Freedom After 30 Years on Death Row

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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