The Times Picayune

N.O. man cleared in '84 murder

New trial in Liuzza killing brings an emotional end to epic case

Friday May 09, 2003

By Gwen Filosa
Staff writer

Eighteen years after he was sent to death row for the 1984 murder of hotel executive Ray Liuzza, a New Orleans man was acquitted Thursday night and will go home today.

John Thompson, 40, who has always insisted he was innocent, smiled with relief as the verdict was announced less than an hour after the jury began deliberating. His relatives seated behind him sank back into their chairs with tears.

Liuzza's family members, who sat through the three-day trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, appeared stunned. The acquittal means the case ends with no one held accountable for the killing.

The jury's decision Thursday caps a case that has run a tortured history through the court system, from the discovery that prosecutors hid critical evidence from Thompson's first defense attorney to the successful appeal last summer that overturned his first-degree murder conviction and paved the way for the new trial this week.

Liuzza, 34, was gunned down by a robber after midnight Dec. 6, 1984, in the 1700 block of Josephine Street, just around the corner from his apartment building. He was shot five times, including three times in his back.

"Why did he have to shoot me?" Liuzza asked the police officer who found him lying near the sidewalk. A neighbor heard Liuzza plead for his life, offering his watch and wallet to the attacker.

Nearly two decades after his arrest for murder, Thompson, for the first time, took the witness stand and professed his innocence.

In 1985, Thompson did not take the stand because he had been convicted in an unrelated armed robbery. Convicted felons rarely take the stand in their defense, because their criminal history is open to attack by prosecutors.

A free man

Thompson will leave parish prison this morning, defense attorney Robert Glass said Thursday night. Glass, a local lawyer, joined Thompson's defense after Thompson escaped a scheduled execution in 1999. Glass joined two Philadelphia lawyers, Michael Banks and J. Gordon Cooney Jr., who had worked on the case for 14 years. Prosecutors Val Solino and Sharry Scott left the courthouse without talking to reporters. District Attorney Eddie Jordan released a brief statement about the case he inherited from predecessor Harry Connick.

"It's a 20-year-old case with 20-year-old facts, and witnesses who have long been gone," Jordan said. "The prosecutors handling this case did their best to forge through the difficult trial."

Taken off death row

Thompson was 22 when charged with Liuzza's murder, and was swiftly shipped off to Louisiana's death row.

In 1999, weeks before Thompson was set to die by injection at the Angola state penitentiary, a defense investigator found a crime lab report that cleared Thompson of the robbery charge. The blood type of the robber, found on the victim's pants, didn't match Thompson's.

Finding that the robbery conviction influenced the 1985 jury's decision to send Thompson to death row, Judge Patrick Quinlan threw out Thompson's death sentence in 2001, giving him life without parole.

In July, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Thompson was denied his right to testify at the 1985 murder trial because in the armed robbery case, the district attorney's office "intentionally hid" evidence of the blood type. The court overturned Thompson's murder conviction.

This week, Thompson's defense team presented a series of witnesses who had never testified before a jury. Having tracked down three people who lived near the murder scene in 1984, the attorneys presented testimony that fingered another man as Liuzza's killer: Kevin Freeman.

Freeman was originally charged with Liuzza's murder along with Thompson.

But he took a deal with prosecutors , getting five years for being an accessory after the fact to the murder, in exchange for his testimony implicating Thompson. Freeman, like several other original witnesses, has since died. He was shot to death by a security guard in 1995 as he was apparently breaking into parked cars.

In an extraordinary move, jurors this week were allowed to hear Freeman's statements about the case, which were followed by a series of pointed questions that the defense would have asked him on the stand had he been alive today. The list included, "Isn't it true you killed Ray Liuzza?"

New witness comes forward

The jury also heard from a witness who insisted she saw the man who killed Liuzza from her apartment balcony that night -- and it wasn't John Thompson, said Sheri Hartman Kelly. Kelly said she fled New Orleans a month after witnessing the murder out of fear for her life.

Investigators found Kelly in Tennessee three years ago. She insisted the man she saw was muscular with very short hair. Photos from the time show Thompson had a slender build and a tall afro.

"I've carried a burden for years," Kelly said. "I just need to do the right thing."

No gun, no solid evidence

Prosecutors were faced with a murder case plagued by old age. The police had lost the murder weapon. Key witnesses for the state were dead. No scientific evidence linked Thompson to the murder.

The state focused on its original theory that Thompson was guilty because he had at one time possessed the handgun that killed Liuzza and the gold ring that his murderer stole from him.

Thompson explained that he got the ring and the gun through his drug dealing, and that it was common in those days to trade in "hot" merchandise.

During cross-examination, Solino repeatedly asked Thompson why he had no alibi for the night of the crime.

"I was probably club-hopping," Thompson said, recalling his days as a street-corner drug dealer who plied customers with "clickums," marijuana laced with PCP.

"You've had 18½ years to think about it?" Solino shot back. "You never thought about where you were that night?"

The Liuzza family left the courthouse Thursday believing Thompson was the real killer, and that a technicality had given him a new trial.

"In this case, justice was blind and deaf," Liuzza's father, Ray Liuzza, said. "All we can do now is go forward with our lives." . . . . . . .

Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3304.


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