In the early morning hours of April 10, 2011, Selvin Gonzales went out with a housemate to buy some drinks. They walked to a Shell station at Tulane Avenue and South Jefferson Davis Parkway in New Orleans’s Mid-City neighborhood, purchased soda and alcohol, and met a drug dealer outside the market. But an argument with the dealer ensued. As Gonzales walked back to his home near the 600 block of South Salcedo Street, someone shot him four times, killing him. New Orleans Police Department officers arrested a then-20-year-old Black man named Jabari Williams, and Orleans Parish prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life without parole sentence in Louisiana.
But the case unraveled in part because Keva Landrum, then an Orleans Parish District Court judge, allowed District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to strike 11 jurors—all Black—from Williams’s case. And she failed to allow before the jury evidence that Williams had an IQ of 68, well below the range (70-75) that indicates intellectual disability. Williams was initially convicted at trial in 2012. But after years of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the conviction in 2016 and granted him a new trial based on actions Landrum took in court. In Williams v. Louisiana, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a concurring opinion joined by three other justices that Landrum’s rejection of a defense challenge to the striking of a potential Black juror violated the Supreme Court ruling Batson v Kentucky. In Batson, the Court ruled that a prosecutor’s actions to strike four Black people from a jury without identifying a “neutral” reason that they should have been excluded violated the defendant’s Sixth and 14th Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 20, 2016, as part of a package of cases dealing with prosecutors’ ability to strike Black people from juries from criminal cases. That same day, the court also vacated the conviction of Christopher Floyd of Alabama after prosecutors marked Black people’s names with a “B” before striking them, and that of Mississippi’s Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times for a quadruple murder. Flowers’s case was marred by significant prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. In September, prosecutors dropped all charges against Flowers.
In September 2016, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Williams’s conviction—but the Louisiana Supreme Court again remanded that decision in 2017 and demanded that Landrum “conduct a hearing and clarify its ruling on defendant’s Batson challenges.” The case has remained open since. Williams is imprisoned at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana. Reached by The Appeal, Williams’s attorney, Michael Admirand, declined to comment on the case.
Landrum, who served as interim Orleans Parish district attorney for less than a year between 2007 to 2008, is on the precipice of again becoming New Orleans DA. On Nov. 3, Landrum advanced to a runoff against New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney who has run for the office before. But criminal legal reform advocates say Landrum’s record shows that, in addition to working as a tough-on-crime prosecutor under Harry F. Connick Sr., the New Orleans DA whose tenure was rocked by wrongful convictions, Landrum was too deferential to prosecutors when she served as a judge.
Since announcing her candidacy in July, Landrum has attempted to distance herself from her former bosses at the DA’s office—especially Connick, who was Orleans Parish DA from 1973 until his 2003 retirement. Misconduct in Connick’s office led to 19 conviction reversals, according to the Innocence Project. Overturned cases included one man convicted and sentenced to death after Connick’s prosecutors withheld evidence showing the defendant’s blood type didn’t match the killer’s, as well as one 16-year-old child wrongfully sent to death row. Landrum joined Connick’s office in 1998, one year after graduating from law school.
Landrum served as a line prosecutor, sex crimes and homicide screener, juvenile division chief, screening division chief, and first assistant under Connick’s successor, former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan. Jordan, the city’s first Black DA, resigned in 2007 amid a swirl of criticism: The city’s murder rate rose to the highest in the country while Jordan was accused by subordinates of being an absentee boss who lacked leadership skills. In 2005, a civil jury ordered the DA’s office to pay out $3.7 million after it found that Jordan had discriminated against 53 white employees whom he’d fired. Two years later, Jordan left the office to Landrum, who served as interim DA until Cannizzaro was elected in 2008 after defeating Williams and several other candidates.
Landrum has since faced criticism from criminal legal reform advocates for ramping up marijuana prosecutions during her short stint as the city’s top prosecutor. Under Jordan, prosecutors typically tried most cannabis possession charges as misdemeanors. But under Landrum, felony possession cases soared, in what was allegedly a scheme to boost felony conviction rates at a time when the city’s murder rate was soaring. (“I would disagree that I had a punitive record,” Landrum told The Appeal: Political Report in October when asked about her record on marijuana cases.)
As Cannizzaro took office—and built a reputation for Brady violations, jailing crime victims, and issuing fraudulent subpoenas—Landrum successfully ran for Orleans Parish District Court judge. Now, her judicial record is under a microscope as she runs for DA; Robert Murray Sr., the father of a man whom Landrum sent to prison in 2013—only for the conviction to be later vacated because of false testimony from the case’s lead witness—has spent $25,000 to run anti-Landrum ads and launch the website KevaExposed.com. In 2012, Robert Murray Jr. was one of three men accused by a Tulane University student of robbery. After one of the three men, former Tulane football star Trent Mackey, was acquitted in the case, Murray Jr. filed a request for a new trial based on the fact that the alleged victim had given conflicting accounts during different trials. Landrum denied that request—but Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal tossed his conviction in 2017 and granted him a new trial. Murray Jr. later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge as part of a plea deal.
In an interview with The Appeal, Murray Sr. called Landrum “incompetent” and said he encouraged his son to take a plea deal to ensure that he wouldn’t get convicted a second time, despite the fact that his other co-defendants had been acquitted.
“When my son was granted a new trial through the Fourth Circuit, there was no way in hell that I’d let my son go through another trial in Keva Landrum’s court,” he said. “Anything could have happened. My son had already been away for almost three years. His mother cried every day and every night.” After Murray Sr. began publishing ads that called Landrum “corrupt” earlier this year, Landrum took Murray Sr. to court and persuaded a judge to temporarily ban him from promoting the ads.
“The DA’s office under Connick, under Landrum, under Cannizzaro, has been guided by a win-at-all costs culture,” Williams, Landrum’s opponent, said at a debate last Thursday.
Landrum’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.
Landrum’s involvement in Jabari Williams’s Supreme Court case, however, has gone unexamined as she runs for DA.
According to court records, the two lead witnesses in the bungled murder case against Williams were victim Selvin Gonzales’s two housemates, Jorge Rodriguez and Carlos Sabillion. Gonzales, a Honduran national, moved to the U.S. five years prior and worked as a day laborer. On the morning Gonzales was killed, he and Sabillion took a walk to the nearby Shell station to grab some soda and beer. Sabillion told police that the men stood at an outside window paying for their drinks when Williams arrived in jeans and a white T-shirt and offered to sell them cocaine. Gonzales whipped out a wad of cash—but Sabillion said he chastised Gonzales and instructed him to get his money back and return the drugs. Sabillion said the two men walked back to their home and someone had followed them. Sabillion said the duo was then held up at gunpoint. As Sabillion ran towards their home, shots rang out, killing Gonzales.
New Orleans Police Department detectives interviewed Sabillion and showed him video footage from the Shell station’s security cameras. Sabillion identified Williams as the killer. (Sabillion would later state in court that he had been robbed by “Black people” in the past and that he struggled to tell Black people apart.) New Orleans police then publicly disseminated images of Williams and stated that he was a person of interest in the case. Williams turned up at a local police station shortly after and stated that he wanted to “set the record straight.”
The police department detectives who interrogated Williams stated in court that they used a method of questioning known as the “Reid Technique.” The technique developed by psychologist and former Chicago police officer John Reid in the 1950s was known for producing a high rate of false confessions, especially among children and the intellectually disabled. For most of the interview, Williams denied he’d killed anyone. But during a particularly accusatory line of questioning from the officers, Williams confessed to the killing. He almost immediately backtracked, saying he “thought I was telling you what you wanted to hear” and that the detective was “pressuring” him. Based on that confession, DA Cannizzaro’s office charged Williams with second-degree murder.
During a May 2012 competency hearing, state and defense experts disagreed about Williams’s intellectual disability. Although court-appointed psychiatrists suggested Williams’s IQ was most likely in the “seventy to seventy-nine” range, a doctor serving as an expert for Williams’s defense insisted that had an IQ of 63—potentially making him incompetent to stand trial. Landrum disagreed with the defense’s presentation on Williams and said the case could proceed. She later denied Williams’s motion to enter any evidence into trial suggesting that he was intellectually disabled, stating that the motions were a “back door way of trying to get in a mental disease or defective disorder or diminished capacity or a different way of trying to back door in” claims about his competency.
Jury selection began on June 12, 2012. During the first round of voir dire (a preliminary examination of jurors by judges and attorneys) prosecutors moved to strike six potential jurors, all of whom were Black, from the case. Williams’s attorneys objected. Prosecutors then provided a list of seemingly race neutral reasons to strike the jurors. One woman had recently been on a different jury that returned a not-guilty verdict in a burglary case. Another man had said during voir dire that perhaps some people wrongfully confess to crimes in order to take the fall for others. Prosecutors claimed one man had “bad body language,” while noting that another man “nodded” when a different potential juror complained that the “reasonable doubt” standard of proof was too low for some cases.
Another round of jury selection occurred. This time, prosecutors again moved to strike five potential jurors, all of whom were Black. Once more, Williams’s defense attorneys complained that the strikes seemed racially motivated and in violation of Batson.
“I disagree with you,” Landrum responded, according to court documents. Nonetheless, she allowed the state to provide reasons why two jurors deserved to be struck, including one man who said he’d give New Orleans police a “zero” rating, and another man whom the state said had been arrested in the past.
“She was laughing along with [potential juror] Mr. West, as well,” prosecutors said. “During the actual voir dire of this panel, she appeared disinterested and kind of had a—you know, slouched down in the chair, as if she didn’t want to be asked any questions.”
Williams’s attorneys then asked Landrum if she would also allow the state to provide its own reasons for rejecting the three other Black jurors, but Landrum declined and said she simply remembered the jurors’ voir dire well enough herself.
The case then proceeded to trial, and Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Williams later demanded a new trial, but Landrum rejected those requests. His appeals to the Fourth Judicial Circuit and Louisiana Supreme Court also failed. But, with help from the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization, Williams appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Landrum’s seemingly off-the-cuff responses to Williams’s attorney’s complaints about jury selection helped sink the case. Because Landrum—not prosecutors—gave reasons that multiple jurors in the second round of voir dire should be struck, four U.S. Supreme Court justices said she’d violated the Constitution. Williams’s conviction was overturned.
“The judge is an arbiter, not a participant, in the judicial process,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in the 2016 concurring opinion. “Allowing the court to provide race-neutral reasons for the State violates [the Constitution].”