NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court won’t consider re-imposing the death penalty for a man serving life for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in 1985, when he was 21.
John Francis Wille (WIL-lee) was originally sentenced to death for first-degree murder in the death of Michele Lopatta. However St. John the Baptist Parish prosecutors agreed in 2014 that the sentence should be life, and that Wille could continue with appeals contending he is innocent.
After a new district attorney was elected, she asked courts to re-impose the death penalty, contending the change in sentence was illegal. State district and appeals courts rejected her arguments, and the high court said without comment Monday that it won’t hear the case.
“We’re very gratified that the Louisiana Supreme Court has decided not to reinstate John Wille’s death sentence. And what this means for the future is, we will continue to push forward with post-conviction relief for exoneration of Mr. Wille,” said defense attorney Kate Rhodes Janofsky.
District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut did not immediately return a call for comment.
Janofsky said no physical evidence linked Wille to Lopatta, whose nude, beaten and decomposing body was found in St. John the Baptist Parish four days after she went missing from her mother’s apartment in the New Orleans suburb of Terrytown.
Prosecutors relied largely on horrifyingly detailed confessions from Wille, his girlfriend, Judy Walters, and Walters’ 14-year-old daughter. Wille’s current legal team says those confessions were coerced and not true — a conclusion also reached by forensic psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson, who testified at a hearing for Wille in 2000 and described the case and his reasoning in “The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook .”
A judge has heard some evidence, and more witnesses are planned, Janofsky said.
Judy Walters, who was tried separately and sentenced to life, refused to testify at Wille’s trial, invoking her Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Her post-conviction appeals were being heard with Wille’s, but she died Sept. 27, Janofsky said.
More than 20 claims in Wille’s petition include assertions that trial attorney George Oubre — a former state senator who had been convicted of bank fraud and was assigned to defend Wille as court-appointed public service — was incompetent.
Oubre told Judge Sterling Snowdy that the trial judge brushed off his protests that the capital murder case “was way beyond me,” Nola.com ‘ The Times-Picayune reported in 2014.
“I think it’s very telling that the original defense attorney supports our petition,” Janofsky said.