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D.A. backs away from retrying exonerated man for 1993 murder

31st May 2016   ·   0 Comments

After vowing to retry former Angola inmate Jerome Morgan for a murder committed more than two decades ago, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro on Friday finally conceded defeat, saying that his office no longer proceed with its efforts to retry Morgan.

Despite what his lawyers and family said was overwhelming evidence that he could not have committed the crime, Morgan, then a teenager, was convicted of killing another teen who attended a Sweet 16 party. He never stopped seeking to regain his freedom and was released after two decades behind bars when several defense witnesses recanted their testimonies.

D.A. Cannizzaro raised the ire of some justice advocates when he began laying the foundation to retry Morgan and reportedly sought the assistance of several Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola inmates in building a case against Morgan.

While he announced that he is backing away from the case, the district attorney made it clear that the choice was essentially made for him by the judicial system.

“As a result of a recent judicial ruling prohibiting the District Attorney’s office from using the in-court identifications from the original murder trial in 1994, the office has been effectively prohibited from retrying the murder case against Jerome Morgan,” Cannizzaro said in a statement Friday. “Accordingly, I instructed an Assistant District Attorney to dismiss the case this afternoon. Absent additional evidence, the DA’s office will not be able to prosecute this case further.”

In Friday’s statement, Cannizzaro laid out his case against Morgan, who has worked at an local advertising firm and served as a volunteer at McDonogh 35 Senior High School since his release.

“In 1993, following what can at-best be described as a lackluster homicide investigation, Morgan was arrested for the murder of Clarence Landry, which occurred at a sweet-sixteen party,” Cannizzaro said. “After the expiration of the 60-day 701 period in 1993, Morgan was released from custody because the DA’s office failed to make a timely charging decision. Despite the fact that the murder occurred in the middle of a crowded party, it appears that the investigating officer failed to interview all but a handful of the attendees.

“As police and prosecutors were unsuccessful in their efforts to obtain reliable evidence linking Morgan to the murder, Sandra Landry, the victim’s mother, was not deterred in her pursuit of justice for her son. She scoured the streets and conducted her own investigation. As reported in a Times Picayune article in 1994, ‘she tracked down witnesses that authorities said they couldn’t find. She even … transported them to the district attorney’s office where they signed statements.’

“As a result of her diligent efforts, Morgan was indicted in January of 1994. In September of 1994, both Kevin Johnson and Hakim Shabazz testified at trial that they witnessed Morgan shoot and kill Clarence Landry. The testimony provided by the witnesses was consistent with statements they made to law enforcement authorities. A jury found Morgan guilty-as-charged, and he received a life sentence. Mrs. Landry received the closure for which she had so desperately worked. What is most disappointing to me about this entire incident is that as Mrs. Landry lays in bed dying of cancer, the justice for which she worked so hard to obtain is ripped from her fingers and she is helpless to stop it.

“In May of 2011 after meeting with attorneys from the Innocence Project, Shabazz signed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony. Johnson signed a similar affidavit a few months later. I find it curious that in the 15-years that elapsed between their trial testimony and the execution of these affidavits that these witnesses did not suffer some crisis of conscience that caused them to alert the judicial officers of their duplicity. It was only after they met with attorneys from the Innocence Project that this revelation occurred. It was only after they met with attorneys from the Innocence Project that these witnesses offered testimony that exposed them to criminal charges for perjury.”

Cannizzaro, who was a judge at the time of the murder, took a parting shot at Innocence Project, which sought Morgan’s release. and questioned why the D.A. would form a partnership with the Innocence Project but work against its efforts to gain the release of wrongfully convicted inmates.

“Interestingly, the Innocence Project resisted efforts of the District Attorney’s office to give testimony regarding their methods and motives in securing these affidavits. Attorneys from the Innocence Project have made careers out of questioning the methods and motives of police and prosecutors in court. They frequently accuse law enforcement agencies of corruption and cry for transparency in the media. They frequently request case files from law enforcement authorities under the Louisiana Public Records Act. Yet, when asked to present testimony regarding their own tactics, when asked to present testimony regarding their ability to solicit testimony from witnesses that the Innocence Project knew would expose said witnesses to criminal prosecution, they were permitted to thwart the State’s discovery efforts. As such, their desire for transparency clearly does not extend to their own tactics and practices.

“What I do know for certain is that Johnson and Shabazz either perjured themselves in 2013 to allow a cold-blooded murderer walk free, or they perjured themselves in 1994 to put an innocent man in jail,” Cannizzaro said Friday. “Unfortunately, the passage of time, less than adequate investigative work at the time of the murder, and legal procedures have made it impossible for us to determine which it is for sure. However, either way they deserve to be punished. If that is the only measure of closure that I can provide for Clarence Landry’s family, then I intend to work hard to see that they get it.”

This article originally published in the May 30, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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