Criminal Defense Attorney New Orleans
Elizabeth B. Carpenter, Esq. – Serving clients in Orleans, Jefferson, Terrebonne, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. John, Assumption and Plaquemines Parishes.
Innocent Avondale man’s long battle for freedom pays off
During the years he was confined to the Angola prison farm for a murder he has always denied committing, Mike Williams of Avondale had no doubt he would one day be released. The former offshore worker immersed himself in the study of criminal law, keeping a record of his court filings and legal deadlines that was so detailed that he drew praise from attorneys who later picked up his case.
He was so confident he would one day go home, he even wrote a “discharge speech” in 2005, expecting to read it to the news media he imagined would await him outside the prison’s gates.
“I had only one goal and one objective: freedom,” Williams said Wednesday.
After spending more than 15 years of a life sentence in prison, Williams, 46, now has that freedom. Without fanfare Nov. 17, a judge in Gretna vacated his second-degree murder conviction. Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr., whose office did not initiate the prosecution, then dismissed the case after concluding evidence in the March 6, 1996, killing of Michelle Gallagher, 25, of Waggaman, was not reliable.
“It was like,” Williams said with a pause.
“Christmas,” said his mother, Betty Williams, finishing the sentence.
“It was beyond Christmas,” he added. “It was like being born again. I did everything within my power to contain myself.”
The conviction was based solely on the word of Christopher Landry, a felon in Jefferson and St. Charles parishes. Landry claimed he was riding his bike in the Avondale area and saw Gallagher and Williams smoking crack cocaine. Landry testified he saw Williams push her body out onto River Road at George Street — a claim contradicted by a newspaper carrier, who testified he saw Gallagher staggering along a street about two miles away in Waggaman at the same time Landry said he saw Williams dump the woman.
Prosecutors relied on Landry’s testimony and a theory that Williams stabbed Gallagher in her stomach after she refused sex. Prosecutors had no blood, hair or fibers that could tie Gallagher to Williams. On advice of his attorney and in part fearing a prejudiced jury, Williams, a black man accused of killing a white woman, waived his right to a jury and placed his fate in the hands of then-24th Judicial District Court Judge Susan Chehardy.
After hearing less than two days of testimony, on July 3, 1997, Chehardy deliberated about 10 minutes and returned with her decision: guilty as charged.
Chehardy, who was elected to the state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal the next year, declined to comment Thursday. Landry, now 46, is serving a 15-year sentence in prison for burglary. He could not be reached for comment.
Losing freedom, then wife
Williams left behind his wife, Mia, and their 2 1/2-year-old son, Michael Williams Jr. Five months after he arrived at Angola, Mia, 32, suffered a brain aneurysm and died on New Year’s Eve 1997.
“I attributed that to the stress behind me going to prison,” said Williams, who was not allowed to attend the funeral.
With his son being raised by Mia’s parents in Gretna, Williams focused on proving his innocence. He worked as a prison cook and baker, and he studied the law, aligning himself with inmates who had become versed in post-conviction procedure and case law. He filed his own petitions in state and federal courts.
Landry and Williams knew each other from the Kennedy Heights subdivision in Avondale. Williams said he did not know Gallagher, and he had no idea why Landry falsely accused him. Williams’ trial attorney theorized Landry was envious. In any case, some states have laws requiring authorities to have evidence that corroborates the claims of a single eyewitness. Louisiana does not.
“One person lying can send someone to prison for life,” said Innocence Project New Orleans attorney Paul Killebrew, who represents Williams. “And it takes extreme good luck to change that.”
Mother overhears a tip
The circumstances that set in motion the road to Williams’ release were perhaps too fortuitous to be real.
While grocery shopping in 2009, his mother said she overheard a man talking about how a guy he met in prison, Landry, claimed his lies convicted Williams. Betty Williams learned Landry was serving time then at Winn Correctional Center in Winn Parish. She crafted an affidavit, through which Landry could admit he lied, and mailed it to the prison.
“And lo and behold, one day I got an answer,” Betty Williams said. “It was signed.”
The prison’s warden and his secretary signed the affidavit as witnesses and had it notarized, she said. The secretary even mailed it back.
Williams immediately sought an evidentiary hearing in the 24th Judicial District Court. Judge Hans Liljeberg granted the request. But during the October 2009 hearing, Landry invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to testify. As a result, Liljeberg denied Williams’ request.
It was a second fortuitous event that brought the Innocence Project New Orleans to Williams’ side. Terrence Meyers was wrongly convicted of another West Bank murder and knew Williams from both Avondale and Angola. The Innocence Project represented Meyers in his successful bid for freedom in 2009 after 16 years in prison. Meyers told the Innocence Project about Landry’s recantation.
‘No idea of what happened’
Killebrew and another Innocence Project lawyer, David Park, hunted down Landry, “a raging addict” who admitted smoking crack on the morning he told detectives Williams was the killer,” Killebrew said. In a second affidavit, “He basically says, ‘I had no idea of what happened in that murder,’” Killebrew said.
They brought both affidavits and their investigation to Connick, whose prosecutors reviewed Landry’s statements and his two recantations.
“After our review, it became evident the witness’s reliability could not support the conviction,” Connick said Thursday. So “in the interest of justice,” his office decided to vacate the conviction, he said.
Killebrew said prosecutors “kept an open mind” about the case. “It wasn’t like we were knocking over a brick wall,” he said. “It wasn’t that strong of a case.”
Liljeberg vacated the conviction Nov. 17 and ordered Williams’ immediate release from Angola.
“That was a day the Lord made,” Betty Williams said.
Williams moved into his old bedroom at his mother’s home and has found temporary work on Chalmette’s docks with hopes to learn computer programming. Throughout his prison stay, he said he maintained contact with his son, who works with David Crockett Fire Department in Gretna and is graduating from St. Augustine High School.
“I’m extremely proud of him for staying strong throughout this situation,” Williams said. “I’m thankful to God our relationship has always remained strong.”