A state judge dismissed a conviction for murdering a black man this week, after Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams agreed with defense attorneys who said there had a 1 in 1000 chance that prosecutors would accidentally knock 12 black people off their client’s jury roll.
The concession ended a hearing before Judge Rhonda Goode-Douglas intended to settle allegations of racial discrimination made by Jabari Williams. His fate is now in the hands of prosecutors, who must decide to try him again in the context of the shooting in 2011 of a Honduran worker.
In dueling statements, Jason Williams attacked former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for his handling of the case, while Cannizzaro lambasted Williams for failing to uphold the conviction.
The case is the latest in which Williams’ newly formed civil rights division has partnered with defense attorneys to overturn a contested conviction, which constitutes a strict contract with Cannizzaro’s multi-year defense against the calls from men like Jerome Morgan, Robert Jones and John. Floyd.
The Jabari Williams case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court before being transferred to state court on Tuesday, but it began in the early hours of April 20, 2011 at a Shell station near Tulane Avenue in Mid-City.
Prosecutors alleged that Williams, unrelated to the current district attorney, attempted to sell cocaine to Gonzales, 28. The deal collapsed after Gonzales’ roommate intervened. A few blocks away, the roommate later testified, Williams came out of 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, correctly stating that the construction worker was shot by a .38 caliber handgun. But Williams claimed he did it in self-defense.
Defense attorneys said police pressured Williams to confess. The defense also seized the roommate’s statement that he had difficulty distinguishing black people. Nonetheless, jurors voted unanimously to convict Williams of second degree murder.
On appeal, defense lawyers focused on the jury selection process. The judge in charge of the case, Keva Landrum, and the senior prosecutor, Robert Moore, are both black. But Williams’ attorneys said the selection process was flawed.
Lawyers claimed there was no further reason to explain why prosecutors excluded black citizens from the jury roll, while keeping the whites who gave almost identical answers to questions of whether the defendants could confess falsely. They also gave crude numbers: the state’s 12 discretionary strikes were used against blacks.
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Cannizzaro’s appeal attorneys said race had nothing to do with it. They said for every black juror removed from the jury roll, prosecutors or Landrum provided a “race-neutral” reason, such as their answers to questions about the false confession, their criminal history and behavior.
In 2016, the United States Supreme Court returned the case to lower courts, noting that Landrum should not have expressed the reason for excluding jurors instead of prosecutors.
The United States Supreme Court has established a complex, multi-step process for judges to deal with racial discrimination complaints during jury selection. In 2017, the state Supreme Court said the New Orleans District Court should hold a special hearing to piece together what happened in the 2012 trial.
But the hearing never took place. Instead, as they have done in several recent cases, lawyers for Williams’ new civil rights division have agreed that the conviction should be dismissed. On Tuesday, they filed a brief in court accepting numerous defense claims and saying it would be impossible to piece together what happened in the trial so many years after the fact.
The division, 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. These attorneys said that in the six months leading up to Jabari Williams’ trial, New Orleans prosecutors used 78% of their discretionary strikes against potential black jurors, at a rate more than three times that of Whites.
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Additionally, defense attorneys cited a math professor’s claim that there was a 1 in 1,000 chance of hitting so many black jurors at Williams’ trial at random.
Prosecutors said they had not made contact with relatives of Gonzales, who live in Honduras, except for a nephew who has not been located.
Williams, now 30, has been returned from jail to New Orleans Prison.
This week’s developments have affected two leaders in the criminal justice system who have been frequent targets for Jason Williams during his campaign: Leon Cannizzaro and Keva Landrum.
Last year Williams vowed he would eliminate wrongful convictions and, in a lengthy statement, lambasted “the previous administration” for his handling of the trial.
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“When prosecutors use discriminatory practices, it does no good to anyone, especially victims and their families,” he said. “My administration is committed to building trust and partnerships between the community and the prosecutor’s office. Together, we will achieve this through transparency, telling the truth and correcting the sins of the past. “
But Cannizzaro accused Williams of allowing convictions to be overturned for political reasons.
“No court, until the Supreme Court of the United States, has ever found racial discrimination in the jury selection process for this case,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “This prosecutor’s office took it upon itself to manipulate the Supreme Court’s decision in order to advance its own personal agenda to the detriment of the victim’s family and public safety. “
Meanwhile, Williams didn’t mention Landrum by name, but his 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 loss, and was recently appointed to the post of US attorney in New Orleans.