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Murky Massacre

The U.S. Supreme Court and Foul Play at Harry Connick Sr.'s Office



According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the prosecutors who worked for former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. didn't show a pattern of skirting obligations that would guarantee a fair trial. But, on at least two occasions, they behaved unconstitutionally, the Court has now ruled.

 

After a 5-4 decision last year that sidestepped labeling misconduct at Connick's office systemic, the Court issued a decision last week that reversed one of Connick's high-profile murder convictions. In the process, the Highest Court in the Land took the second opportunity in as many years to point out an instance in which Orleans prosecutors withheld crucial evidence that could have changed the outcome of the high stakes cases.

 

In last week's decision, the Court threw out a murder conviction that was rendered in connection with a 1995 quintuple murder that became known as the Roman Street Massacre. Juan Smith, who was the only one of a group of gunmen to be convicted in the case, saw his life prison sentence reversed, and will get a new trial. By a margin of 8-1, the Court decided that a detective's notes discovered after the trial muddied the testimony of the prosecution's only eyewitness. According to the Court's opinion, the DA's office committed a Brady violation, so named after the 50-year-old Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland that found prosecutors must turn over any evidence from an investigation that could be favorable to the defense.

 

In Smith's case, titled as Smith v. Cain, one of the survivors of the night's brutal shooting testified that Smith was one of the killers. But before he took the stand, Larry Boatner was not so clear about Smith's identity, according to the Court's opinion.

 

Murky Massacre

On March 1, 1995, a group of armed intruders burst into a house party on Roman Street demanding drugs and money. Boatner was hit in the back of the head with a gun, and knocked to the ground. Soon, Rebe Espadron emerged from a back bedroom of the house, a man with a covered face pointed a gun at her. She was ordered to the floor, but ran back to the bedroom instead. The men then began firing. By the end of the night, five people were dead.

 

Boatner, Espadron and another man who was in the back of the house survived, but police could only coax a description of one of the suspects from Boatner. Lead detective John Ronquillo testified that Boatner picked Smith out of multiple photo lineups, and said the first intruder through the door had a low cut, a mouthful of gold teeth and brown skin. At one point, Boatner said he would never forget Smith's face. Based on Boatner's description, Smith was convicted of first degree murder.

 

But after the trial, lawyers for Smith discovered hand-written notes by Ronquillo that showed Boatner wasn't always so definitive about seeing Smith at the scene. In interviews Smith gave at the scene of the crime and six days later, he said he couldn't see the faces of any of the perpetrators. For eight members of the Court, that was enough to muck up the conviction.

 

“Boatner's testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the crime,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 3-page opinion that is the equivalent of a memo by the Court's verbose customs. “And Boatner's undisclosed statements directly contradict his testimony.”

 

There's no telling how the jury would have decided if the defense was able to present those contradictory statements, Roberts writes. As a result, Smith is entitled to a new trial, the Court ruled.

 

But a couple of notes were not enough for Justice Clarence Thomas. The lone dissenter, Thomas ' 17-page argument runs through all of the evidence that Smith's legal team claimed was withheld during the trial. That additional evidence included an ambiguous dying statement from one of the murder victims, evidence produced by the NOPD weapons examiner and others survivors of the tragedy. When looking at all of that material as a whole, Thomas argues, there is nothing that contradicts Boatner's testimony. And the mere possibility of a different result isn't enough to throw out a conviction, Thomas argues.

 

“Smith's burden is to show a reasonable probability that the jury would have accorded those statements sufficient weight to alter its verdict,” Thomas writes. “In light of the record as a whole-which the Court declines to consider-Smith has not carried that burden.”

 

For Roberts and the other justices, cause to “speculate” about what the jury would have done is enough to require a new trial. As for the matter of the whole trough of unsubmitted evidence, Roberts says that they only need to find a single Brady violation to throw the verdict into question. The Court's opinion does not even consider the rest of the potential withheld evidence. All you need is one, Roberts writes.

 

Doubting Thomas

Thomas also came down on the side of Connick's office in last year's high-profile Thompson v. Connick case. That tight decision, which was largely split down the Court's typical ideological lines, acknowledged that the DA's office withheld damming evidence, but denied a wrongfully convicted man who spent years on death row a $14 million reward for his troubles.

 

Writing last year's opinion, Thomas argued similarly that all of the items issued as Brady material did not constitute a violation together. But, in that case, Thomas agreed that there was a Brady violation, leaving it to Justice Antonin Scalia to baldly sneer at Ruth Bader Ginsburg and claim there was no Brady violation in a concurring opinion. (In Smith, Scalia agreed that there was a Brady violation, and didn't feel the need for optics.)

 

For Thomas, the Thompson case turned on whether or not Connick's office had failed to train its prosecutors in Brady matters. Eventually, he concludes that since prosecutors went to law school and are provided with additional legal training, they are well-equipped to know when evidence should be turned over. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously called Thomas out for this argument, and proceeded to lay out four other occassions where Connick's office committed Brady violations. Then, she said Connick didn't understand Brady either, and characterized the predicament at the DA's office as "the blind leading the blind." So, after two years of hearings and opinions, there lies in the stacks of files on First Street, at least six occasions (five in Thompson, one in Smith) in which Connick's office is documented for committing Brady violations. Never, though, has the Court acknowledged that there was a pattern.

 

Despite last week's ruling, Smith remains on death row for a separate triple murder that occurred a month later. In a nearly direct parallell with the Thompson case, Smith's prior conviction in the Roman Street was used to help push the jury toward a conviction in the second case. Current DA Leon Cannizzarro promised a speedy new trial. But even if Clarence Thomas himself were to preside over the hearings, the solution to Smith's fate is unlikely to be expedient or convenient. All these years later, though, it now has a chance to be fair.

 

Read the opinion and Thomas' dissent in Smith v. Cain here.

 

There are so many that have

There are so many that have been locked up that are inoennct. It is worse when someone has been put to death on death row and then they have proved that the person was inoennct. What a real living nightmare! I know personally of one inmate that we had dealt with through the years in DOC that kept claiming his innocence. After 18 years the DNA did prove that he was telling the truth! He was indeed inoennct! They set him free. But, it took 18 years for someone to really listen and do something. Thank you for the encouragement. I have to do what my conscience tells me. This is an injustice that many do not want to think about. Like out of sight, out of mind. Trust me, if they were the one\'s sitting behind bars for years on end and they were inoennct or even being mistreated they would want someone to speak up on their behalf!

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