Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Innocence Project New Orleans has filed bar complaints against four prosecutors who worked in former Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office over their handling of a murder case that led to a man serving over a decade in prison before Cannizzaro’s successor, Jason Williams, agreed to vacate his conviction and drop the charges against him this year.

The complaints, filed early this month with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, allege that assistant district attorneys did not disclose payments the DA’s office made to a key witness against defendant Kaliegh Smith. They also allege that prosecutors hid information about a potential alternate suspect in the case, allowed witnesses to lie on the stand and helped to cover up one of the lies. 

The IPNO complaints name Myles Ranier — the lead prosecutor in the case —  along with former assistant DAs  Donna Andrieu, Robert L. Freeman, and Andrew Milton Pickett.  None of them work at the DA’s office any longer. 

In 2010, Smith was convicted of the 2007 killing of Jason Anderson by a 10-2 jury vote. A law allowing split jury verdicts in Louisiana has since been repealed. The U.S. Supreme Court later found that non-unanimous verdicts, which were allowed in the state for more than a century, are unconstitutional.

In November 2020, while Cannizzaro was still in office, IPNO filed a post-conviction relief application pointing to the split-jury verdict, new DNA evidence from the victim’s shirt that did not match Smith, and prosecutorial misconduct as reasons to grant Smith a new trial.

Cannizzaro’s office did not respond to the petition before Jason Williams was inaugurated as DA in January.

After taking office, Williams quickly set-up a Civil Rights Division — headed by former IPNO Director Emily Maw — tasked with reviewing potential wrongful convictions and split-jury verdicts. And in May, his office filed a response to Smith’s petition, telling a judge that they agreed with defense attorneys that their office engaged in misconduct, and that Smith was entitled to a new trial. Smith’s conviction was tossed in late May. In June, the DA’s office decided not to pursue a retrial against Smith, dropping the charges against him

Williams’ office itself referred the case to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel — which investigates attorney misconduct — in June. But it was not a formal complaint. The referral did not specifically name any of the prosecutors in the case and said the DA’s office had made no determination of culpability.

But the referral noted that there were “some troubling aspects to the State’s handling of this case at the time of the trial” — including the failure to turn over evidence that could have been favorable to the defense. Prosecutors have a legal obligation to hand over exculpatory evidence, called “Brady material” after the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that established the rule. 

“[Smith] would not have been convicted if it was not for prosecutorial misconduct,” a letter attached to the complaints reads. “While he was incarcerated, he missed out on his son’s teenaged years, and the last 10 years of his mother’s life.” 

In a statement provided to The Lens last week, Smith said that the DA’s office “did not play fair” at his trial.

“Prosecutors take innocent people without solid evidence and convict them—throwing them away,” Smith said. “And all they might get for it is a slap on the wrist. It’s not right. I believe deep in my heart that something needs to be done about it.”

‘No defensible basis’

The complaint against Ranier is the most extensive, alleging nine specific counts of misconduct that each violated several ethics rules for attorneys practicing in the state. Much of the alleged misconduct had to do with his failure to turn over Brady evidence. 

The key witness in the case, who testified at trial that she saw Smith shoot Anderson after a struggle that took place across the street from her house, was given $2,500 in housing benefits by the District Attorney’s Office. That payment was never disclosed by Ranier. In addition, the complaint alleges that during trial, prior to her testimony, the witness was promised additional benefits. 

The IPNO complaints say that notes Rainier took prior to trial prove that he knew about the pre-trial payments, in addition to the fact that during the trial he was instructed to review a file in which they were detailed, and that it is “highly probable” he new about the promise of additional benefits made during trial.

In addition, according to the complaint, Rainier did not disclose to defense attorneys that there was information in the case file that suggested another perpetrator may have committed the crime: a statement from the Anderson’s partner that said another man had told her that there was a hit out on the Anderson and she suspected “he had something to do with it.”  

According to the complaint, if Ranier had looked at the police record of the other man, he would have found that he “matched the description of the shooter, was known to police as a hitman, had been implicated in two other shootings that occured in the same area, and had had an altercation over money with the victim the day before the crime.”

The complaint says that Ranier did disclose to defense attorneys a less compelling tip: that a detective had informed him that he had come into contact with someone who told him that “it was not Kaliegh Smith was not the murderer in this case, but someone who looked like him.” However, the complaint says, even that disclosure was incomplete. Ranier did not provide the name of the person who had given that information to the detective, even though he knew it. 

If Ranier knew to disclose an anonymous tip from a detective about an unnamed suspect, the complaint argues, he should have known to disclose the more useful information that was in the file. 

“There is no defensible basis upon which Mr. Rainier could have decided that he did have to disclose information implicating an unnamed person — information of little use to the defense — but did not have to disclose information implicating [the alternate suspect], which would have been of great value to the defense.”

Another allegation in the complaint concerns a “Statement of Privileged Communications” that prosecutors had the witness sign following her testimony at trial.

The witness identified Smith as the shooter in a 2008 pre-trial hearing, but she recanted just before his trial. She was then promised another $2,000 in benefits, and she changed her position again, identifying Smith as the perpetrator in trial testimony.

During her testimony, she said she had previously recanted because she had received threatening phone calls from the jail, and reported those threats to employees of the DA’s office after they occurred. Following her testimony, defense attorneys suggested they wanted to interview the staff she had allegedly reported the threats to, to show that she was lying on the stand. 

But that evening, prosecutors showed up at the witnesses’ house and had her sign the document saying that her communication with the DA’s office was protected by attorney-client privilege, and could not be disclosed to the defense. The statement was filed into court the next day.

The DA’s office under Williams has called the move “bizarre and problematic.” As a witness, she was not a “client” of the DA’s office. Williams’ office has said that if anyone in the DA’s office had an attorney-client relationship with the witness, they should have been removed from the case. 

“In his prosecution of Kaliegh Smith, Mr. Rainier repeatedly violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. Mr. Smith’s wrongful conviction cost him eleven years of his life and irreplaceable time with his family and required him to perform hard labor in prison for over a decade,” the complaint reads. “The Office of Disciplinary Counsel cannot undo the harm Mr. Rainier did, but it can at least acknowledge it with a swift and vigorous prosecution.” 

The complaint against Andrieu, who was serving as the office’s Chief of Appeals at the time, stems from her involvement in the “Statement of Privileged Communication” form. Freeman was supervising Rainier at the time, and IPNO alleges that he violated ethics rules by overseeing his misconduct. Pickett handled the case on appeal, and the complaint against him alleges that he made false statements about disclosures made by prosecutors, and continued to withhold the evidence that was not disclosed at trial.

If the Office of Disciplinary Counsel finds the complaints credible after screening them, the prosecutors will face a disciplinary process that could result in consequences ranging from a private reprimand to disbarment. None of the prosecutors named in the complaints were able to be reached for comment prior to publication of this story. 

‘Suffered a terrible loss’

While IPNO did not file a complaint against former Cannizzaro, they suggest that he “may have knowledge relevant to the misconduct in this case,” noting that he personally met with the witness during the trial, prior to her testimony, promising her “post-trial assistance.” However, the complaint notes that IPNO was “unaware of evidence of Mr. Cannizzaro’s personal knowledge of, or active supervision over disclosure decisions made in Mr. Smith’s trial, so have not filed a complaint against him.”

Cannizzaro, who now works as a co-director of the Criminal Division in Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, did not respond to questions from The Lens about specific allegations in the complaints.

In a statement, he noted that  “there has been no finding of misconduct related to the actions of the prosecuting attorneys involved in these proceedings.” He added that it would be inappropriate for him to comment “on the allegations set forth by those who represented the criminal defendant.” 

Richard Davis, legal director for IPNO,  said that while the complaints didn’t directly implicate Cannizzaro, there should have been policies in place that would have prevented the sorts of ethical violations that occurred in Smith’s case. 

“A well-managed office doesn’t give room for the kind of individualized misconduct that occurred in this case,” Davis said. 

“Those people strip you from everything you love,” Smith said. “Your family, your kids, your job. Due to my incarceration I suffered a terrible loss — my mother passed. That is a feeling I don’t wish on anyone, especially while you are incarcerated. You feel helpless, hopeless, with nothing you can do about it. Also, missing out on my son growing—when I went in he was 4 years old, he is 18 now. … Who knows what I could have been without my incarceration.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...