Family questions guilty verdict, justice system
6th July 2011 · 0 Comments
By Michael Radcliff
The Louisiana Weekly Contributing Writer
The 1st Victim
On a warm, humid, spring afternoon two years ago, in the courtyard of the Iberville housing project, lay a young African- American male. His body jerks violently one final time as blood flowing from his head slowly pools around his lifeless body. A city drowning in the corpses of young African-American males senselessly killing one another would claim yet another victim — 16-year-old Roderick Gordon.
While according to the police investigation, more than 30 bullet casings were found at the scene, and while the time of the shooting occurred when most of the residents would have likely been home, only a single witness would step forward.
After interviewing the sole witness to the shooting, within a week, lead police Detective Desmond Pratt had developed a list of five “persons of interest” related to the crime. Almost immediately, upon hearing that they were being sought for questioning by the police, three of the five “persons of interest” voluntarily went to police headquarters whereupon after a brief interrogation, they were arrested and charged with the first-degree murder of Roderick Gordon. One of the three arrested was 18-year-old Travis Burke.
The Trial of Travis Burke –
The 2nd Victim
According Della Burke, Travis’ mother, since there was no evidence, forensic or otherwise, linking Travis Burke to the murder, and confident that the extenuating circumstances (i.e. the state’s only witness was now incarcerated), the numerous inconsistencies of her prior testimony, combined with the fact that prior to his arrest, Travis had a spotless criminal record; all helped to convince Travis’ attorney, Donald Sauviac, a public defender, that the state’s sole case rested on innuendo and convincing a jury that Travis was indeed a “menace to society” – he felt this would not be sufficient to convict him. Travis’ public defender, she went on to say, “decided to petition the court to separate Travis from the other four defendants and then requested an expedited trial so that Burke, who by then had been incarcerated for nearly two years, could be released and move on with his life.”
The request was granted.
On January 21, 2011, on what initially was supposed to be a discovery hearing, instead turned out to be the preliminaries or jury selection for the murder trial that the defense was informed was scheduled to take place on January 26, 2011. The trial lasted all of two days, the jury took a full day to deliberate and to the shock of his attorney, his family, and many interested observers – the jury came back with a verdict of guilty to one count of second-degree murder. Burke would subsequently be sentenced to serve a term of “life in prison.”
Study after study has shown conclusively that African- American males, and to a lesser, yet still significant extent, Hispanic men, regardless of socio-economic standing, are convicted solely on the basis of uncorroborated, often paid informant testimony, significantly more; and further victimized by institutionalized racism at nearly every phase ( i.e. police, prosecutors, juries and judges) of the criminal justice system.
“I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years and anyone who knows me knows that I’m tough on juvenile offenders,” explained Kevin Boyd Sr., founding Pastor of The Church at New Orleans, located in New Orleans East. “I told Ms. Burke,” he went on say, “when she came to me with the circumstances concerning Travis – that if he’s guilty, then he needs to suffer the consequences of his actions. I attended the trial both days. On the last day I believe, I was there from 9 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock that night. After hearing all that was said and witnessing the theatrics put on by the D.A., while my heart sincerely goes out to the grieving family of young Roderick (Gordon), in my heart of hearts, I know Travis is innocent of the murder of that young man.
“If Travis is guilty of anything,” Boyd went on to say, “it’s bad judgment and being stupid for posting inappropriate pictures of himself on the Internet. Upon cross-examining the lead detective, when he was asked if there was any physical evidence at the crime scene which tied Travis to the crime, he responded, ‘No — there was not.’ In fact, the D.A. produced absolutely no evidence at that trial to place Travis anywhere near the scene of the murder and aside from a so-called eyewitness who described Travis to the police as being 6’1” and insisted on the witness stand that she would know ‘Travis anywhere by his dreadlocks.’ Well Travis is no taller than 5’7”, and” Pastor Boyd went on to say, “I’ve known the Burke family since Travis was about four years old and in all of those years, I’ve NEVER known him to EVER wear dreadlocks.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Boyd told The Louisiana Weekly, “that the judge didn’t allow the jury to know that the D.A.’s office had to retrieve their ‘star witness’ from jail so that she could testify against this young man or that Judge (Laurie) White would allow the (Assistant) D.A. in his closing argument to show the jury a picture Travis had posted on My Space when he was 14 years old, of himself holding weapons.
“These kids today,” Boyd said, “never stop to realize that the stuff they put out there on the Internet may someday come back to haunt them — in Travis’ case it did.”
Since 1981, four innocent men who were prosecuted in Orleans Parish by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, were found guilty, sentenced to death, and were awaiting execution – have since been exonerated due to prosecutorial misconduct.
“If I weren’t a Christian, I probably be insane by now,” Travis’ mother explained to The Louisiana Weekly. “But even being a Christian does not stop me from being angry. Two months after my child was given a life sentence for a crime he did not commit, I was approached by a relative who told me that she was recently at a card game in the Iberville project. At the same card game was the prosecution’s ‘star witness.’ She had no clue that one of Travis’ cousins was at that card game when she (allegedly) told everyone in the room that she was coerced into testifying by the police. She said that they told her that if she did not testify, then they would see to it that she would serve a long sentence…for the crime that she was incarcerated for… ‘and I have grandbabies I need to take care of,’ the witness complained…”
“I’m angry,” continued Ms. Burke, “because when the police initially asked the witness to identify my son as a suspect in Roderick’s murder, instead of giving him a conventional line-up of suspects, they chose instead to do a photo line-up… a photo line-up composed of ONE photo… that of my son. I’m angry because the initial description the ‘star witness’ gave to the police, that the perpetrator was a tall guy with dreadlocks, in no way, shape or form fits Travis’ description.
“I need to know why the statements made by my son to the police during their initial interrogation were not recorded, videotaped, or transcribed in any manner for review or future retrieval,” she added. “I need to know how a discovery hearing turns into a murder trial and why we weren’t allowed to have a discovery hearing at all – unless they had something to hide. I need to know why the lead detective, Desmond Pratt refused to appear in court, at a murder trial, until the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest.
“I need to know why while my son’s trial was initially assigned to Section A Judge (Laurie) White’s court, then later reassigned to Section H Judge (Camille) Buras’ court and yet when Judge White found out the trial had been moved out of her courtroom, in the midst of jury selection she angrily walked into Judge Buras’ courtroom and had his trial reassigned back to her. As if she did not have enough other cases to adjudicate, why did she insist on presiding over my son’s trial?
“I need to know why…” In mid-sentence she stops, wipes the tears from her now-swollen eyes, and takes a breath in an attempt to regain her composure. “I,” she continued, “I’m career military and I have spent the last 10 years of my life in service to this country. In fact, the day little Roderick was murdered I was scheduled to be deployed once again to Kuwait, but due some medical issues I had to address, my deployment was delayed. I had left my house that morning and told Travis that I had to go to the base and would be gone most of the day and that he would have to look after his little sister and take care of his one-year-old son. I had just left the Navy Base in Algiers at around 4 p.m. and when I reached the bridge (Crescent City Connection) I heard the news flash on AM 940 saying that someone had just been shot in the Iberville project. A few minutes later I had called my home to check on my daughter and to tell Travis that my deployment date was changed to Monday and that I needed him to give the baby a bath and get him dressed so that we could go out to eat as a family before I left the following week. I always make it a point to eat together as a family before I leave. [M]y telephone records verified that not only did I place that call but the length of the conversation. As a matter of fact, the D.A. also subpoenaed the records from Travis’ phone and saw that the entire time he was supposed to have been in the project committing this crime that he was actually talking on his phone! That’s what teenagers do – talk on the phone. Mr. Meyer explained that off by saying that there was no way for them to determine where he was when he was when the phone was in use or in fact it was him using HIS phone. But I TALKED TO MY SON, AT MY HOUSE no more than 10 minutes after I heard the news report on the radio. It couldn’t have been no more than 10 or 15 minutes that I later learned the murder had taken place. Travis does not own a cape and there’s no way he could have been in the Iberville project shooting someone and then be at home 15 minutes later to talk with me on my home phone — I live in New Orleans East — near the Michoud Assembly Center!”
“I value my flag and the principles that it stands for — but these people have made a mockery of our criminal justice system,” she continued. “People are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty; my son was judged guilty by the police, the day they showed their so-called witness a photo line-up of a single photo of him. My son is facing a life sentence without a shred of evidence, because the police intimidated a frightened woman, and the D.A. fanned the flames of fear, anger and prejudice so that D.A. Cannizzaro could score a point with the criminal court judges. This is not what I risk my life for…”
New Orleans D.A. has been put under the microscope
“New Orleans should be exceedingly happy that they (now) have a BULLDOG (i.e. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro)…” Louisiana State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell once said.
As a sitting judge in Section J of Orleans Parish’s Criminal District Court, the record indicates that Judge Cannizzaro averaged an incredible 100+ trials a year, or more than two trials a week, beginning in 1986.
“He (Cannizzaro) and Judge Waldron were always very competitive about who tried the most cases per year,” explained Judge (Laurie) White, one of Cannizzaro’s former colleagues; “and there was actually a trophy,” she went on to say, “I think, that was always bantered about.”
In January of this year, District Attorney Cannizzaro challenged each of the 12 Criminal Court judges, many his former colleagues, to hold at least one jury trial a week… a mere fraction of what he’s credited as having done as a sitting judge. Now however, some of his former colleagues have recently come forward and gone on record to say that while on the surface Judge Cannizzaro’s number of adjudicated jury trials seems impressive, that they were in fact inflated by Cannizzaro’s questionable practice of “pick-and-plea” deals; or cases when a judge instructs attorneys to pick a jury even though all parties involved know that the defendant has already agreed to plead guilty. After the jury has been selected and seated, and it has been officially recorded as a jury trial, a recess is usually called, the jury gets to eat lunch, and after the recess the defendant proceeds to plead guilty — as pre-arranged, and the jury is then summarily dismissed. Thus giving the judge credit for holding a jury trial and which actually ends up leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill for holding an unnecessary jury trial – simply to maintain his high personal ranking.
Even though DA Cannizzaro now denies ever participating in “pick-and-plea” deals, former assistant D.A. Glen Woods, who was assigned to Judge Cannizzaro’s court, insists that as a sitting judge, Cannizzaro did in fact exaggerate the number of jury trials he adjudicated using “pick-and-plea” deals.
“I saw him say to the defense attorneys, ‘We’re going to pick a jury, and then we’ll let your client plead guilty,’” Woods told The Louisiana Weekly. “I ended up with 78 felony jury trials in a year and at least 10 of them were pick-and-pleas.”
“A lot of Cannizzaro’s cases were pick and pleas,” added Margaret Dubuisson, a spokeswoman speaking on behalf of Judge (Lynda) Van Davis.
By sheer coincidence, on the same day that D.A. Cannizzaro issued his challenge to the criminal court judges to hold more murder trials – Travis Burke’s trial began, and within a matter of days his office obtains a guilty verdict in the now high-profile murder of Roderick Gordon.
Insanity: Doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting a different result…
A deeply divided Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling in March of this year, overturned a jury verdict awarding $14 million to a New Orleans man (John Thompson) who spent 14 years of his life on death row and literally came within a month of being executed because the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office hid a blood test and other key evidence that would have proven his innocence in a murder case. The majority decision as delivered by Justice Thomas, protected the D.A.’s office from yet another potentially crippling lawsuit, by insisting that “the evidence of their misconduct did not prove ‘deliberate indifference’” on the part of the D.A.’s office.
Troubled by the history and now an apparent trend of indifference on the part of the Orleans Parish District Attorney, last month the Supreme Court Justices decided to take another look at repeated violations by New Orleans prosecutors and agreed to hear yet another case resulting once again from prosecutorial misconduct on the part of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. The case will be heard and argued in the Court’s next term beginning in October of this year. Yet case reversals resulting from prosecutorial misconduct have reached an alarming rate and is not merely a problem for the residents of Orleans Parish. Consider the following:
• The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission has requested that a three-judge panel review the cases of two men who were coerced into pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the death of a convenience store clerk — even though both men maintained their innocence before and after their pleas. The D.A.’s Office suppressed DNA evidence that would have cleared both men. Subsequent DNA results have exonerated both men. To add insult to injury, the convenience store surveillance tape that would have supported their alibis was taped over with footage from a soap opera while in the custody of the sheriff’s department.
• In San Francisco an innocent man spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit because the lead homicide detective (who would later be appointed police chief), stood by in court while the prosecution’s “star witness” – a paid informer, lied under oath. Sanders has since resigned.
• William Dillon of Florida spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit based on fraudulent “evidence” and perjured testimony from another jail inmate orchestrated by the police department. After 27 years, the State’s “star witness” recanted his testimony and testified at a legislative hearing about how Brevard County detectives got him to lie under oath. Since Dillon’s release, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office has reopened the homicide investigation as a “cold case.”
• In Colorado, the body of a woman was found brutally murdered and raped. A 15-year-old kid was pre-selected by the police working in conjunction with the D.A.’s office to be the murderer in this heinous crime. Timothy Masters was railroaded through court, convicted primarily on speculation and innuendo because there was no evidence against him, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. During the appeals process, a special prosecutor appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court subsequently determined that critical information was not turned over to the original defense team by the district’s attorney’s office and that the lead detective perjured himself. After being incarcerated for over nine years, the conviction was set aside.
According to Dr. Bennett L. Gershman, Pace University Professor of Law, a former prosecutor and an expert of prosecutorial misconduct, there is “serious, glaring misconduct” on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors that is “systemic now… and there is no accountability.”
In California, over a 12-year period, from 1997 to 2009, of over 700 cases in which courts found prosecutorial misconduct, the State Bar of California only saw fit to discipline six prosecutors.
In a speech given last month to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group which advocates for indigent defendants, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens sternly criticized the court’s recent “Thompson” decision, saying, “overturning the jury’s decision has given local prosecutors impunity for violating constitutional rights.
“And,” Stevens added, “Congress should respond by limiting immunity of prosecutors and law enforcement officers and authorizing relief to victims of their misconduct.” He also said that “because District Attorneys often run on tough-on-crime platforms, the pressures to ensure convictions far outweigh the rewards for respecting rights of the accused.”
One solution he suggested was “to treat District Attorneys the same as the courts treat private sector employers when it relates to employee misconduct under the doctrine of respondeat superior,” or that the employer is legally responsible for the actions of his employees performed within the course of their employment. “This,” he went on to say, “will provide a powerful continuing incentive for (prosecutors) to make sure that their employees are adequately trained, and would produce a just result in cases like Thompson’s in which there is no dispute about the fact that he was harmed by conduct that flagrantly violated his constitutional rights.”
Is American Justice Now Not Only Blind But Crippled?
Finally, the consequences of these overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement officers who are often motivated by personal ambition or career advancement, do not come without a considerable cost. In addition to depriving innocent citizens of their freedom and quality of life, they often end up costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in wasted investigations, lab findings, employee salaries, court costs and more court costs, other forensic resources and ultimately, compensation to their victims – furthermore as absurd as all of this may seem, for all that is said and done, it never addresses the “real” problem because the “real” perpetrator(s) remains at large, unpunished, and often go on to commit more crimes.
Craig Watkins, Dallas Texas County’s first African-American District Attorney, who has built a national reputation by working to free individuals who were wrongfully convicted by his predecessors, says that prosecutors who intentionally withhold evidence should themselves face harsh consequences up to and including jail time. “Something should be done,” he went on to say, “if the harm is a great harm, then it should be criminalized.”
Going a step further, Canada’s Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, recently set new legal precedence by ruling that individuals can now sue police investigators for negligence in cases of abuse, tampering with evidence, and malfeasance. In such cases the High Court ruled that police officers are no longer immune from civil liability. Addressing the specific issues of systemic institutional racism and the rising tide of wrongful convictions — this progressive court now requires law enforcement officers to face the same legal consequences as every other employee who fail in their duties and responsibilities — to protect and to serve.
In the meantime, Travis Burke’s case is on appeal.
This article originally published in the July 4, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.