Cannizzaro, Innocence Project call it quits on project to unearth false convictions

It was billed as a first-of-its-kind partnership with a noble goal: rooting out bogus convictions from a New Orleans criminal justice system that has written more than a few grim chapters on false imprisonment.

But little more than a year after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and the Innocence Project New Orleans announced a joint, city-funded team to right wrongs from the past, that initiative is dead.

Depending on whom you ask, the Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project fell victim to irreconcilable differences or the city’s budget ax.

The City Council declined to renew the project’s funding for this year, a fact that a spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office blamed for its demise. IPNO Director Emily Maw painted a different portrait, however, saying that neither her office nor Cannizzaro’s pushed to keep it going.

Maw said Cannizzaro never came through with the staff or commitment he had pledged for a team in which lawyers and investigators from both sides would share case files and work together to turn up the kind of nefarious deeds, misidentifications, false confessions and other lapses that lead to bad convictions.

“When the project started off, they did not demonstrate any significant shift in the way they approached these cases,” Maw said. “Because it wasn’t a priority, it was not worth the investment anymore.”

Maw said she doesn’t think Cannizzaro championed the initiative as a political stunt, even though its announcement came during a 2014 re-election bid in which the DA cast himself as a bold progressive.

“We tried some things. It didn’t work out. I wish it had,” Maw said. “Maybe it wasn’t the right time. Maybe the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t fully understand how these cases go wrong. Maybe it’s simply not for him. It’s disappointing.”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro disputed that view, while crediting the team for the April release of Kia Stewart, who was convicted of murder in 2009.

Cannizzaro’s office agreed to abandon Stewart’s conviction for killing Bryant “B.J.” Craig after six witnesses who turned up after the trial pointed to another man as the killer. Stewart had been convicted based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, with no testimony from the lead detective in the case.

“We were able to achieve what everybody believed was a just outcome quicker than would have been achieved if it had been battled in the courts,” DA’s spokesman Christopher Bowman said, adding that Cannizzaro sees success in “the work we have done with the Innocence Project before the Conviction Integrity Unit, while the unit was in place, and hopefully going forward.”

He said that work would continue, but “we’re just not going to have a dedicated person on it.”

Bowman also suggested IPNO may have come to the project with bloated expectations.

“The Innocence Project are criminal defense attorneys. We’re prosecutors. There’s going to be a lot of stuff we don’t agree on,” Bowman said. “The goal was to find cases we both agree on and try to weed through those quicker. Does that mean we’re going to agree on every case? No. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a healthy working relationship and respect for one another.”

Still, the quiet annulment is a far cry from the hopeful rhetoric of August 2014, when Cannizzaro appeared at IPNO’s offices in Mid-City to announce the improbable joint endeavor.

“I’m very excited and very proud to be part of this,” Cannizzaro said at the time. “This is about doing it right.”

Such formal collaboration between a DA’s office and advocates for convicted inmates had never been tried anywhere in the U.S., said City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney and IPNO board member, at the time.

Williams blessed what he called a “revolutionary” union and helped drum up a dowry of $205,000 in city funding to support the project for 2015.

“We have the opportunity to get those people who are factually innocent out of jail. There are tons of cases for us to look at,” Williams said then.

Williams said Friday the results were underwhelming, so the council cut its losses. He said Cannizzaro’s office declined to replace the prosecutor who had been assigned to the joint effort after she went out on maternity leave last year.

“This was our shot at trying to save taxpayers money by finding a bridge over an adversarial process on cases that deserved it,” Williams said. “But at the end of the day, looking at the results, it just did not prove worthy. The partnership just didn’t work out. It could have been severely disappointing had this gone on two years, three years with no results.”

It was always a risky proposition for both sides. For the DA’s Office, the risk was at least partly financial.

The DA won election in 2008 under the cloud of a $14 million judgment against his office in the case of exonerated former death row inmate John Thompson, whose conviction came under former DA Harry Connick.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that crippling payout in a 5-4 ruling in 2011, finding that Thompson failed to prove a pattern of “deliberate indifference” by Connick’s office.

Since then, several other life-sentence prisoners from Orleans Parish have been freed based on successful appeals or clear admissions of injustice, adding to a portfolio of suspect convictions that could return to financially cripple the office.

Indeed, one of those freed inmates, Reginald Adams — whose case Cannizzaro cited as a spark for the new initiative — has since sued the city and the DA’s Office in federal court.

Cannizzaro agreed to cut Adams loose after 34 years of a life prison term, declaring him a victim of “manifest intentional prosecutorial misconduct” from the Connick era.

Adams’ lawsuit recites 14 Orleans Parish convictions that were reversed or dismissed based on constitutional failures by prosecutors. Adams alleges that the DA’s Office fostered “an unconstitutional policy, custom or practice and/or deliberate indifference” over its obligation to turn over evidence to defense lawyers.

For IPNO, the risk was in aligning itself with a DA’s Office that has often fought tooth-and-nail to preserve convictions or retry defendants who have been granted new trials on appeal.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the tension between the two sides played out in court Wednesday, in the case of Jerome Morgan.

Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny granted Morgan a new trial in 2014 after two eyewitnesses recanted their identifications of him in the 1993 murder of 16-year-old Clarence Landry during a birthday party atthe Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Road.

The pivotal eyewitnesses, Hakim Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, said their identifications were coerced. Derbigny believed them, but Cannizzaro’s office has since charged the two men with perjury as it moves forward without them on a retrial for Morgan.

Prosecutors urged Judge Franz Zibilich to allow a new jury to consider the early identifications of Morgan, even though Shabazz and Johnson are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to testify.

Zibilich said he will rule Wednesday on Morgan’s motion to suppress their initial identifications. Maw called the perjury charges against Shabazz and Johnson “an unnecessary attempt to harass.”

Cannizzaro’s office also continues to play hardball with Robert Jones, another IPNO client who was freed on a low bond in November after an appeals court last year vacated his conviction and life sentence in a 1992 armed robbery and rape.

The appeals court found that Connick’s office failed to turn over key evidence that suggested a misidentification of Robert Jones as the rapist, as well as evidence pointing to another man, Lester Jones, as the likely rapist.

Following his conviction, Robert Jones also entered a guilty plea to a manslaughter count in the high-profile murder of English tourist Julie Stott, despite the fact that Lester Jones, who is no relation, had already been convicted in that killing. A recently disclosed internal DA’s Office memo showed that prosecutors had no evidence to convict Robert Jones in Stott’s murder but took his guilty plea anyway.

Cannizzaro’s office recently invited Robert Jones to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the kidnapping and rape to ensure his freedom in a case for which official files and physical evidence have gone missing. Jones, who maintains his innocence, has refused that offer.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.

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