Judge Calvin Johnson
Transcript: the talk in the BBC website above:
- I meet Judge Calvin Johnson in the spacious hallways of New Orleans’s grand criminal court.
- It’s a place he came to love over his long career, but one where he now says grave injustices were done.
- “The fact that Robert Jones was wrongly convicted and is in jail for something he arguably he didn’t do weighs heavily on me,” says the judge, now retired, who presided over Robert’s trial in 1996.
- “But we had a prosecutor’s office that was not forthcoming in providing information that could help defendants. It was playing fast and loose with the truth and was negligent across several cases and they did it consistently. That is what happened with Robert Jones.”
- Himself an African-American, Johnson makes the astonishing claim that the system worked to put as many young, black men behind bars for as long as possible.
- “That wasn’t anything unique about Robert Jones or that time. I mean that was the driving force in this town for decades,” he says.
- The way we looked at Robert Jones was: ‘If he didn’t do this, he did something else and therefore his punishment is not justified for this particular act, it’s justified for other things he did and got away with.’”
- Both of the prosecutors involved in Robert’s case declined to be interviewed.
- The first is Roger Jordan, now a defence lawyer. In 2005, in a rare ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court barred him from practising law for three months for withholding evidence in another case.
- He said “professional rules of ethics” prevented him from discussing Robert Jones’s case with me.
- The second is Fred Menner, who argued the case against Robert Jones in court and is still a prosecutor. Again, he said he could not speak to me on the record about an active case.
- But in September of this year, a memo that Menner wrote in 1996 was finally made public. In essence, it concedes that there was no admissible evidence against Robert Jones in the Julie Stott murder case.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro
Some might argue that the massive volume of cases going through the criminal justice system in Louisiana is bound to result in mistakes.
Others have suggested that prosecutors may have withheld evidence to speed up trials, or simply to win.
It is hard to prove Judge Johnson’s allegation that there was a conspiracy to lock up as many black youths as possible, but another senior figure in the Louisiana justice system accepts that something was badly wrong during the 30 years the state prosecutor’s office was run by District Attorney Harry Connick (father of the jazz musician and singer, Harry Connick Jr).
“Certainly the reputation of this office traditionally has been stained, there is no question about that,” says the man doing the job now, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.
There is also no question that this is not the only case, there have been other cases, where prosecutors either intentionally or negligently withheld evidence. The best I can do is move forward.”
“From this point, from the moment I took office, what we said we were going to do, is those things are not going to happen.”
But despite this admission, in the past Cannizzaro has strenuously fought accusations that the prosecutor’s office exhibited a pattern of failures.
On that basis, he refused $14m in compensation to a man named John Thompson, who was freed from death row after evidence withheld by prosecutors was finally brought to light.
He also fought to prevent any court ruling that Robert Jones’s trial was unfair, but in June the Louisiana Supreme Court finally dismissed his appeals.
He then wanted a bond of $2.25 million to be paid if Jones was to be released ahead of a retrial.
But in mid-November that demand was rejected by a judge, who said that pending a retrial – on the charge of rape – Robert could finally leave jail.