New Orleans judge tosses murder conviction after prosecutors concede racial bias at trial | Courts

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A state judge tossed a Black man’s murder conviction this week, after Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams agreed with defense lawyers who said there was a 1-in-1,000 chance that the prosecutors accidentally struck 12 Black people from their client’s jury pool.

The concession ended a hearing before Judge Rhonda Goode-Douglas meant to settle claims of racial discrimination made by Jabari Williams. His fate now rests in the hands of prosecutors, who must decide whether to retry him in the 2011 shooting of a Honduran laborer.

In dueling statements, Jason Williams attacked former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for his handling of the case, while Cannizzaro blasted Williams for failing to uphold the conviction.

The case is the latest in which Williams’ newly created civil rights division has joined with defense attorneys to have a disputed conviction thrown out, which stands in stark contrast to Cannizzaro’s years-long defense against appeals from men like Jerome Morgan, Robert Jones and John Floyd.

williams and cannizzaro (copy)

Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams (left) and his predecessor Leon Cannizzaro (right)

Jabari Williams’ case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before it landed in state court on Tuesday, but it began in the early hours of April 10, 2011 at a Shell station near Tulane Avenue in Mid-City.

Prosecutors alleged that Williams, of no relation to the current district attorney, tried to sell cocaine to Gonzales, 28. The transaction fell apart after Gonzales’s roommate intervened. A few blocks away, the roommate would later testify, Williams emerged from the dark and shot Gonzales four times as he pleaded for his life.

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Jurors watched a videotaped confession where Williams admitted to shooting Gonzales, stating correctly that the construction worker was felled by a .38-caliber handgun. But Williams claimed that he did so in self-defense.

Defense attorneys said that police pressured Williams into confessing. The defense also seized on the roommate’s statement that he had trouble telling Black people apart. Nevertheless, jurors voted unanimously to convict Williams of second-degree murder.

On appeal, defense attorneys zeroed in on the jury selection process. Both the judge overseeing the case, Keva Landrum, and the lead prosecutor, Robert Moore, are Black. But Williams’ lawyers said the selection process was biased.

The lawyers claimed there was no other reason to explain why prosecutors struck Black citizens out of the jury pool, while keeping White people who gave near-identical responses to questions about whether defendants could falsely confess. They also pointed to raw numbers: All 12 of the state’s discretionary strikes were used on Black people.

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Cannizzaro’s appellate lawyers said race had nothing to do with it. They said that for each Black juror struck from the jury pool, prosecutors or Landrum had supplied a “race-neutral” reason, such as their answers to questions about false confessions, their criminal histories and their demeanor.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court kicked the case back to lower courts, noting that Landrum should not have voiced the reason for excluding jurors instead of prosecutors.

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Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Keva Landrum on July 22, 2020. 

The U.S Supreme Court has laid out a complicated, multi-step process for judges to address racial discrimination claims during jury selection. In 2017, the state Supreme Court said the district court in New Orleans would have to hold a special hearing to reconstruct what happened during the 2012 trial.

But the hearing never happened. Instead, as they have in several recent cases, attorneys in Williams’ newly created Civil Rights Division agreed that the conviction should be tossed. On Tuesday, they filed a court brief agreeing to many of the defense claims, and arguing that reconstructing what happened at the trial would be impossible so many years after the fact.

The division, which is headed by the former director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, also cited a statistical analysis offered by defense attorneys Michael Admirand and Patrick Mulvaney, of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Those lawyers said that in the six months leading up to Jabari Williams’ trial, New Orleans prosecutors used 78% of their discretionary strikes against Black prospective jurors, at a rate more than three times that of White people.

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Additionally, the defense lawyers cited a math professor’s claim that there was only a 1-in-1,000 chance of striking so many Black jurors at Williams’ trial at random.

Prosecutors said they haven’t made contact with Gonzales’ relatives, who live in Honduras except for a nephew who hasn’t been located.

Williams, now 30, has been remanded from prison to the New Orleans jail.

The developments this week touched on two criminal justice system leaders who were frequent targets for Jason Williams during his campaign: Leon Cannizzaro and Keva Landrum.

Last year Williams promised that he would root out wrongful convictions, and in a lengthy statement, he blasted “the previous administration” for its handling of the trial.

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“When prosecutors use discriminatory practices, it serves no one, especially not the victims and their families,” he said. “My administration is committed to building trust and partnerships between the community and the DA’s Office. Together, we will achieve this through transparency, speaking truth, and correcting the sins of the past.”

But Cannizzaro has accused Williams of allowing convictions to be overturned for political reasons.

“No court, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, ever found racial discrimination in the jury selection process of this case,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “This DA’s office took it upon itself to manipulate the ruling of the Supreme Court in order to further its own personal agenda at the expense of the victim’s family and public safety.”

Meanwhile, Williams didn’t mention Landrum by name, but her handling of the case drew attention during their contest for district attorney last year. Landrum went to work for a local law firm after her defeat, and was recently nominated to serve as U.S. Attorney in New Orleans.

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