Taste of freedom after 20 years

The oppression of life behind bars would seem doubly challenging for the wrongfully convicted. But that wasn’t the case for Jerome Morgan, a New Orleans man who took his first free steps in two decades Tuesday when he was released to a crowd of loved ones outside Orleans Parish Prison.

Morgan, who was granted new judicial life last month when his murder conviction and life sentence were tossed out, said he drew strength from the knowledge that he never belonged at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

“Just knowing the truth kept me sane,” Morgan said in an interview Wednesday at Innocence Project-New Orleans, the nonprofit organization that secured his release on bail as prosecutors weigh whether to retry him in a May 1993 fatal shooting.

Morgan, 37, said he relied on faith, a network of supporters and the unflinching belief that justice would one day prevail, no matter how long it took.

“Being incarcerated for something that you had nothing to do with is very difficult,” he added, tearing up at times. “Some people don’t make it. They don’t make it to see this day because they can’t handle the trauma and just the torture of being there.”

Morgan’s journey is far from complete. On Tuesday, he traded his shackles for an ankle bracelet that allows authorities to monitor his round-the-clock home incarceration while his legal saga continues. Prosecutors vowed to appeal a recent ruling by Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny that granted Morgan a new trial based on witness recantations and allegations of police misconduct.

In the meantime, Morgan is enjoying a new lease on life, living with friends in Pontchartrain Park, a neighborhood he barely recognizes from his childhood, and cherishing the “in-person love” from friends and family that he was deprived of in prison. He’s looking forward to seeing his 19-year-old son, who lives in Georgia, and his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since Hurricane Katrina.

His first literal taste of freedom took the form of spicy Popeyes chicken shortly after his release Tuesday.

“That was at the top of my bucket list,” Morgan said. “I’ve literally been diminutive in size because sometimes I just couldn’t stomach the food in prison.”

At Angola, Morgan said, he encountered inhumane treatment and “horrible” conditions, including crowded dorms and poorly prepared meals. “Sometimes you could taste the dirt in the greens,” he said, adding that birds would sometimes fly into the mess hall.

Morgan said he recalled prisoners committing suicide. “I’ve seen them drag guys’ bodies past the cell because they couldn’t bear being in the cell,” he said.

For all of the horror Morgan encountered at Angola, he said Orleans Parish Prison is even worse. There were puddles on the floor during his recent stay there, he said, and cracked windows allowed a cold draft in. “They don’t give you much clothes at all,” he said, “and the toothbrushes are horrible.”

Last year, Morgan’s fortunes changed dramatically when two eyewitnesses recanted crucial testimony that helped convict him in the May 22, 1993, fatal shooting of 16-year-old Clarence Landry. Morgan was found guilty of firing a half-dozen bullets into the crowd at a Sweet 16 birthday party in the ballroom of the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Road.

The witnesses, both teenagers at the time, testified Morgan shot Landry, but they now claim they never saw the triggerman and that police pressured them into implicating Morgan.

Derbigny, in his ruling, indicated he was convinced the men recanted to free themselves of guilt. Morgan’s attorneys accused prosecutors of hiding evidence that would have proved the witnesses’ original story was impossible.

“The evidence presented before this court is wrought with deception, manipulation and coercion by the New Orleans Police Department,” Derbigny wrote in an order granting Morgan a new trial.

Prosecutors, however, have noted that both witnesses in question are convicted felons, saying they would defend Morgan’s conviction all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“It is our sincere hope that the state does not waste its energy appealing a very well-grounded decision and spends its time instead reinvestigating the crime to bring someone to justice for what happened to Clarence Landry,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project-New Orleans

Behind bars, Morgan developed a passion for cutting hair, and he said he could easily find work as a barber if he remains free. He earned a degree in graphic arts in prison and learned to use programs like Adobe Photoshop. He doesn’t know how to drive but can create ambigrams.

Morgan said he feels most compelled to help wrongfully convicted prisoners who lack a voice. He’d like to go to school and take courses to become a paralegal.

“The system needs to be fixed. It’s just as simple as that,” Morgan said. “Everybody plays a part. It’s not just one person who has made the system messed up.”