Freedom After 30 Years on Death Row

A case involving a black man convicted by an all-white jury in Louisiana decades ago may be reopened.
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A 1984 photograph of Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford, who may soon be exonerated (James R. McClure/Caddo Parish Indigent Defender Office)

UPDATE: Glenn Ford was indeed released from prison late Tuesday afternoon local time. The same judge who denied him relief in 2009 was the one who signed the order authorizing his release.

ORIGINAL STORY: Glenn Ford, a black man wrongfully convicted of murder by an all-white jury in Louisiana in 1984, a man who has spent the last 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit following a trial filled with constitutional violations, is on the verge of being set free. Once that happens (and it could happen as soon as tomorrow after a hearing in the case) he will become one of the longest-serving death row inmates in modern American history to be exonerated and released.

Ford's dogged lawyers and enlightened parish prosecutors in Shreveport both filed motions late last week informing a state trial judge that the time has come now to vacate Ford's murder conviction and death sentence. Why? Because prosecutors now say that they learned, late last year, of "credible evidence" that Ford "was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder" of the victim in his case, a man named Isadore Rozeman.

Prosecutors believe the recent account of a confidential informant who claims that one of other four original co-defendants in the case, arrested long ago along with Ford, was actually the person who shot and killed Rozeman. This is not news to Ford. For three decades, stuck in inhumane conditions on death row in the state's notorious Angola prison, he has insisted that he had nothing to do with the murder and that he was involved in the case only after the fact. 

Any exoneration is remarkable, of course. Any act of justice after decades of injustice is laudable. It is never too late to put to right a wrong. But what also is striking about this case is how weak it always was, how frequently Ford's constitutional rights were denied, and yet how determined Louisiana's judges were over decades to defend an indefensible result.

Isadore Rozeman, an elderly white man with cataracts, a man fearful of crime in his neighborhood, was murdered in his small jewelry and watch repair shop in Shreveport on November 5, 1983. Ford had done yard work for Rozeman and several witnesses placed him near the scene of the crime on the day of the murder. When he learned that the police were looking for him he went to the police station where, for days, for months, he cooperated with the investigation.

Ford told the police, for example, that a man he identified as "O.B." had given him jewelry hoping that he, Ford, could pawn it. The police would later discover that this jewelry was similar to merchandise taken from Rozeman's store. Ford identified one possible suspect in Rozeman's murder, a man named Jake Robinson, and later suggested that "O.B." was Robinson's brother, Henry, who also may also have been up to no good.

With all signs pointing to the Robinsons, and with police under the impression that the one or both of the brothers still possessed the murder weapon, Ford was not immediately charged with Rozeman's murder. He and the two Robinsons were instead charged three months later—only after Jake Robinson's girlfriend, Marvella Brown, incriminated them by telling the police that Ford was with the Robinsons, and in the possession of a firearm, on the day of Rozeman's murder.

Louisiana also relied on "experts" to build its case. The first, the parish coroner who had not personally examined Rozeman's body, testified about the time of death and the fact that the shooter was left-handed. The second expert found a few particles unique to or characteristic of gunshot residue on Ford's hands. The third, a police officer not certified as a fingerprint expert, concluded that a "whorl" pattern on Ford's fingers was consistent with a single partial fingerprint lifted from a bag the police believed was used in the murder.

There was no murder weapon found. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime. There were legitimate reasons why Ford would have been around Rozeman's store. The primary witness against Ford was a person, Brown, whose credibility and reliability were immediately challenged. Expert opinions were not definitive. The police had reason to believe that one of the Robinsons had killed Rozeman. And most of all Ford had not acted suspiciously in any way.

Ford's murder trial was constitutionally flawed in almost every way. The two attorneys he was assigned were utterly unprepared for the job. The lead attorney was an oil and gas attorney who have never tried a case—criminal or civil—to a jury. The second attorney, two years out of law school, was working at an insurance defense firm on slip-and-fall cases. Both attorneys were selected from an alphabetical listing of lawyers at the local bar association.

During jury selection, prosecutors used their peremptory strikes to keep blacks off the jury. The reasons they gave for precluding these men and women from sitting in judgment of Ford were insulting and absurd. And leading up to and during the trial Louisiana did not share with the defense all evidence favorable to it as they were required to do under the United States Supreme Court's constitutional command in Brady v. Maryland.

The prosecution's case was based largely on the testimony of Brown, the girlfriend. Under cross-examination, however, she told jurors that the police had helped her make up the story she had told about Ford. When Ford's attorneys later called her to the witness stand, she told jurors that a bullet left from an old gunshot wound to her head had affected her thinking. "I did lie to the Court... I lied about it all," she said in court (remember, it was Brown's story that led to Ford's arrest).

After Brown's credibility imploded on the stand, prosecutors turned to their "experts." It was a case that cried out for rebuttal experts to make simple and obvious points. A coroner who did not examine the body could not accurately determine time of death or whether the shooter was left-handed. That sort of thing. But no experts testified for the defense. Why? Because Ford's lawyers believed, mistakenly, that they would have to pay for the costs of these experts.* (Many years later, in a post-trial hearing, the experts Ford's finally did hire profoundly undermined the conclusions reached by Louisiana's trial experts.) 

Ford was quickly convicted. At the sentencing phase of his trial, the lack of competent defense counsel again played a factor. The best mitigation witnesses who might have testified for him lived out of state—but Ford's lawyers were unsure about the process for subpoenaing them to testify in Louisiana. It took that all-white jury less than three hours to recommend a sentence of death for the man they believed murdered Isadore Rozeman.  

As it is in most capital cases, the appellate history of the case is tortuous. All through the years, in both explicit and implicit ways, the Louisiana appellate courts expressed their unease with the results of Ford's trial. But no court, ever, reversed the conviction and sentence against him and ordered a new trial. This is so even though the first court to review the case, the Louisiana Supreme Court itself, concluded it had "serious questions" about the result.

Most people believe that ineffective assistance of counsel only occurs at trial. That's not true. In these cases the incompetence that occurs at or before trial often is compounded by poor appellate work and that initially happened here— the same system, in other words, that can tolerate an oil and gas man handling a capital murder case can tolerate giving a convicted murderer an appellate lawyer who also doesn't know what the hell he is doing.

But the fair trial issues Ford raised were so strong that in many respects he got lucky. For example, the justices in Washington ordered a hearing on his claims about race bias in jury selection-- only to see the Louisiana courts back up the preposterous claims of prosecutors that there were neutral reasons for the jurors they selected and rejected. Only black juror was rejected, for example, because a prosecutor said he felt "uneasy" about her and thus did not look her in the eye.

And the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a hearing on his claims about ineffective assistance of counsel and the prosecution's failure to disclose exculpatory evidence-- only to see the trial court again back up prosecutors by interpreting precedent in a way that renders meaningless the right to counsel and the Brady rule. (The irony here is profound; we now know, from the prosecution's filing this week, that there is additional evidence that would have decided the outcome of the case.)

 It was this ruling, in October 2009, that perhaps best illustrates the farce this case was. Yes, a Louisiana judge conceded, Ford would have been benefited from having those California witnesses testify for him during the mitigation phase of his trial. Yes, he would have benefited had his lawyers hired their own experts. But none of this constituted "ineffective assistance." The Louisiana Supreme Court, in a two-word order, accepted this dreadful interpretation of law.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are providing much public detail about the circumstances surrounding this "confidential informant" and why the case has turned so suddenly after all these years. My sense is that prosecutors in particular want to keep things quiet now to ensure they properly proceed against the person(s) they now believe murdered Isadore Rozeman. But soon, I hope, they will have to answer all the new questions this twist raises.

Like whether the murder weapon, never found in 1983 or anytime thereafter, was in the possession of one or both of the Robinsons at the time of Rozeman's death. And whether the "credible" evidence prosecutors have just discovered was discoverable 30 years ago. What took so long for this information to come to light? Why did it come to light now? What is so credible about this new witness? What do old-time Shreveport law enforcement officials think about all this?

Will there be a second trial for Rozeman's murder? If so, what will it look like? Louisiana demonstrated 30 years ago that it's possible to win even a woefully weak murder case and death sentence against an indigent black man so long as you have an all-white jury, incompetent defense lawyers, and no defense experts. But that's not a scenario that is likely to unfold this time around, no matter who the defendant is, and prosecutors know it. 

Will Louisiana apologize to Ford for incarcerating him for 30 years for a crime he did not commit? Will state officials acknowledge that it was unconscionable for their predecessors to have proceeded against Ford once they knew that Brown had made up her story? And what in the world will all those state judges think now that their failure to do justice, year after year after year, has been so broadly exposed by the twist in this case?

In the next few weeks, as this story spreads, the focus naturally will be on the ending of it—Ford's first steps toward freedom. What few will focus upon, sadly, is why it took 30 years for justice to shine through here or why anyone (in or out of Louisiana) ought to have any confidence in a judicial system that so mightily defends verdicts like this one. Sure, a judge here and there piped up. Hearings were held. But precisely what good did it do Ford?

This is a sad story with a happy ending. But it's a story I've written before. And it raises the inescapable question of how many other condemned men and woman are sitting on death row in the nation's prisons, after sham trials like this, after feckless appellate review, waiting for lightning to strike them the way it has Glenn Ford. How many men, that is, who have not yet been executed despite being innocent of murder.

Until the very end what happened here was neither law nor order. It was instead something arbitrary and capricious, like the application of the death penalty itself. For Glenn Ford, the man Louisiana now says is innocent of murder, once faced a death warrant—on February 28, 1991. Had that warrant been executed who exactly would have known of the injustice of that act? Twenty-six other Louisiana death row inmates were killed during his decades on death row—eight by lethal injection, 18 by the electric chair.

What a waste—of a man's life, of million of dollars in prison costs, of thousands upon thousands of hours of work by lawyers and judges and investigators and experts, all because the criminal justice system failed 30 years ago to provide to Ford with even a remotely fair trial. Soon it will be the first day of the rest of Glenn Ford's life. He'll try to make the best of it. Which is about all you can say, too, about the men and women responsible for Louisiana's justice system.  


* Compare these facts to the facts of an Alabama murder conviction involving a man named Anthony Ray Hinton, whose incompetent attorneys believed they could only spend $1,000 on defense experts. This was so obviously a violation of Hinton's constitutional right to counsel that the United States Supreme Court, in an unanimous decision last month, finally granted him a measure of relief. Notably, the justices in Washington, just a few years ago, unanimously failed to similarly come to Ford's rescue when asked to do so.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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