Before sunrise on June 17, 2006, five young New Orleanians were gunned down in an SUV at Josephine and Danneel streets in what was dubbed the Central City massacre.
News of the killings rocked the community and made headlines around the country. The reaction of local elected officials was swift and extreme. Within days, Mayor Ray Nagin called on then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco to send National Guard troops to help the city’s police patrol the streets.
While the increased patrols lasted for years, then 19-year-old Michael Anderson quickly became a suspect in the killing, and he faced a jury last summer.
In August, Anderson was sentenced to die after a unanimous jury found him guilty of the quintuple homicide. But now his lawyers believe Anderson should be given a new trial based on what they say was serious misconduct by prosecutors who withheld major evidence and intimidated a witness who would have fingered another suspect.
Judge Linda Von Davis will hear arguments on a new trial Friday in Criminal District Court.
Anderson’s attorney, Richard Bourke, said in the motion for a new trial that the intimidated witness would have said the killings were committed by Telly Hankton, the notorious gangster who Superintendent Warren Riley has called among the most dangerous men in New Orleans.
Christopher Bowman, spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, is confident that the conviction will stand and that the right man is behind bars.
“The District Attorney has zero interest in convicting someone for a crime they did not commit,” he said. “He [Anderson] did it and there is no evidence to the contrary.”
Local schoolchildren tell tall tales of Telly Hankton as if he were a minion of the mythical lord of the underworld, Pluto. Just looking at the murders with which he has been charged is enough to result in nightmares.
Hankton is in jail awaiting trial on those separate murder charges but police may have failed to fully examine evidence that Hankton may have been responsible for the Central City massacre.
Anderson initially was charged a month after the crime, but then-District Attorney Eddie Jordan dismissed the charges after deeming key witness Torrie Williams’ account to be too unreliable, and then said she couldn’t be found to be interviewed further. Jordan instantly came under intense political fire that intensified hours later when NOPD officers found Williams and brought her back in to cooperate. Councilwoman Shelley Midura called for Jordan’s resignation and even Nagin issued a furious statement slamming the decision. Soon after, Anderson was charged again.
Bourke’s argument for a new trial focuses on the contention that Williams initially told police one story but then testified to another.
Williams testified during the trial that she saw the murder when she went out to find her boyfriend, who she said had gone out to buy crack. Investigators determined that the killings happened about 4 a.m.
But in a filmed statement to police that was not initially furnished to defense attorneys, Bourke said, Williams said she watched the 5 a.m. news before leaving to look for her boyfriend, and that she was able to clearly see the shooting because of the early morning light.
She also testified in court that Anderson called her from prison and offered her money to recant her story.
Her earlier videotaped statement does indeed detail a jailhouse phone call from Anderson, but she says on the tape that he was calling to offer his support for her if police punished her for recanting her story about his involvement. She never mentions a financial arrangement during the videotaped interview with police, Bourke claims in the motion.
Bowman was adamant that Cannizzaro’s office behaved properly.
“As soon as prosecutors became aware of the existence of the tape, they turned it over to the defense,” he said, adding there’s nothing on the tape that could prove Anderson’s innocence.
The defense case hinged largely on testimony from another eyewitness to the bloodbath, a man named Herman McMillan. FBI agents tracked him down in Texas after a source put him at the scene of the massacre. He told the agents that he fired his own weapon at the man he saw spraying bullets into the SUV containing the five victims: Hankton.
Yet when McMillan, a felon, was called to the stand, prosecutors objected. They suggested that should McMillan testify to possessing and firing a weapon, he would need a lawyer because convicted felons can’t have weapons. McMillan proceeded to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights and not answer questions. The judge ruled McMillan’s statement to the FBI inadmissible, and the FBI refused to make the agent who recorded it available for testimony.
Anderson’s defense team is contending that this was prosecutorial intimidation that kept an eyewitness from putting Hankton at the scene.
The defense also says that on the first day of the trial, the prosecutors provided a list of tips that came into the Crimestoppers Hotline, many of which also implicated Hankton, but the judge denied a request to delay the trial so the defense team could investigate them.
The prosecution argued during the trial that Anderson planted rumors that Hankton was responsible for the killings in order to clear his own name.
In addition to Williams, prosecutors relied on the testimony of three inmates who claimed Anderson confessed to the crime while behind bars awaiting trail. In the motion for a new trial, the defense argues that it has learned since the verdict that these witnesses received special deals from the prosecution that were not previously disclosed as required.
Bowman denied that contention.
Anderson’s defense attorney paints a disturbing picture of prosecutors so desperate to obtain convictions – and rehabilitate the image of the district attorney’s office under the direction of Leon Cannizzaro – that they would suppress evidence that might exonerate a suspect who is now facing death. Further, the motion for a new trial said prosecutors obscured details that might have lead to earlier charges against Hankton, perhaps early enough to have prevented the murders for which he now stands accused.
But Bowman was confident that Friday’s hearing would answer the questions raised by the defense.
“It is one thing to make the allegations” in a motion for a new trial, but “it is another to prove them.”
After Wednesday’s stunning news of a purported wide-ranging NOPD conspiracy to cover up the Danziger bridge killings after Katrina, the last thing the criminal justice apparatus needs are questions about alleged prosecutorial misconduct or a possible wrongful conviction.
Such questions ought to be considered sensational, but given the city’s history and, now, dreadful disclosures about the city’s present, they have become all too commonplace.