Murder conviction challenged
Hakim Shabazz was 17 years old, two decades ago, when he pointed to one of six photos in a lineup and set in motion a chain of events that has kept a man locked in prison ever since.
He now says he believes that man is innocent.
“What I did, it just wasn’t right,” Shabazz said from a New Orleans witness stand Thursday. His lips quivered. He looked down. He wept.
“I just think that he shouldn’t have to spend another day in jail on my account, for what I said,” he said.
Jerome Morgan sat at the defendant’s table just a few feet away. Morgan was 16 years old in 1993 when he was accused of firing a half-dozen bullets into the crowd at a Sweet 16 birthday party, piercing Shabazz through the side and killing another 16-year-old, Clarence Landry.
Now, 20 years later, he is asking Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny to throw out his conviction and grant him a new trial.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office insists the conviction should stand.
Morgan was prosecuted by Cannizzaro’s predecessor, Harry Connick, whose tenure has since been marred by multiple overturned convictions and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
Morgan’s conviction was based largely on the testimony of two teenagers: Shabazz and Kevin “Lucky” Johnson.
Both testified at the 1994 trial that they watched Morgan pull the trigger.
But each returned to the witness stand Thursday to say they lied 20 years ago and they never saw the shooter.
Morgan’s attorney from the Innocence Project, Kristin Wenstrom, claims police prodded the two teenagers into falsely identifying Morgan, and prosecutors then hid the evidence that would have proved their story was impossible.
Morgan’s public defenders at his original trial had been too incompetent to notice, she alleged.
Both Shabazz and Johnson had been with Landry at the birthday party on May 22, 1993, in the ballroom at the Howard Johnson motel on Old Gentilly Boulevard.
A fight broke out between two groups, and someone pulled a gun and opened fire.
Landry, hit in the neck and the shoulder, fell back, gasping for air. Shabazz was shot through the side, and another youth was struck in the thigh.
The ballroom exploded in chaos, Johnson recalled. Teenagers ran screaming, hiding, trying to get away from the gunfire.
Landry died in his arms.
Johnson said he chased the gunman out the door and followed him a few steps down an alley.
The shooter climbed over a fence and Johnson got scared, fearing the gunman would reload and kill him, too. So he went back to the ballroom.
A security guard submitted a signed affidavit to the Innocence Project, swearing he locked the doors and let no one in or out until police arrived.
When officers got there, they made a list of the dozens of kids still in the ballroom. Jerome Morgan’s name appears among them, along with his birthdate, telephone number and address.
Prosecutors alleged at his initial trial that Morgan managed to run away, hop the fence, stash the gun and return to the scene of the murder before police arrived.
The jury believed it.
Innocence Project attorneys allege the police call log was hidden from defense attorneys because it showed the first officer arrived just six minutes after the shooting, making the alleged escape and return virtually impossible.
Also, they allege, the security guard was never interviewed by police or investigators, and it was never revealed to the jury he had secured the doors after the gunshots.
Out on the street, the rumor mill had already convicted Morgan.
“The street was buzzing, everybody was saying, ‘Jerome, Jerome, Jerome,’ ” Johnson testified Thursday.
Landry had been his best friend, and his mother was desperate for her son’s killer to be caught, Johnson said. He said people told him, “Do the right thing for your friend, we need justice, we need closure. This was your friend.”
Seven months later, he looked at another lineup, which again had Morgan’s picture among the six. Johnson, now a 38-year-old film actor, testified Thursday that he again removed Morgan’s picture and said he couldn’t be the killer.
But a detective pushed the picture back into the mix.
“Are you sure it’s not this guy right here?” the detective asked him, according to an affidavit Johnson signed.
He said the detective told him the photo was of Jerome Morgan, the name he’d heard on the streets as the shooter.
Johnson said he questioned his own recollection, figuring everybody else must be right, and confirmed that the picture he’d previously excluded was indeed that of the teenager he’d chased into the alley.
Shabazz had also heard Morgan’s name on the street. After he spent 10 days in the hospital recovering from his wounds, a detective called when he got home. The detective asked Shabazz if he knew who had shot him. Shabazz said he didn’t, that he never saw a face.
The detective allegedly said, “Jerome shot you,” then asked Shabazz to come to the station to give a statement.
“People were just talking and talking and talking,” Shabazz said Thursday. The detective pressured him to point out Morgan, and made him feel he would be doing a public service if he did so, he said.
“It’s almost like they painted this picture for me, that it was him,” he said, struggling on the witness stand.
Now 37 years old and the owner of a mechanic’s shop, Shabazz said he is wracked with guilt and wants to make things right.
Prosecutors insisted Morgan’s conviction should stand.
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Kirkham hammered each man about the dramatic changes to their sworn testimony.
Twenty years ago, he said, they took an oath and told their stories to a jury. The jury believed them. And now they want to change those stories.
He also noted that both men are convicted felons.
Prosecutors plan to call the detective, Wayne Tamborello, to testify Friday and rebut the pair’s testimony that he coaxed them into identifying the killer.
Morgan’s family packed the courtroom Thursday, and said after the hearing that they were hopeful he’d be home soon.
“It’s time for justice to be given,” said his sister, Belinda Morgan, who was 15 when her brother went to prison. “This is what we’ve been saying for the last 20 years. Today feels good, these are tears of joy.”
But another of Morgan’s supporters said she also feels badly for the family of the boy who died.
“We still want justice for the victim, too,” she said. “He still doesn’t have it, 20 years later.”