NEW ORLEANS - The mother of a 1993 murder victim may play a key role in whether Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro prosecutes two men accused of perjury in a case in which a man was wrongly convicted in the killing.
Prosecutors said in court Friday that they are seeking a meeting with the mother of Clarence Landry, who was 16 years old when he was fatally shot a birthday party at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel ballroom in Gentilly.
Based on tentative identifications by two teenagers, Kevin Johnson and Hakim Shabazz, another teenager, Jerome Morgan, was convicted of Landry’s murder. Johnson and Shabazz later recanted their testimony, saying they were coerced by police detectives into fingering Morgan.
Based on those recantations, as well as other newly-discovered evidence that had been withheld by prosecutors at the time of trial, Morgan’s conviction was thrown out in 2014. But Cannizzaro’s office reinstated the murder charge, and added perjury charges against Johnson and Shabazz, who was wounded in the shooting.
The DA’s office reluctantly threw in the towel and dropped Morgan’s murder charge in May, but has continued to push the case against Johnson and Shabazz.
There is now a possibility that could change.
Defense attorneys indicated that Landry’s mother and other family members do not support any prosecution of Johnson and Shabazz.
“It's my understanding that that family does not wish for these individuals to be prosecuted. So I want them to have an opportunity to go into his office and tell him that,” said Johnson’s attorney Robert Hjortsberg.
The perjury case had been scheduled to go to trial Friday, but Judge Ben Willard agreed to postpone the date to give prosecutors a chance to meet Landry’s family. In another dramatic court development, City Councilman-at-Large Jason Williams signed on as Shabazz’s attorney.
Williams is a criminal defense attorney, but his practice has been largely dormant since he joined the council in 2014. He said he felt compelled to join the defense team after following the high-profile case.
“I'm still a lawyer. My mother told me to do what's right and I think fighting for Hakim Shabazz is the right thing to do,” Williams said. “Anyone who has seen (WWL-TV’s) stories, or read a piece of a news story on this case, realize that these young men should not be in the criminal court system right now. That's just clear.”
Cannizzaro previously has taken a hard line against Johnson and Shabazz, as well as Morgan, even as he legally cleared his name earlier this year.
After the charge against Morgan was dropped, Cannizzaro sent a statement indicating that he was not convinced of Morgan's innocence. In the statement, Cannizzaro said he had no choice but to drop the case after the state Supreme Court ruled that he could not use the original trial testimony of Shabazz and Johnson.
“In May of 2011 after meeting with attorneys from the Innocence Project, Shabazz signed an affidavit recanting his trial testimony. Johnson signed a similar affidavit a few months later,” Cannizzaro wrote. “I find it curious that in the 15 years that elapsed between their trial testimony and the execution of these affidavits that these witnesses did not suffer some crisis of conscience that caused them to alert the judicial officers of their duplicity.”
At the time, Cannizzaro vowed to continue prosecuting Shabazz and Johnson for perjury stating that they “either perjured themselves in 2013 to allow a cold-blooded killer to walk free, or they perjured themselves in 1994 to put an innocent man in jail,” according to a statement from the DA.
In his statement, Cannizzaro went on the express remorse for the family of the victim.
“What is most disappointing to me about this entire incident,” Cannizzaro stated, “is that as Mrs. Landry lays in bed dying of cancer, the justice for which she worked so hard to obtain is ripped from her fingers and she is helpless to stop it.”
But attorneys with the Innocence Project-New Orleans, who represented Morgan, questioned Cannizzaro’s assessment of the family’s wishes.
“We are the only ones who have been in touch with them. And they are not sorry that Jerome Morgan is out,” said IPNO Director Emily Maw. “And they are not sorry that he is being re-prosecuted. They would like Mr. Cannizzaro to give up saying Mr. Morgan is guilty and actually investigate the case.”
No date was set for the meeting between the victim's family and Cannizzaro, but Judge Willard set a status hearing for Dec. 9.