of the ACLU, who maintained the case against him was “tainted” because his first conviction was overturned on grounds that a police report had been withheld. But you might as well argue that shows Henderson got an even break, because there was no suggestion that evidence was hidden from the defense the second time around. Henderson elected to dispense with a jury at retrial, which seemed a wise move since he drew Judge Calvin Johnson, the most dogged champion of defendants' rights on the entire bench. Choosing a bench trial made all the more sense for Henderson and Johnson are both black, and this has long been a racist justice system.
After Henderson was nevertheless convicted, and appeals failed, he seemed destined to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But the law at the time allowed Johnson to release him on probation. Johnson did so some years after the trial because he was impressed with Henderson's work as a self-taught jailhouse lawyer, but he did not question the soundness of the conviction or cite any mitigating factors.
Is it possible that Norris Henderson speaks the truth when claiming his conviction was unjust? Certainly. Neither Flaherty, Maw, Esman, Cantrell nor I can say for sure, as we were nowhere near the scene in 1974 when Betty Jean Joseph was shot to death while waiting to testify against Henderson on a charge of murdering her brother. Only Norris Henderson and his brother Clarence can be certain of the truth.
But there is no disputing that, in the eyes of the law, Henderson did the crime, and received as fair a trial as Louisiana could provide. We can all agree, too, that Cantrell is right to say he is well qualified to help “communities of color protect themselves from the criminal justice system.”
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.