Criminal Justice

‘Misplaced’ videotape matches defense team narrative

This week, I took in the sights and sounds at convicted killer Michael Anderson’s motion for a new trial. Anderson is sentenced to death for the 2006 murder of five teens in Central City. The massacre resulted in national headlines, local outrage, the deployment of the national guard, and, ultimately, the downfall of former District Attorney Eddie Jordan.

Jordan briefly dropped the charges against Anderson in 2007 after claiming that the state’s only eyewitness was unreliable and could not be located. When NOPD officers produced Torrie Williams hours later, Eddie Jordan was lambasted in the press, and even Mayor Ray Nagin threatened to request a formal investigation by the Louisiana Attorney General.

In seeking a new trial, Anderson’s defense team makes 17 separate arguments. The biggest, though, hinge on a video interrogation of Williams that prosecutors failed to give to Anderson’s attorneys until after the conviction. Anderson’s attorneys say the video contradicts Williams’ testimony, which put Anderson on death row.

Prosecutors don’t dispute that  the video, which they say was discovered when the district attorney’s office relocated, should have been furnished to the defense, but they say nothing in the video undermines the conviction.

In courtroom arguments, prosecutor Donna Andrieu sought to minimize the discrepancies between the Williams’ video interrogation and trial testimony. She said  similar inconsistencies surfaced at pretrial hearings and that jurors simply didn’t buy the defense’s case that Williams was lying.

“She is never inconsistent about the crime itself,” Andrieu argued. The discrepancies are “immaterial.”

Yet the defense’s claim is compelling. In the video interrogation, Williams gives a far more detailed and nuanced narrative account of her and her boyfriend’s movements the night of the massacre. At trial, Williams claims to have left her motel room to look for her boyfriend at 3:30 in the morning, leading her to witness the 4 a.m. crime. But in the video, Williams claims that her boyfriend returned to the motel at 4 a.m., used crack, and left again at 5 She went out to look for him at 6 a.m.

In the video, Williams specifically recalls the start of the 5 a.m. news to establish the time her boyfriend left the motel for the second time and the light from the rising of the sun to substantiate the time she went to look for him. It isn’t just that the video account differs from the one she gave to jurors in the trial. And it isn’t just that the story she tells in the video indicates that she could not have witnessed the crime. It’s that Williams’ story matches those provided by defense witnesses, including from Williams boyfriend.

Williams’ attorney, Richard Bourke was adamant. “This isn’t a matter of, ‘Oh she made inconsistent statements.’ I wish that had been our case.

“They had our case!”

In an article published yesterday, Campbell Robertson of The New York Times reached a former assistant prosecutor, LaShanda Webb, who worked on the case in 2007.

She implies that many in the district attorney’s office were troubled by the prosecution of Anderson because of Williams’ unreliability.

“No one wanted to touch it,” she said.

“Are we prosecuting cases because of sufficient evidence or because that’s what the public wants?” Ms. Webb said.

Earlier in the day, Judge Linda Von Davis ruled that the defense could call the prosecutors who interrogated Williams –  Francis de Blanc, Michael Morales, and Bobby Freeman – to ask how this tape went missing. But the Louisiana Supreme Court overruled Von Davis and the prosecutors did not testify.

Prosecutors are saying that a videotaped interview of the only eyewitness in the biggest case in the city – the first to result in a death penalty in a decade – simply disappeared into the district attorney’s post-Katrina temporary headquarters. And though the tape could undermine the prosecutor’s case, they’re saying it was a simple mistake, not calculated misconduct.

The defense argued at trial and now that the shooter was notorious accused killer Telly Hankton, in jail awaiting trial in other murder cases.

Because of Hankton’s alleged penchant for killing people, including witnesses, the defense wanted its witnesses in this hearing to testify via video for their own safety, but Van Davis wouldn’t allow it. In the midst of this argument, Hankton – shackled and in his orange jail jumpsuit –  was sitting in the courtroom, brought there by sheriffs on orders from the prosecutor to watch the proceedings from the jury box.

Andrieu said Hankton was there so witnesses could positively identify him. But Bourke implied that the move was a not-so-subtleact of intimidation.

Bourke even claimed that over the weekend, a Hankton relative was arrested with a handgun while seeking a defense witness in the Anderson case.

After Bourke identified Hankton to the court, Van Davis ordered him removed, agreeing that a photograph would suffice.

Still, the damage may have been done. Later in the day, a defense prison informant who Bourke believed would testify that Hankton confessed to the quintuple homicide declined to testify, saying he didn’t want to  incriminate himself. The witness even refused to provide an address of where he lived prior to his arrest.

Van Davis is expected to rule on a new trial Monday, though she acknowledged that her ruling likely will be appealed either way.


Put Section B in syndication!

Van Davis really commands the courtroom. She’s extraordinarily expressive, in the way she rolls her eyes, raises her eyebrows, or reclines in her chair. She constantly interrupts attorneys and is  direct in explaining what she does and does not buy from their arguments. She has an excess of what Philadelphians (like me) would call attytood, which entails a degree of no-bull bluntness that borders on rude but is strangely endearing instead. I have no way of really saying how well she actually knows the law but she sure is confident in her command. Her personality made the nearly nine hours sitting on those criminally uncomfortable wooden benches quite bearable and occasionally truly entertaining.

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