For four years at Orleans Parish Prison, a 22-year-old murder suspect was looking at a possible life sentence, the same that a friend received for allegedly gunning down a ninth-grader in May 2009.
But Jamal Clay struck a deal with prosecutors for the same killing Monday afternoon, accepted a two-year sentence, and will soon walk out of jail a free man. Both Clay and Travis Burke, his lifelong best friend and alleged conspirator, maintain their innocence.
They were among five originally accused of firing 30 bullets in broad daylight on Conti Street on May 22, 2009. One hit 16-year-old Roderick “Roddy” Gordon in the head.
Burke was the first of the defendants to be tried. He was convicted in 2011 of second-degree murder and sentenced to spend the rest of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
But the case against the other four men soon grew murky, and the emerging discrepancies could endanger Burke’s conviction.
His mother, Della, said she continues to fight for his exoneration and has begged civil rights groups to take up his case.
Travis Burke claims that he was home on the day of the murder, watching television with his sister and his infant child.
“My son is the victim of a grave injustice,” Burke’s mother said after Clay reached the plea agreement on Monday. “My innocent child is sitting in Angola, facing a life sentence, for a murder he didn’t commit.”
Authorities alleged that the shooting was part of an ongoing turf war between a gang called the Goonie Boys in the Iberville and two others, the Prieur and Columbus Boys in the 7th Ward and the Wild Side Gang in the 6th Ward. The murdered boy, prosecutors have said, was merely standing near their intended target.
But there was never any physical evidence tying any of the five to the crime.
During Burke’s trial, prosecutors relied on MySpace photos of Burke and Clay flashing gang signs and wielding weapons. They presented one lone eyewitness, who testified that she watched both Burke and Clay get out of a car on Conti Street in the Iberville public-housing complex. Each was holding a gun, she testified. She counted 15 shots, she said.
She testified that she watched Gordon as he fell, then “crawled for his life,” according to an appeals court record. She then said that the gunmen stood over the child and shot him several more times.
But Gordon was shot just once in the head.
Two years after Burke was convicted and sent to Angola on a life sentence, the Orleans Parish District Attorney sent him a letter disclosing that a new witness had come forward. The man, whom Burke’s attorneys never knew existed, told authorities that he witnessed the shooting, but saw neither Clay nor Burke. He saw just three shooters, not five, he had said.
The new witness claimed to have told Detective Desmond Pratt and an unnamed assistant district attorney what he’d seen a year before Burke’s trial.
Pratt, the lead investigator, has since been placed on unpaid leave as he awaits a trial of his own. He is charged with the forcible rape of a 15-year-old girl.
The four remaining defendants were scheduled to go to trial in April, months after the new witness emerged. But the original witness who identified Clay and Burke as the shooters refused to come to court to testify once again.
Instead of pressing forward with murder charges, prosecutors offered all four generous deals.
Joseph Kemp, 24, Quincy Jackson, 22, and Dominick Grant, 22, pleaded guilty to lesser offenses and walked out of jail with credit for time served.
Jackson pleaded guilty to manslaughter, acknowledging that he participated in the shooting. Prosecutors said he skirted the murder charge because he did not fire the fatal shot.
Kemp and Grant in early April pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to second-degree murder and were also released outright.
But Clay declined a deal that would have granted him immediate release. He instead opted to gamble on a trial for, his attorneys said, the opportunity to prove his innocence. His trial was scheduled for the following week.
Prosecutors asked for delays several times, citing the material witness who refused to come to court.
Clay on Monday reversed course and agreed to plead guilty to a low-level— and rare — charge called inciting a felony, defined as “the endeavor by one or more persons to incite or procure another person to commit a felony.” It is punishable by no more than two years.
He was offered credit for time served and will likely be released from prison within the day.
“Jamal Clay today and every day since his arrest has steadfastly denied any involvement in any homicide,” his attorney, Jason Williams, said in a statement. “When other defendants pleaded guilty to various charges in exchange for release from jail, he chose to remain in jail and wait for his day in court.”
Williams said they eventually agreed on Monday’s deal because it allowed Clay to get out of prison, after four years, without admitting guilt of the murder.
Chris Bowman, spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, declined to comment on Clay’s plea or Burke’s conviction.
Burke, meanwhile, remains at Angola, continuing to fight for his own release.
The Louisiana Supreme Court last month declined to review his case, despite the new witness. He can now petition District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier to reconsider his conviction, but his mother said she’s run out of money for an attorney.
“From the inception, they threw my child under the bus,” she said. “I love my child. I want him home because I know he didn’t do it.”
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