In 1941, Bill Long Jr. had a dream that a bakery could be the catalyst of a vibrant new commercial corridor in the formerly hard-scrabble neighborhood along Freret Street in Uptown New Orleans. So he opened Long’s Bakery and Delicatessen at the corner of Freret and Jena streets, and over the next 44 years, turned the store into a neighborhood fixture.
Then, on Oct. 29, 1985, Long was robbed and fatally shot in front of the bakery, rattling not only the close-knit community around the shop but the entire city.
Police quickly zeroed in on a 15-year-old boy who lived just a couple of blocks away. Jerome Smith was arrested, charged with first-degree murder, and prosecuted as an adult. At his trial in 1986, he was unanimously convicted and came within one holdout juror of being sentenced to death.
Smith has claimed his innocence throughout the trial and ever since. And in a New Orleans courtroom Wednesday, more than 37 years after the killing, his attorney and family hoped to make one final appeal that would set him free.
Smith's family, including his 79-year-old mom, were in court thinking they would get the ruling they have been waiting for. They were prepared to leave straight from the courthouse and drive to Angola prison to celebrate a triumphant homecoming.
Smith’s conviction has been appealed and upheld many times, but his new attorney Rachel Conner says new evidence has since surfaced showing what Smith has said all along.
The evidence against Smith at trial revolved around identifications made by three witnesses. But now the case seems to hang on exactly what time the killing took place. Records show that Smith offered an alibi, placing him at an appointment at the Youth Study Center, the former juvenile jail, at about the same time as the shooting.
The times have been disputed over the years, but Conner says those times have now been pinned down precisely with new documents obtained from the homicide detective’s decades-old case file.
In a phone interview, Conner said, “It makes their timeline impossible.”
“He is innocent of the crime and has protested his innocence since he was arrested,” Conner wrote in this motion to reverse the conviction.
It appeared that Smith was on a fast track to being freed. The DA’s office has thoroughly reviewed the case. The review was done not by the appeals division, but by the Civil Rights division started by District Attorney Jason Williams to correct injustices, including convictions of innocent men.
But then Bill Long III and his family, caught by surprise when they learned about Wednesday’s scheduled hearing, met Tuesday with Williams.
“We were concerned that there was no response from DA to the hearing for today,” Long said. “We asked that he ask for a continuance and do a written response that we are opposed to this, as well as he should be. And he agreed. Jason Williams did everything in court today that we asked of him to do.”
Williams personally showed up in court to ask for the delay, and Judge Benedict Willard granted it until October 24th.
Long's family, including his son and grandson, were in court Wednesday to fight the appeal. And they vowed to return, just as they have for decades of appeals to various state and federal courts.
“Thirty-seven and a half years. This goes on once or twice a year, almost every year. Enough is enough,” Long said.
Long and his family say the dispute over the exact time of the murder has been raised and rejected several times before.
“It starts all over again just like it was yesterday,” Long said. “This is terrible. My dad was my best friend. My dad was everybody in the neighborhood's best friend.”
After waiting for more than 37 years, two families left court today, yet again, without any clear answers about what might happen next.