Jerome Morgan was convicted of a 1993 murder, and was granted a new trial in 2014, due to two witnesses being pressured into identifying him as the killer. The director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Morgan, says “there is no evidence against him and only evidence that he is innocent.”
In a ruling that could severely hamstring Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office in its bid to retry a 23-year-old murder case, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Friday that the trial testimony of two key witnesses who have since recanted their identifications of the alleged killer can’t be used at his new trial.
Jerome Morgan, 40, is slated to stand trial again June 13, two decades after a jury convicted him of murder in the 1993 slaying of 16-year-old Clarence Landry during a birthday party at a Gentilly motel ballroom.
Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny overturned Morgan’s conviction and life sentence and granted him a new trial in early 2014. Derbigny said he believed the claims of the two witnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, that New Orleans Police Department detectives pressured them to identify Morgan as Landry’s killer.
Since then, Cannizzaro’s office has charged Shabazz and Johnson with perjury for their conflicting statements, rendering them silent as a new trial for Morgan approaches.
Both men, fearing additional charges, are invoking their Fifth Amendment right and refusing to take the witness stand, in what Morgan’s attorneys argue was a calculated move by prosecutors to keep them from testifying.
In lieu of their testimony, Judge Franz Zibilich, who will preside over the new trial, ruled that the jury could read transcripts of both their original testimony, identifying Morgan, and their recantations in 2013.
Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu has acknowledged that how the jury views those conflicting accounts stands at the heart of the case against Morgan. In court, Andrieu has claimed that Innocence Project New Orleans attorneys coerced false recantations from the two men.
The state’s high court ruled Friday that Zibilich was correct in barring from the trial the men’s initial identifications of Morgan to police butmistaken in allowing their 1996 trial testimony to be read at the new trial.
The ruling came on a 4-2 vote, with Justices Marcus Clark and Scott Crichton dissenting and Chief Justice Bernette Johnson not voting.
The Supreme Court vacated Zibilich’s ruling, though it said the judge could revisit the admissibility of their statements — both to police and to the jury that convicted Morgan — “if these witnesses testify at the retrial.”
Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents Morgan, hailed the ruling Saturday, saying she hoped it would prod Cannizzaro “to finally dismiss the charges against Jerome Morgan, because there is no evidence against him and only evidence that he is innocent.”
She said Morgan “has been fighting to clear his name since the moment he was arrested by police. He has never wavered from that fight, and it has been a long, hard ordeal for Jerome Morgan, and a long ordeal for the Landry family. It’s time to end it.”
Morgan was 16 when he was arrested and charged with the killing.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office did not immediately comment on the high court’s ruling. The office has a policy against discussing open cases.
Shabazz and Johnson had been with Landry at a May 22, 1993, birthday party in the ballroom at the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Road. A fight broke out between two groups, and someone pulled a gun and opened fire. Landry was hit in the neck and shoulder, Shabazz in the side and another youth in the thigh.
When police arrived at the party, Morgan was there. Prosecutors alleged at his initial trial that he had managed to run away, hop a fence, stash the gun and return before police arrived.
The jury in the 1994 trial never heard evidence that police reached the scene just six minutes after the shooting started and locked down the ballroom. Instead, the jury heard that it took more than a half-hour for police to arrive. Morgan’s attorneys with the Innocence Project argued that prosecutors withheld the evidence of a quick arrival.
Johnson had testified that he chased the shooter out the door and down an alley. In 2013, he took the stand again, saying Landry had been his best friend and that he was pressured by police to identify Morgan as the shooter.
He first dismissed Morgan’s picture from a photo lineup and did so again seven months later, but he said a detective then pushed the picture back into the mix.
“Are you sure it’s not this guy right here?” the detective asked him, according to an affidavit Johnson signed.
He said the detective told him the photo was of Morgan. Johnson said he figured everybody else must be right, so he fingered Morgan as the killer.
Shabazz spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from his wounds, then got a call from a detective who asked him if he knew who had shot him. Shabazz said he didn’t. According to Shabazz, the detective then said, “Jerome shot you,” and asked Shabazz to come to the station to give a statement.
There, the detective pressured him to point out Morgan and made him feel he would be doing a public service if he did so, Shabazz said in 2013. “It’s almost like they painted this picture for me, that it was him,” he said on the witness stand, adding that he’d been wracked with guilt for years. “What I did, it just wasn’t right.”
Derbigny ruled that the “evidence presented before this court is wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion” by the NOPD.
Soon afterward, prosecutors filed perjury charges against Shabazz and Johnson. The law doesn’t require Cannizzaro’s office to prove on which occasion — in 1994 or in their recantations two decades later — the two men lied on the witness stand.
Cannizzaro’s office, meanwhile, has accused Maw, IPNO attorney Kristin Wenstrom and an investigator of coercing the recantations from Shabazz and Johnson, though no charges have been filed against the lawyers.
In postponing a May 2 trial date to let the higher courts rule, Zibilich pledged to stick to the June 13 trial date.
Case dismissed May 31, 2016