Posts Tagged ‘Exoneration’
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.”
Another New York Times Piece Regarding Prosecutorial Misconduct in the New Orleans DA Office: In Re Smith v. Cain
New Orleans Criminal Defense Attorney
Last week, I covered the current U.S. Supreme Court Case, Smith v. Cain. I think that it is very important for Louisiana residents to know and understand what has been going on for YEARS in the Orleans Parish DA office and how such misconduct is leading to wrongful convictions. Here are some links to refresh your memory.
The Big SleazyBy ANDREW ROSENTHAL
For the third time in 16 years, the Supreme Court is taking up the question of why prosecutors in New Orleans seem to have so much trouble with the law. Smith v. Cain, a case heard last week, outlines truly shocking misdeeds going back decades. And an article in The Times-Picayune makes clear that problems continue.
Take for example this account of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s ignorance regarding an essential rule of law:
Last week, Cannizzaro insisted his office acted properly when it waited until the middle of a trial to tell a defense attorney about its deal with the victim and lone eyewitness in a December 2010 shooting in eastern New Orleans. Cannizzaro told The Times-Picayune his office didn’t initially reveal the deal, which was inked in August, because Smith’s lawyer never asked. “The defense attorney has to request it, and if he doesn’t, we’re not obligated to give it to him,” Cannizzaro said last week.
Hey, I saw “My Cousin Vinny.” That’s just wrong.
Beginning with the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court has made clear that a prosecutor has a duty to disclose evidence favorable to the defendant—even if the defendant doesn’t ask for it—if the evidence is likely to change the result of the legal proceeding.
Lest you be shocked by this tiny little gap in Mr. Cannizzaro’s knowledge, consider his predecessor, Harry Connick, who boasted that he “stopped reading law books” and “looking at opinions” after he was elected district attorney in 1974. That apparently includes Supreme Court rulings. After the Court’s 1995 decision in Kyles v. Whitley, featuring what Justice John Paul Stevens called “many instances” of the district attorney’s office’s “failure to disclose exculpatory evidence,” Mr. Connick testified in court that he made no changes in his office’s approach to meeting Brady requirements.
If a prosecutor so blatantly fails to do his job, surely there is swift and powerful punishment. Actually, no. Lincoln Caplan, one of the board’s legal writers, explains below:
Mr. Connick’s testimony came in Connick v. Thompson, which the court decided last March. In a bitterly divided 5-4 vote, the court overturned a $14 million jury verdict against the district attorney’s office, reached because the office withheld exculpatory evidence from John Thompson and, as a result, sent him to prison for 18 years, 14 on death row. That disposed of one the handful of ways it was possible to deter prosecutorial misconduct.
A group of Yale Law School students recently published a report on “The Myth of Prosecutorial Accountability After Connick v. Thompson,” which is unsettling but well worth reading.
In the Connick case, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that “[a]n attorney who violates his or her ethical obligations is subject to professional discipline, including sanctions, suspension, and disbarment.”
But that’s not really so. As the report relates, “prosecutors have rarely been subjected to disciplinary action by state bar authorities,” even though “state bar disciplinary procedures stand as one of the few – and perhaps the only – means of holding prosecutors accountable for gross misconduct.”
For instance, although the lead prosecutor in Smith v. Cain was sanctioned for misconduct by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2005 (in another case), the court suspended his sentence after observing that this was “a case of first impression in the State of Louisiana” and that the court had never before “been confronted with the issue of disciplining a prosecutor for failing to disclose” Brady material.
Well, that’s a novel idea. If you’re the first to be sanctioned for an offense, you don’t get punished for it.
Prosecutorial Misconduct New Orleans DA Office vs. Brady v. Maryland
NEW ORLEANS CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY
By: Law Office of Elizabeth B. Carpenter – Contact
John Thompson, an innocent man, served 18 years in Louisiana prisons including 14 years on death row due to prosecutorial misconduct before he was exonerated in 2003.
He sued the Orleans Parish Attorney’s Office in civil court and won a 14 million dollar settlement, but the decision was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court stating a single case of prosecutorial misconduct at the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office was not sufficient proof that the office had failed to properly train its prosecutors.
In my opinion, this ruling in nonsensical because it conflicts with Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 landmark Supreme Court case in which our nations highest court ruled that prosecutors have an affirmative duty to disclose all exculpatory evidence to the accused.
Subsequent case law expanded Brady‘s obligations to law enforcement officers and defined exculpatory evidence as any evidence that could be favorable to the accused. This may include:
- Evidence relevant to guilt or innocence.
- Evidence relevant to the appropriate punishment.
- Evidence relevant to a witness’ credibility, including evidence the defense might use at trial to impeach a witness. Giglio v. U.S., (S. Ct. 1972).
Yesterday, another case ( Smith vs. Cain) was argued in front of the Supreme Court with the same issue at bar. The defendant’s name is Juan Smith, New Orleans murder convict who says former DA Harry Connick’s Sr. administration kept secret evidence that would have helped him at trial. The lone eyewitness to a quintuple murder on North Roman Street picked Smith out of a photo lineup and reportedly said, “I’ll never forget Juan’s face, never.” Smith’s attorneys weren’t told what that witness had reportedly said three months before then, that he was “too scared to look at anybody.” Smith thinks a jury may have acquitted him if prosecutors had disclosed the eyewitness’ change of story.
The U.S. Supreme Court must decide “Whether the state courts in this case erred in concluding that any violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights at his criminal trial was harmless.”
I am surprised the high Court granted Certiorari because this case essentially undercuts the majority’s argument that it was ruling against Thompson in part because he couldn’t demonstrate a pattern of abuse. Furthermore, Thompson’s case was heard almost less than a year ago.
If you would like to read a recap of yesterday’s argument in Smith v. Cain click here — it is an interesting read
While we wait for our honorable highest Court to decide this case, I would like to thank my colleagues at The Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana. Their hard work is inspiring. I also pray for a day when the Orleans DA Office develops a reputation for integrity.
Thompson spoke with Innocence Project staff and students in June 2011 about his case and the issue of prosecutorial misconduct. Listen to his words in the above video!
Law Office of Elizabeth B Carpenter, Esq. — New Orleans Criminal Defense
NEW ORLEANS CRIMINAL DEFENSE BLOG
Lyle Denniston Reporter
Posted Tue, November 8th, 2011 4:51 pm
Argument recap: Disaster at the lectern
There may be many ways for a lawyer to realize that an argument before the Supreme Court is falling flat, but none can top this: a Justice asking if the counsel had ever considered simply forfeiting the case. That is what happened on Tuesday to Donna R. Andrieu, an assistant district attorney in New Orleans, as her argument lay all about her, in shambles. It is a heavy burden for a lawyer from that oft-criticized office to mount any defense of its prosecutions, but Andrieu repeatedly found ways to botch virtually every point as she argued Smith v. Cain (docket 10-8145).
The case is the second before the Court in the past year to raise deep questions about the way the Orleans Parish office has prosecuted criminal cases, over a good many years.. And, near the end of Andrieu’s troubled argument, she was reminded of that history by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who seemed to be wondering whether the D.A.’s staff there would ever learn. In both this Term’s case and last, the issue was whether the prosecutors had failed in their constitutional duty, under Brady v. Maryland (1963), to turn over evidence that could help lawyers defend their clients.
One might have some sympathy for the task facing Andrieu, not only because of that history, but also because the argument that unfolded before she even got up to speak was disciplined, legally and factually, and offered the Court a vivid portrayal of exactly the problem that these cases pose.
Kannon K. Shanmugam, a talented advocate with a good command of even the finest detail of the evidence, had found a totally receptive Court. He faced only a handful of tough questions. With the constitutional principles of the Brady precedent clear, the Court was attentive to even the nuances of the evidence in the prosecution of Juan Smith for five murders in New Orleans in 1995. The Court even showed a fascination with the way “hip-hop” hairdos might be worn, and why someone in that cultural element in the 1990s would have their teeth adorned with a gold laminate (the assailants supposedly had both trimmed-down hairlines and gold-appearing teeth). But the Justices were especially keen to learn about the evidence that Shanmugam said was withheld from Smith’s counsel.
Smith had been convicted, his lawyer told the Justices, “solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Unbeknownst to the defense, however, that eyewitness had told the police on multiple occasions that he could not identify any of the perpetrators or as he put it, that he would not know them if he saw them.” In fact, he added, the D.A.’s office “produced almost no relevant evidence to the defense before [the] trial.” Smith, Shanmugam said, is thus entitled to a new trial, and then he launched into a point-by-point description of what the defense lawyers did not know at the time of the trial, and thus had no chance to use it for his defense.
That key witness, a man named Larry Boatner, who was injured in the assault that left five others dead in a house in New Orleans, confidently identified Smith as a killer at the trial. The defense surely would have countered that, Shanmugam said, if it had known what he had said repeatedly to police before he took the stand.
Assistant prosecutor Andrieu then took her turn, choosing to begin by trying to rehabilitate Larry Boatner as a witness. She said that Boatner had identified Juan Smith “after having searched the faces of 72 individuals who were presented to him in photo line-ups, one after the other.” She soon ran into blunt questioning by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who spelled out what was on police notes of what Boatner had told them — notes that Smith’s defense lawyers never saw before or during the trial.
Andrieu then sought to persuade the Court that what Boatner had said before the trial was not “material” to the case. (The Brady precedent requires prosecutors to turn over only evidence that would be “material” to the case — that is, evidence that bore significantly on guilt or innocence.) It would be Andrieu’s undoing. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would gradually lose patience as she questioned the prosecutor, wondered how inconsistent statements by the only eyewitness to the killings could not be “material.”
She acknowledged Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.’s suggestion that the defense would have liked to have known that Boatner at one point told police that he could not identify any of the attackers, but then Andrieu insisted that this was not “material.” Ginsburg then again criticized the prosecutor’s view of what was “material,” and Justice Antonin Scalia joined in to say that the trial did not depend solely on Boatner’s testimony but, in fact, his was the only evidence against Smith. She insisted there was more.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, voicing his agreement with Ginsburg’s comment, said “I just can’t believe” that a judge would have found what Boatner had said about not being able to identify the killers not to have a direct bearing on the case.
Andrieu conceded to Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., that any prosecutor should have asked the police investigators, before pursuing the case to trial, whether they had in their possession any statements by the witnesses who were to be called to the stand. But she said that, under Louisiana law, the defense has no right to such statements. While she acknowledged that the Brady precedent required that the defense get to see such statements, if they were “material,” Andrieu seemed to be saying that the harm to Smith had been alleviated because the trial judge got to see them, in the privacy of chambers.
The more Andrieu talked, the more the Justices brought up, over and over again, Boatner’s statements to police that Smith’s lawyers never saw. Justice Kennedy asked her, point-blank, whether the prosecutors had ever conceded in the case that they had committed a violation of the Brady requirement. Andrieu said no, but added that “a prudent prosecutor” would have handed it over to defense counsel.
The aggressive exchanges were getting to Andrieu, and the phrase “I’m sorry” began appearing regularly in her answers, as she suggested, now and then, that she had misunderstood the questions. As her argument was winding down, Justice Elena Kagan leaned forward and asked: “Ms. Andrieu, did your office ever consider just confessing error in this case?” Stunned, the prosecutor said: “I’m sorry?”
Kagan repeated: “Did your office ever consider just confessing error in this case? You’ve had a bunch of time to think about it. Do you know? We took cert a while ago. I’m just wondering whether you’ve ever considered confessing error.” The prosecutor answered: “Your Honor, we believe that we have an argument that these statements of Larry Boatner are not material.”
It only got worse for Andrieu. Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that the prosecutor “stop fighting as to whether it should be turned over. Of course it should have been turned over…Why don’t you give that up?” The prosecutor again tried, astonishingly, to make one more effort to rehabilitate witness Boatner’s credibility.
At that point, it seemed that nothing more could embarrass the New Orleans prosecutor. But Justice Sotomayor then brought up the “serious accusations against the practices of your office, not yours in particular but prior ones. It is disconcerting to me that when I asked you the question directly should this material have been turned over, you gave an absolute no.” Andrieu weakly suggested that she had misunderstood the question.
But Sotomayor pressed on: “It is somewhat disconcerting that your office is still answering equivocally on a basic obligation as one that requires you to have turned these materials over, whether it caused harm or not.” Andrieu still did not seem to understand. She said that “today we turn all of this over….It should have been turned over. I guess what I was addressing or attempting to address was the materiality prong of Brady.”
The Court is expected to decide the case sometime next year.
Supreme Court seems ready to overturn conviction in New Orleans murder case
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court seems ready to overturn a Louisiana death row inmate’s conviction because New Orleans prosecutors did not give defense lawyers statements that cast doubt on the murderer’s identity.
Justices repeatedly pounded a lawyer from the New Orleans district attorney’s office with questions Tuesday about why they didn’t turn the witness statements over to Juan Smith’s lawyers. Two justices, Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia, finally told the prosecutor’s representative that their office should just admit their error.
Smith was convicted of killing five people at a 1995 party. Those convictions were later used to get him a death sentence in a separate case.
But the only eyewitness to the 1995 murders gave inconsistent statements about whether he could identify the killers. Those statements were not shared with Smith’s lawyers.
This kind of news always makes me grateful to have friends and colleagues who are dedicated to defending the rights of the oppressed and fighting for justice. They really inspire me.
Today, in Jefferson Parish, the Innocence Project New Orleans won an exoneration for Henry James, now 50, who was convicted and sentenced to life without benefit of parole in 1982 for an aggravated rape that he did not commit. He has spent the last 30 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The effort put in by IPNO, especially Paul Killebrew, to even find the DNA testing of the rape kit after all those years was extraordinary. In May 2010, a lab worker stumbled upon a slide from James’ case and DNA testing later excluded James as the perpetrator in the rape.
Henry James is expected to walk out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Friday.
Congratulations to everyone at IPNO. Keep up the hard work!
If you or a loved one is being accused of a Sex Crime in the New Orleans area, it is imperative that you hire an attorney who is dedicated to the defense of people charged with sex crimes. Contact the Law Office of Elizabeth B. Carpenter for a consultation. Our goal is to protect your rights and preserve your freedom.