NEW ORLEANS — A judge has ordered Louisiana to pay $180,000 to a New Orleans man who spent almost a decade behind bars wrongfully on a murder charge.
Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter ruled the state must compensate Kia Stewart, whose conviction was tossed two years ago. Several witnesses came forward to offer alibis for Stewart and to pin the shooting on another man.
Stewart spent most of his sentence in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison at Angola.
The New Orleans Advocate reports the 30-year-old was freed in 2015, when a judge dismissed his conviction. However, Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office fought to prevent him from receiving a payout from the state’s fund for the exonerated.
Landry’s office has not said whether it will appeal.
“Our office is disappointed in the ruling, but we respect the court’s decision,” said Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for Landry. “We stand by the evidence we presented in this matter and are currently weighing our options to determine how to best proceed.”
Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said Hunter’s ruling was “long overdue.” Her group represented Stewart when he appealed his conviction.
“Kia’s young life was shattered by being arrested at 17 for a crime he didn’t commit,” Maw said. “That this practical help has been so long coming has made it much harder for him to overcome an obstacle that most of us would find insurmountable.”
Stewart will be paid $25,000 per year under state law. The judge’s ruling also permits Stewart to apply for an additional $80,000 in compensation for “loss of life opportunities.”
In winning the decision, Stewart overcame the high bar set by a state law that essentially reverses the burden of proof in criminal cases for those seeking compensation from the state. Beyond proving they were wrongfully convicted, former inmates must prove they were actually innocent of the underlying crime.
Hunter said Stewart’s lawyers had “proven that it is highly probable that he is factually innocent for the charge of second-degree murder.”
Hunter relied on the testimony of several witnesses who suggested that another man shot Bryant “B.J.” Craig to death on July 31, 2005.
The state’s sole witness at the trial said he was walking nearby when a man he identified as Stewart killed Craig. But in a series of post-conviction hearings, Stewart’s lawyers presented six witnesses who said another man, Antonio Barnes, was the killer. Five witnesses said Barnes confessed to them. Four witnesses backed up Stewart’s alibi.
Barnes died during an attempted armed robbery in Houston in 2006.
Citing a lack of evidence, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to dismiss the case against Stewart in 2015. Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny ordered his release.
However, Landry’s office still fought to deny Stewart compensation for his time behind bars. It pointed to contradictions between statements that the alibi witnesses gave about where Stewart was when the shooting happened.
In a ruling last year, Hunter said Stewart’s attorneys still needed to produce more evidence to prove his actual innocence and invited them to try again. Landry’s office appealed that ruling. On Sept. 11, the state Supreme Court said Hunter had to decide with the evidence on hand.
Hunter said that in the end, he decided the alibi witnesses’ statements could be reconciled after all.
Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com