Freedom After 30 Years on Death Row

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. 

Presented by

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

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