After spending 20 years in prison, Jerome Morgan, who was convicted in a Sweet 16 party shooting in 1993, has won a chance at a new trial. A New Orleans judge ruled that Morgan, now 37, deserves a new trial after two witnesses recanted their testimony and new exculpatory evidence surfaced. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny announced that the court had “found merit” in Morgan’s post-conviction appeal. Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw and staff attorney Kristin Wenstrom represent Morgan, along with John S. Williams. The order granting Morgan a new trial comes 11 years after the Innocence Project New Orleans took his case.
Maw described the case as “particularly egregious…”
Maw has requested a bond hearing to be held this week. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said the state would appeal.
“It is an open case, from our perspective, and we will appeal the judge’s ruling to the 4th circuit,” Cannizzaro said. “If we are not successful, we will bring it to the Supreme Court…There is some law we believe will support a reversal…”
In 1993, someone opened fire during a Sweet 16 party killing Clarence Landry and wounding two others. Shortly after the incident, two teens identified Morgan as the shooter. In October of this year, those teens, two men now in their 30s, recanted their identification and testimony citing police coercion and rumors as the reason they identified Morgan. Hakim Shabazz, who survived the shooting, told the court at a hearing that “what I did…it was wrong. I just don’t think that he should have to spend another day in jail…for what I said then.”
Shabazz also told the court that a police officer asked him, “you know who shot you?” and he replied no. The officer then said, “Jerome Morgan shot you.”
In his ruling, Derbigny wrote “the evidence presented before this court is wrought with deception, manipulation, and coercion by the New Orleans Police Department,” and that “such newly discovered evidence undermines the confidence of the verdict and is fit for a new jury’s judgment.”
Morgan’s attorneys said Jerome’s case is indicative of systemic problems, including the fact that during the 1980s and 1990s the area had no full-time public defender’s office.
“Rectifying a past injustice is just as indispensable as punishing people going forward,” Maw said. “Jerome has waged an extraordinary war in prison to stay positive. It’s always been his priority to be a positive guide for young people, and when a client demonstrates extraordinary resolve, it inspires and motivates us.”
Judy Demarest, a retired high school teacher, has been following Morgan’s case since a private investigator with the Innocence Project New Orleans showed her the original trial transcript. She became captivated by the case, so much so that she designed a course dedicated to teaching it to her students. Two years ago, she began visiting Morgan at Angola twice a month.
“When I read the transcript of the first trial, I was so angry,” Demarest said, “I was angered by the testimony and the lack of representation. This is an enormous day…I went to visit Jerome last Saturday. As I was leaving, I said, ‘bye bye Angola…Today gives me hope that that’s true. He spent more than half his life in prison for something he didn’t do – we can’t keep letting this happen…”