JEFFERSON PARISH, La. — Cheri Hayden, 60, is a mother and grandmother. She's a cancer patient who has been close to death more than once. She’s also a prison lifer, serving time since she was arrested and convicted for a 2008 Jefferson Parish murder she says she didn’t commit.
Now, if her health holds up, Hayden finally has a shot at freedom. After a series of unsuccessful appeals, Hayden and her attorneys won a reversal of her conviction last month by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.
The case was sent back to district court in Gretna for a new trial, but the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s office is appealing the unanimous ruling, keeping Hayden locked up and in limbo.
Hayden was found guilty by a jury in a broad-daylight purse-snatching that turned deadly. It was 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2008, when 63-year-old Patricia Landry, a civilian Navy employee, was killed when her three attackers crushed her under the wheels of a pickup truck as they sped away from the parking lot of a Marrero grocery store.
Witnesses described two men fleeing in the red pickup truck driven by a woman who was described as a “young girl” and a woman in her “20s or 30s,” according to a police report.
That was one of the first things that didn't add up for attorney Charell Arnold, who has been working on Hayden's appeal for the Innocence Project New Orleans for the past five years.
“If anyone has ever seen Ms. Hayden, respectfully, you would never describe her as a young girl,” Arnold said.
Hayden's mugshot from that time shows a gaunt woman with deep wrinkles, weathered beyond her years.
“She simply not only was she 45 years old at the time of the crime, but she looked much, much older,” Arnold said.
Hayden has always proclaimed her innocence. And as Arnold and IPNO investigators started digging into her claim, they were amazed at the trail of evidence supporting her.
“It is one of the strongest innocence cases that I believe our office has ever represented, certainly that I have ever represented,” Arnold said. “It was like a bombshell every day, honestly, for weeks.”
At the 2009 trial, two other people were convicted with Hayden. Michael Coe is serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder, and Michael Vinet, the owner of the truck, served eight years for obstruction of justice.
According to court documents, Hayden originally became a suspect because she was an acquaintance of Coe, and the two of them had been stopped for a traffic violation eight days before the killing.
Vinet testified against Hayden at trial, along with two eyewitnesses. But the facts that the jury did not hear, later uncovered by Arnold and IPNO, were the basis for Fifth Circuit reversing the conviction.
Among those now championing Hayden’s innocence is Brandon Pons.
Pons wasn’t just a member of the jury that unanimously convicted Hayden, he was the foreperson. Since learning about IPNO's findings, he spoke exclusively to WWL-TV.
“I was like completely shocked of how much they were able to find that would have given us plenty of reasonable doubt,” Pons said. “We weren't given all the information so that we could make the right verdict.”
Not only did Pons and the jury not hear that witnesses described the driver as a young woman, they did not hear that Jefferson Parish deputies received a tip from a confidential informant pointing to another woman as the driver. A supplemental police report states that the informant “heard rumors that a female identified as Jessica Billiot had been driving the suspect vehicle.”
Billiot, Vinet’s 23-year-old girlfriend, was questioned by deputies, but she denied being involved.
IPNO argued in its appeal that Billiot’s DNA was found on a cigarette in the truck's ashtray. She dyed her blond hair brown shortly after the killing and confessed to several people that she was behind the wheel.
“We had evidence that, in fact, Ms. Billiot had made multiple confessions to several different people,” Arnold said.
One woman stated in an affidavit that “Jessica said that they were in the truck and had grabbed some old lady’s purse, the lady had gotten under the truck, and got killed.”
Another woman, who also signed a sworn affidavit, stated, “Jessica told me that she had to leave town because she thought that they, she and Matt, might have killed somebody. Jessica told me that she thought they had accidentally driven over a woman.”
Billiot could not be reached for comment. At an appeal hearing last year, she took the Fifth Amendment, invoking her right against self-incrimination.
At her 2009 trial, Hayden took the witness stand on her own behalf and offered an alibi, saying she was at a birthday party for one of her grandchildren.
Three family members also backed up her claim that she was at the party, but prosecutors discounted them as biased witnesses.
What the jury could have heard but didn’t was the same testimony from non-family witnesses who later said the same thing to IPNO, Arnold said.
Arnold argued that Hayden's trial attorney, William Doyle, simply dropped the ball.
“Despite all of these leads available to him, he followed none of them,” Arnold said.
Reached by phone, Doyle said he did the best he could, but as a public defender at the time, his resources were limited.
Pons had a strong reaction when he was shown the evidence gathered by IPNO.
“Had we been given this information, we wouldn't be sitting here today talking,” he said. “I think that we made a wrong decision.”
In its April 26 ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal came to the same conclusion. In a strongly worded 46-page opinion, a three-judge panel –Fredericka Wicker, Susan Chehardy, and Jude Gravois – wrote that it could have based its opinion on “the inadequate police investigation” or alternatively “the prosecution's withholding of material and favorable evidence.”
But in the end, the panel based its ruling on the "deficient performance" of Hayden's trial attorney, even calling his presentation “catastrophic” to his client. Pons agreed.
“He didn't do us as a jury or his client, Cheri, any justice,” he said.
Despite the ruling, Hayden remains in prison. Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick indicated that his office is appealing the ruling to the State Supreme Court.
In an emailed statement, Connick wrote, “The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office intends to seek review of the decision in the Louisiana Supreme Court. Therefore, we cannot provide further comment.”
That means that Hayden is not only fighting for her final day in court but given her serious medical problems, her very life.
“She's a fighter, and I really admire her for that. But it's been a very difficult road for her,” Arnold said. “I pray that Cheri will be able to eventually be exonerated while she's still alive.”
Pons said that if it was up to him, Hayden would already be free.
“Let her out. Let her go home. Let her get back what life she can try to still have.”
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