In the early morning hours of June 17, 2006, five Black teenagers were found shot to death in a crashed SUV in a historic New Orleans neighborhood. The Central City Massacre was the city’s deadliest mass killing in over a decade and inflamed already-high tensions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
Police arrested Michael Anderson for the murders, though he said he had nothing to do with them. Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan dropped the charges in 2007, citing conflicting witness statements, but weeks later, Anderson was reindicted and charged with capital murder. The office of newly elected District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro convicted Anderson, and a jury voted for New Orlean’s first death sentence in 12 years.
But in 2010, Anderson’s case was overturned when his appellate attorneys discovered that Cannizzaro’s office had withheld a videotaped interview with the sole eyewitness. That interview, conducted by prosecutors and New Orleans Police Department detectives, contradicted her trial testimony about what she allegedly saw on that June morning. The office had also secretly rewarded jailhouse informant Ronnie Morgan for his testimony against Anderson.
They had a terrible case, and they had a terrible case because Michael Anderson didn’t do it.
Richard Bourke appellate attorney for Michael Anderson
In a 2009 letter, discovered by Anderson’s lawyers, Cannizzaro had asked the assistant U.S. attorney to diminish or reduce Morgan’s sentence for armed robbery in federal court, and gushed about his cooperation. “I can honestly say that we could not have convicted this murderer without his testimony,” Cannizzaro wrote in the letter. “Mr. Morgan is truly a hero in the eyes of the District Attorney’s office and the citizens of New Orleans.”
The letter further stated that Morgan’s testimony had cleared the way for the jury to believe the otherwise questionable eyewitness. “Many did not find the eyewitness to be a credible witness because of the conflicting statements she made and the fact that she has received financial assistance through the witness protection program,” the letter read. “It was Mr. Morgan’s corroborating testimony, which helped make the eyewitness credible.”
As a result of his cooperation, Morgan was permitted to withdraw a guilty plea he had entered for armed robberies, including robbing an automotive store with an assault rifle. His 15-year sentence was vacated, and he was released on parole in 2013 in what one judge called “the deal of the century.” In January 2014, Morgan was again charged with armed robbery in neighboring St. Bernard Parish. The arrest was a violation of his parole, and he was sent to Louisiana’s Richwood Correctional Center. Now, the case has resurfaced because Morgan is petitioning the federal government to move from state to federal prison.
In capital cases, jailhouse informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, jailhouse informants have been involved in more than 160 exonerations. In capital cases, jailhouse informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
Per Brady v. Maryland, the landmark Supreme Court decision, prosecutors must disclose all evidence favorable to the defense, including any deal that a witness may receive in exchange for testimony. The Orleans Parish district attorney’s office has a history of violating the Brady rule: In 2003, after 18 years in prison—14 of those on death row—John Thompson was exonerated after the defense found that the prosecution had withheld evidence clearing him of any crimes. And Robert Jones, who was wrongfully convicted in 1992 for crimes including murder and rape, filed a lawsuit in 2018 that alleged the DA’s office failed to disclose exonerating evidence in at least 45 cases dating back to the 1970s.
Problems with informants, especially jailhouse informants like Morgan, are not confined to New Orleans. In Orange County, California, roughly 146 cases have been tainted by misconduct that included an undisclosed jailhouse informant program. The widespread use of informants first came to light during the prosecution of Scott Dekraai, who confessed to killing eight people at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011 in the worst mass shooting in Orange County history. Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was one of the victims, watched as the case dragged on for five years because prosecutors did not disclose the secret jailhouse informant program. “This took a big toll on my life emotionally, not only professionally, to have to spend that extra four years in the courtroom because [the prosecution] got caught cheating,” he told The Appeal. “You want to think that the people you trust are going to do the right thing for you not the wrong thing not try to hurt you further.”
In 2016, federal prosecutors alleged in a court filing that New Orleans drug kingpin Telly Hankton, not Anderson, committed the Central City Massacre. Still, Hankton has never been formally charged for the crimes while Anderson accepted an Alford plea—a guilty plea in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence but concedes the prosecution has enough evidence to convict—to escape a federal death sentence in 2012.
Cannizzaro is up for re-election in 2020, though he has not announced whether he will run. A spokesperson for Cannizzaro’s office declined to comment to The Appeal. But at a May 16 press conference, Cannizzaro announced a new plan designed to cut down on juvenile crime that includes stepping up truancy enforcement and pushing to end the federal consent decree under which the New Orleans Police Department has operated since 2013.
If Cannizzaro decides to run again, he will face Jason Williams, a defense attorney and City Council member who announced his candidacy in October last year. Williams told The Appeal that he would introduce several reform measures as district attorney to remedy the office’s recurring problems with prosecutorial misconduct. These include true open-file discovery, a written manual of protocols addressing prosecutorial discretion, and a commission with experts from the criminal legal system, crime victims, and members of the public.