This is the second of a three-part story on the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Erin Hunter. Published in partnership with The Atavist.
Read part 1 and part 3.
4. THE EVIDENCE
After the hearing, Hunter wrote to his attorney, John Dolan, demanding to know more about the gun that had been matched to the bullets in Jones’ body. “You can’t tell me what gun was involved in the murder, or is they going to use the gun as evidence,” Hunter wrote. A few weeks later, he wrote again. “You keep telling me the gun isn’t a problem, it’s the eyewitness we have to worry about,” Hunter said. “Mr. Dolan, you don’t have to worry about anything, I’m the one who have to worry.… I told you the last time we talked (Feb. 5, 1988) I wanted to see this gun but you keep throwing in my face this gun don’t mean nothing.”
Hunter’s adamancy came from the fact that stolen property had been part of his livelihood before his arrest. In addition to selling drugs, Hunter worked as a fence — someone who moves stolen goods in exchange for cash and drugs. If he knew which one of the guns taken from his home by police had been used in the killing, maybe he could clear things up. He could say who he got it from and when. If he’d purchased the weapon after Jones’ death, wouldn’t that point to his innocence? In addition, after Hunter bailed himself out of jail following his arrest on the stolen-goods charge, he’d returned to the same house where the police had seized the guns in his possession. When the police came looking for him again, he was right where they’d found him before. Why would he have been there if he knew that the NOPD had evidence of his guilt? “If I would have known any one of those guns was involved with a murder, I would have took off somewhere,” Hunter told me. “Went to Florida, California, somewhere.”
According to Hunter, the state gave him written information regarding the type of gun used to kill Jones about two weeks before his trial, but he couldn’t positively identify the weapon without seeing it. He later wrote in a legal filing that the “court must be mindful that Petitioner was a fencer for two years and has been in contact with well over 100 guns, especial 38s.” Hunter finally saw the gun at his trial, which took place in July 1988, a full year after his arrest. The prosecution introduced the Smith & Wesson into evidence, and Dolan asked Hunter about it on the stand. Hunter was eager to reveal what he knew.
“Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you became in possession of said weapon?” Dolan asked him.
When he answered, Hunter turned his attention to the judge. “Your honor,” he said, “can I tell the whole story?”
“Just listen to my question,” Dolan instructed. “How did you get the gun? Did you steal it? Did you buy it?”
“I bought all my stolen property.”
“You bought it?”
“This particular weapon, do you know who you bought it from?”
“Yes, I bought it from a guy named Willie.”
“A guy named Willie?”
“Do you know his last name?”
“Did you give Willie a bill of sale for that weapon?”
“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”
“When did you buy it?”
“I bought it sometime in June” — that is, several weeks after the murder.
Hunter denied that anyone had ever called him Willie, as Vanessa Causey claimed on the stand. She’d shown up for court this time. It was Hunter’s word against hers — none of the other witnesses were asked if Willie was Hunter’s nickname.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Luke Walker returned to the matter of Willie Harris. Hunter’s use of that name in his testimony was the first time, as far as the record showed, that it had been linked to the case. Willie Harris was a real person. He was also dead. He’d been murdered in the Ninth Ward in July 1987. Whether or not Hunter knew this by the time of his trial isn’t clear. (Harris’ killing was never solved.)
“Willie Harris, this fellow you bought this gun from, do you know him?” Walker asked.
“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.
“Where does Willie stay?”
“He stays in the Ninth Ward, I think he stays with his parents on Almonaster Street” — which was indeed where Harris’ family lived.
“You subpoenaed him, you got him in here, don’t you, because Willie is back there, right?” Walker asked, knowing that no Willie Harris was in the courtroom.
“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”
“You didn’t subpoena him to come and testify?” Walker continued. “Even though you know that, if convicted, you will go to jail for the rest of your life, you didn’t bring Willie, the man who can clear you?”
“You never told me what gun it was,” Hunter responded. “This is my first time ever seeing the gun.”
5. The Judge
At times, the trial reached points of near incoherence. Dolan, who waived his opening statement, called the location of the murder Milton Street, not Wilson Avenue, confusing Hunter on the stand. When Causey introduced still more new information — that she’d seen a gun in Hunter’s hand at the murder scene, that her brother was with her at the time — the defense didn’t ask why her story kept changing. (Her brother was not called to testify.) When she said that neither she nor Jones had used drugs, Dolan didn’t bring up the toxicology report showing that, in the deceased’s case at least, this was demonstrably false. He didn’t press her when she said that she’d called Jacklean Davis about the case and not the other way around, as Davis recounted on the stand. Given their previous association during the rape investigation, which was noted in the trial record, could the discrepancy have pointed to something other than an error of memory?
The defense’s witnesses did little to help Hunter’s case. A man named Earl Phillips was called to testify that Hunter had been at his house watching his band practice at the time of the murder. But when he was asked about a specific date from more than a year prior, Phillips fumbled under oath: He managed to convey only that Hunter was often at his house. Stewart Mitchell, the man police claimed had tipped them off to Hunter’s possession of stolen goods, was supposed to undermine the prosecution by stating that it had offered him a deal on a charge he was facing if he testified against Hunter. On the stand, Mitchell couldn’t recall the name of the person who’d supposedly made the offer. He said he knew nothing about the murder.
The whole trial took place in a single morning. For Judge Frank Shea, the pace was a source of pride — indeed, it was the essential feature of his judicial identity. Shea had been on the bench for 25 years, and his breakneck docket had earned him a statewide reputation. In 1975, he personally presided over more than a third as many trials (168)* as the rest of the judges in Louisiana’s 63 parishes combined (377). In 1983, a man named Keith Messiah was given the death penalty after a trial in Shea’s court that lasted one day, including jury selection and sentencing. (After a lengthy appeals process, Messiah’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.) In 1984, Shea set what he insisted was a world record, holding six felony trials in a single day. When asked about the feat by a reporter, Shea responded, “We have a legal phrase, res ipsa loquitur. It means, ‘The thing speaks for itself.’”1
Admirers said that Shea’s style was efficient — the state House of Representatives even passed a resolution commending him for “conducting speedy criminal trials.” But detractors, including Shea’s 1972 election opponent Salvatore Panzeca, called it disgraceful. “When a judge boasts that he tries cases in record time, his allegiance is not to justice, but to the clock,” Panzeca told The Times-Picayune. “When the judge pressures the attorneys of poor and uneducated defendants to plead their clients guilty, so as to keep his docket clear and save himself the trouble of having to hear their cases, he assaults the Bill of Rights and profanes our heritage of law.” After polling well behind Shea in the primary, Panzeca dropped out of the race.
The speed at which cases moved through Shea’s courtroom was a product of his impatience and temperament. He chain-smoked cigarettes on the bench; news reports described him as presiding while engulfed in a cloud. He was known to berate lawyers and clerks who didn’t move fast enough. Late in his career, which lasted until 1997, Shea pulled a gun on a shackled defendant in his courtroom. He later told a reporter that there’d been nothing to worry about, because he was a terrible shot and “couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass-fiddle.” (Shea died in 1998.2)
At Hunter’s trial, Shea was true to form. As a news article noted, Hunter’s testimony on his own behalf lasted “at most ten minutes.” When the prosecution concluded its cross-examination, Hunter had more he wanted to say in his defense. He wished to make clear that police had first come to his home in search of stolen property, not on suspicion of murder.
“Shut up,” Shea said. “You already testified. Now be quiet.” He ordered Hunter removed from the stand.
“Why y’all misleading these people?” were the last words Hunter was able to offer before stepping down.
The jury deliberated over a lunch break. When they came back, they found Hunter guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An account of the trial, published in the next day’s paper, told the streamlined story that Hunter had endeavored to correct — that Causey had identified Hunter as the killer, which led the police to search Hunter’s home, where they “found his second problem, the gun.”
It wasn’t the last time Hunter would face Shea. Three years later, in September 1991, he sat on the witness stand again, arguing that he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel from Dolan. It was the latest phase of an appeals process that had ricocheted around the Louisiana courts until it landed on Shea’s docket. Shea made it clear he had no interest in retrying the case. “I don’t plan on spending the day with you,” Shea said to Hunter’s new public defender.
Shea wouldn’t allow Hunter to state for the record when he’d learned which gun was used in the murder. “Your honor,” Hunter implored, “instead of cutting me off, let me talk, please. This is my life.” Shea told him that he understood, then threatened to hold Hunter in contempt of court. “You are a defendant,” Shea said. “You don’t tell me what to do.”
Shea ruled that there was no evidence that Hunter had received ineffective counsel. Hunter appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which denied his claim. He remained locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola — the name of the slave plantation that once occupied the land where the prison sits.
6. The Inmate
The first time he was ever arrested, Hunter was not yet a teenager. He lived in the Ninth Ward, where his three elder brothers were in charge of minding him while their mother worked. “I guess you could say they did a poor job,” he once wrote in a letter to a lawyer. Hunter got in trouble with his friends, knocking over trash cans, stealing bikes and chickens, and breaking into wharf buildings to drive the lift machines. One day, the kids tipped a machine onto some train tracks. Hunter, still in elementary school, was arrested for criminal trespassing.
A few years later, when Hunter was 13, he and two friends were implicated in a purse snatching gone wrong. When the victim, a 75-year-old woman, wouldn’t give up her belongings, an assailant hit her on the head with a pistol; three weeks later, she died from her injuries. Hunter and his friends said that they were innocent, that they hadn’t even been at the scene of the crime. While awaiting trial, Hunter stayed at a juvenile detention facility known as the Youth Study Center. In court, his teacher testified that he’d been in class at the time of the killing, and produced schoolwork to prove it. The judge dismissed Hunter’s case. His two friends, however, were tried as adults. One pled guilty to manslaughter. Another was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life without parole at the age of 17. Hunter wouldn’t see him again until he, too, was sent to Angola.3
Hunter would later trace his path into serious criminal behavior back to the boys he met at the Youth Study Center, who in his words made him “look like an angel.” After he got out, he and a friend began stealing cars from parking lots downtown by taking keys out of the booth when the parking attendant was seeing to another car. It was easy. The first vehicle they stole, in 1979, was a Ford Maverick. Hunter was 16. The boys took the cars for joyrides. They were broke, so they stole gas, too. Eventually, they traded one of the cars for a gun. It didn’t have any bullets, but they used it for holdups anyway.
Hunter’s career jacking cars and robbing people ended with a high-speed chase and his arrest. Not yet 18, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his youth in a juvenile facility, this one in Monroe, Louisiana. He got his GED and learned how to weld. He also took piano lessons. He was released at 20 and held a few odd jobs, including a stint at a factory making fish tanks. He enrolled in classes at Southern University at New Orleans. Still, he continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1985, he was charged with felony theft for using a stolen credit card to buy clothes; he spent nine months in Orleans Parish Prison.
Not long after he got out, Hunter entered the drug trade. He started out small, a few grams here and there. Then he began dealing more and enlisting other people to help him sell it. Business stopped cold when Hunter, by then in his late twenties, found himself facing the second murder charge of his life — the one that didn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried to make it. “I went on a mission to learn as much law as possible to prove my innocence,” Hunter told me in a letter.
His approach reinforced a certain irony: For people who claim to be wrongfully implicated in a crime, the same set of rules, language, and logic that they believe conspired to put them behind bars is the only thing that can get them out. At Orleans Parish Prison, back when Hunter was first awaiting trial, a fellow prisoner known as Bouncer kept a stack of attorney-filed pretrial motions that he’d collected from other prisoners. Hunter would copy them, substituting information about his own case where necessary, and then file his versions with the court. He also requested case law to read, but he didn’t understand any of it. “The courts’ legal jargon was foreign to me. I read and read and did not understand a damn thing,” he said.
He learned, though. By the time he got to Angola, Hunter had a good handle on criminal law. He even filed his own supplemental appellate brief on direct appeal, pointing out discrepancies between the trial transcript and the original police report, and arguing that he’d received poor counsel. (This brief led to the unsuccessful 1991 hearing before Judge Shea.) At Angola, Hunter took paralegal classes through Northwestern Missouri College. He had to stop when Congress repealed Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Undeterred, Hunter kept looking for any angle that might prove he’d been unjustly convicted. He filed public-records requests and wrote letters to anyone who could possibly shed light on his case.
One person Hunter wrote to was a lawyer named Laurie White. White specialized in post-conviction work and had become an outspoken critic of longtime New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick. She voiced support for civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners against the DA’s office and criticized Connick for his unwillingness to test DNA evidence in old cases. By 1997, she’d secured new trials for six men convicted of murder in cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. White also taught legal classes at Angola. Hunter, though, wrote White a letter in 1999 for a different reason: Before becoming a defense attorney, White had been an assistant district attorney in Connick’s office. She was one of the prosecutors on the team that convicted Hunter.
White wrote back warmly. “I thought someday I would run into persons that I had prosecuted,” she told Hunter. “I am glad to see you are doing well for yourself as an inmate counsel.” White said that she’d been under the impression that Hunter’s conviction had already been reversed due to Dolan’s poor representation. She recalled that Causey had been an unreliable witness. “She disappeared several days before your trial and our investigator located her in the wee morning hours,” White wrote. She offered to help Hunter if he was continuing his legal battle. “I would be happy to assist you with an affidavit that it was my belief that [Causey] had been a drug user, or could be a drug user, as she was an extremely unreliable ‘street person’ type who insisted that her life was in danger,” White wrote. (White declined to be interviewed on the record for this story but responded to some fact-checking queries.)
Hunter’s next move was a federal appeal, during which he enlisted the help of Chris Aberle, the first and only private attorney to take his case. In 2002, a federal court denied Hunter’s petition. The ruling stated that Hunter had failed to show that the state courts were unreasonable in their rejection of his previous claims. When I spoke to Aberle, he said that he barely remembered Hunter’s case — it was more than 15 years in the past. A letter that Aberle wrote in the immediate aftermath of the federal court’s decision suggested that, back then at least, he felt strongly about his client’s situation. “I have fought and am still fighting for a number of persons, who, like you, were tried unfairly,” Aberle told Hunter. “I never know if they are truly guilty or innocent but I do know that the system failed them or outright cheated them. What is particularly distressing in your case, however, is that it is one of the very few where I truly think that not only were you tired unfairly, but that in all probability, you are innocent of the crime.”
Hunter had been in prison for almost 15 years by that point; he was running out of options. Aberle told Hunter that he would refer the case to the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). He wasn’t the only person to do so.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Judge Frank Shea presided over 113 trials in 1975. The number that appeared in media reports was actually 168.
- Calvin Duncan, George Toca, and Elvis Brooks were among the people sentenced to life without parole in Shea’s court. The Innocence Project New Orleans later brought claims challenging their guilt; the men took plea deals and were released from prison.
- Shea was preceded in death by members of his immediate family. In 1981, his 11-year-old son drowned in a canal, and his body washed into Lake Pontchartrain. Six years later, Shea’s house caught fire. He was rescued; his wife and daughter died. The incident report lists the cause of the fire as “careless smoking.”
- The friend, Barry Williams, was released on parole in 2018, after the Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.