A Criminal District Court Judge ruled on Monday, April 4, that trial transcripts from Jerome Morgan’s first murder trial would be admissible during his new trial next month. Morgan has served 20 years in Angola prison for the 1993 murder of a 17-year-old boy. He maintains his innocence of the crime in which Clarence Landry III was killed during a birthday party at a New Orleans East hotel.
The transcripts include the testimony of Hakim Shabazz and Kevin Johnson, who were teenagers at the time of Morgan’s conviction. Both men recanted in October 2013 during a post-conviction hearing, however, and the recantations will also be permitted during the retrial. Shabazz and Johnson testified that police and others pressured and coerced them into identifying Morgan as Landry’s killer.
In an Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office bill of information, the witnesses were charged with perjury in January 2015 for their “inconsistent statements.” They are scheduled to appear in court on May 18, facing up to 40 years in prison, each. For fear of incriminating themselves in the perjury cases, neither Shabazz nor Johnson is expected to testify during Morgan’s retrial.
The Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), which has been working on Morgan’s case since 2010, helped overturn his conviction in January 2014. The defense team argued that Shabazz and Johnson’s 1994 testimony should be excluded from the retrial because they are unavailable to testify due to the perjury charges. In their motion, the defense attorneys argued that the prosecution would benefit from the witnesses being unavailable, and therefore have motive to prevent them from testifying. They also wrote that Morgan would not be implicated and that the state would have no case against him because Shabazz and Johnson would testify consistent with their recantations. Following the judge’s decision to admit the original testimonies, the director of IPNO, Emily Maw, stated that Morgan should not be in this position, and that it is a shame the courts, which have the power to stop what she called a frivolous prosecution, have not taken such actions.
Assistant district attorneys filed a state response, placing blame on IPNO attorneys, who they argue ignored legal ramifications regarding Shabazz and Johnson because they were so adamant about achieving favorable testimony for Morgan. The prosecutors wrote that IPNO should have advised the witnesses to consult with independent counsel but neglected to do so, and are now trying to hold the state responsible for their unavailability.
In a counter-response to the state, the Morgan’s attorneys claimed that they had arranged for an attorney to counsel Shabazz and Johnson prior to their post-conviction testimony. They also argued that a simple solution, one that the state did not address in its response, would be for the district attorney’s office to grant immunity for any new testimony from the witnesses during Morgan’s retrial. The defense team wrote that the district attorney should take the honorable path and stop trying to send Morgan, Shabazz, and Johnson to prison, but unfortunately chose not to take that course.
Morgan’s retrial is scheduled for May 2.