Breaking News
More () »

New Orleans judge tosses black man's murder conviction over juror-selection bias

Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Jaban Williams, who is accused of shooting Selvin Gonzales, a Honduran laborer, in 2011.
Credit: Matthew Hinton / The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana judge has overturned a Black man's murder conviction after prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that it was unlikely that earlier prosecutors struck possible Black jurors by chance.

The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate reports Orleans Parish Criminal District Judge Rhonda Goode overturned the murder conviction of Jabari Williams last week. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 had ordered further review of the case because of problems with the jury selection.

Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Williams, who is accused of shooting Selvin Gonzales, a Honduran laborer, in 2011. Prosecutors allege Williams was trying to sell drugs to Gonzales and followed him down the street to shoot him.

Before Goode ruled, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams agreed with defense lawyers who said there was a 1-in-1,000 chance that the prosecutors accidentally struck 12 Black people from the jury pool.

Williams attacked former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for how the case was handled, while Cannizzaro blamed Williams for not keeping the conviction from being overturned.

Williams's office has joined with defense attorneys to agree to overturn multiple disputed convictions.

Jason Williams is not related to the suspect, Jabari Williams.

Jabari Williams confessed, but claims he shot the man in self-defense. His lawyers questioned whether the defendant was improperly pressured to confess, and also noted that the star witness, Gonzales' roommate, said he had trouble telling Black people apart. Jurors voted unanimously to convict Williams of second-degree murder.

Both the judge overseeing the case and the lead prosecutor were Black. But Williams’ lawyers said the selection process was biased.

The lawyers claimed there was no other reason to explain why prosecutors struck Black people out of the jury pool, while keeping white people who gave near-identical responses to questions about whether defendants could falsely confess.

Cannizzaro’s appellate lawyers said race had nothing to do with it. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the state Supreme Court said a judge needed to have a special hearing to reconstruct what happened during the 2012 trial.

But the hearing never happened. Instead attorneys in Williams’ new Civil Rights Division agreed that the conviction should be tossed. On Tuesday, they agreed to many of the defense claims, and argued that reconstructing what happened at trial would be impossible so many years later.

The division also cited a statistical analysis offered by defense attorneys Michael Admirand and Patrick Mulvaney, of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Those lawyers said that in the six months leading up to Jabari Williams’ trial, New Orleans prosecutors used 78% of their discretionary strikes against Black prospective jurors, at a rate more than three times that of white people.

Last year, Williams promised that he would root out wrongful convictions, and in a lengthy statement, he blasted Cannizzaro's "previous administration” for its handling of the trial.

But Cannizzaro has accused Williams of allowing convictions to be overturned for political reasons.

“No court, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, ever found racial discrimination in the jury selection process of this case,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “This DA’s office took it upon itself to manipulate the ruling of the Supreme Court in order to further its own personal agenda at the expense of the victim’s family and public safety.”

► Get breaking news from your neighborhood delivered directly to you by downloading the new FREE WWL-TV News app now in the IOS App Store or Google Play.