NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Two men were acquitted Monday on perjury charges that were filed after they recanted their stories in a 1993 murder case — resulting in the release of the convicted suspect.
State District Judge Ben Willard in New Orleans, who heard arguments and testimony Friday, tersely pronounced Kevin Johnson and Hakim Shabazz not guilty in a morning proceeding that lasted a matter of seconds. He said the state had not met its burden of proof in the perjury case.
Prosecutors had insisted the two should be punished for lying — whether it was when they were teenagers two decades ago, or as adults two decades later.
"This is a case that never should have been accepted in the first place," Johnson's attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, said outside the courthouse. "The timing of the acceptance of these charges was suspect in the sense that it looked vindictive. And I don't think anybody can deny that."
Defense attorney and New Orleans City Council member Jason Williams, who has been at odds with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro over funding issues and other matters, said the verdict was "as swift as it was righteous."
Cannizzaro later issued a statement expressing disappointment with the verdict and saying there was no question Johnson and Shabazz committed perjury — either in 1994 or when they changed their story in 2013.
"What did the State fail to prove?" Cannizzaro said in his statement.
Recantations by Johnson and Shabazz helped the organization known as The Innocence Project New Orleans win freedom for Jerome Morgan, who was convicted in 1994 and spent 20 years behind bars. The victim in the case, 16-year-old Clarence Landry, died when a gunman opened fire at a party in 1993. Morgan was 17-years-old when he was arrested.
Defense stressed that the two men were teenagers when the shooting happened. They said the men were courageous to risk prosecution by recanting their stories. A perjury conviction could have resulted in anywhere from five to 40 years in prison.
Prosecutors say their false statements had consequences — whether they sent an innocent man to prison or enabled a killer to go free.
Shabazz, Johnson and Morgan all were at a Sweet 16 party where a gunman opened fire in 1993. Shabazz and another person were wounded. Landry was killed.
Morgan was convicted at trial the next year. He was freed in 2014 and charges were officially dropped in 2016.
Willard heard testimony and arguments Friday in the perjury case, the result of a 2015 indictment.