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Case in Point

Exonerated, Dead and Still on Trial

In a notorious Louisiana case, a judge gets in a last kick.

It was no surprise last month when a Louisiana appeals court affirmed a trial judge’s denial of compensation for the estate of the late Glenn Ford. Ford was the soft-spoken black man who spent 30 years on death row for a murder he did not commit, convicted by an all-white jury following a trial in which he was represented by an oil and gas attorney who had never before tried a case. Ford’s case became internationally known, and the subject of a “60 Minutes” piece, when the prosecutor who sent him away, Marty Stroud, loudly apologized for his role in “destroying” Ford’s life.

In “Case in Point,” Andrew Cohen examines a single case or character that sheds light on the criminal justice system.

For decades, both before and during the national attention, the Louisiana courts had been hostile to Ford’s claims that he had been a victim of police and prosecutorial misconduct. This was so even after contemporary Caddo Parish prosecutors conceded that someone other than Ford had murdered Isadore Rozeman, a jeweler slain in Shreveport in 1983. And it was so even after Ford was exonerated of murder and released in 2014 from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola carrying the cancer that soon would kill him.

But within the past four weeks, as the Louisiana courts have ensured that Ford’s family would not be compensated for his decades in solitary confinement, three extraordinary things have happened. First, in early April, a state legislator named Cedric Glover, astutely predicting how poorly the court case might turn out for the Ford family, introduced a bill that would help provide compensation to the family by broadening the state’s restrictive compensation statute.

The family seeks $330,000 for Ford’s decades on death row and argues that the current law’s requirement of a finding of “factual innocence” has been misinterpreted by state attorneys and judges. Glover authored the original law setting up compensation awards for exonerees and now says he wants to make it easier for exonerees to prove their “innocence.” The measure stands little chance of passage in a budget-crunched Louisiana legislature but Glover’s effort did not go unnoticed by the court.

The introduction of the bill and the national attention it received must have spooked at least one of the other judges handling the Ford case.

On April 13th, the Louisiana appeals court rendered its decision, denying Ford’s executors the compensation they had sought. No surprise there. But one of the judges on the appellate panel, Judge D. Milton Moore III, while agreeing with the outcome of the case, unexpectedly lamented the ambiguity of the state’s current compensation law and the fact that “there is something lopsided or inequitable in this result.” He suggested that the legislature “should revise the test for awarding compensation for exonerated individuals.” He did not mention Glover’s bill specifically but seemed open to the idea of such a legislative fix.

But — and here’s the third thing, the most surprising of all — the introduction of the bill and the national attention it received must have spooked at least one of the other judges handling the Ford case. Five days after issuing the original decision denying Ford relief, the appeals court, led by Judge Joe Bleich, a former prosecutor, advised the parties in Ford’s case that two “ad hoc” corrections would be appended to the original decision.

The April 18th memo is one of the most remarkable examples of judicial activism I have ever seen in nearly 20 years as a legal analyst. The first part of the “correction” focuses on the language of the Louisiana compensation statute, refuting both Judge Moore’s position and the the legislative amendment proposed by Glover. In other words, instead of waiting for a bill to become a law subject to judicial review, the court tried to preemptively scuttle the legislation by claiming that the amendment would impose “automatic financial liability” on Louisiana “without the opportunity to defend against such.”

The other component of the “correction” is the addition to the original ruling of a “summary” of Ford’s purported role in the circumstances of Rozeman’s death. It’s essentially an ad hominem attack on Ford in which assertions that were never proven at trial, or which were later refuted by state prosecutors, are leveled at a man no longer alive to defend himself. The “summary” labels Ford a “sinister guardian of the killers,” for example. Not even the state lawyers fighting to deny compensation to Ford’s family have made that allegation.

What prosecutor Stroud initially argued at trial was that Ford and two others had killed Rozeman. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder. There was no murder weapon found. When Ford learned the police were looking for him he went to the police station and cooperated for months. He was not charged until a girlfriend of one of the other suspects incriminated him. (Her credibility almost immediately dissolved on the witness stand when she conceded that police had helped her come up with her story.) Ford told the police that he had been given jewelry and asked to pawn it.

What the state had argued during the compensation fight, on the other hand, was that Ford was not “factually innocent” of any crimes relating to Rozeman’s murders because he was involved in an armed robbery plot against Rozeman and subsequently fenced items stolen from Rozeman’s store. But Ford in 1983 was not charged with conspiracy or with being an accessory to armed robbery. In fact, shortly before Ford was released from prison in 2014, prosecutors told a judge in support of their agreement to set him free that “Glenn Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder of Isadore Rozeman.”

That was two years ago. Here is the court’s new “summary” in its entirety:

No reasonable conclusion can be reached that Ford’s involvement in the circumstances surrounding the brutal murder of Mr. Rozeman was incidental, minor, or insignificant. This is clear from the evidence at the compensation hearing which Ford did not explain or refute. Ford was intricately involved in every facet of this case with the exceptions of entering the house and pulling the trigger.

Ford helped orchestrate the robbery which led to the murder. Although motive need not be proved, Ford was angry at Mr. Rozeman for not providing him money he had requested earlier (sic) the week of the murder.

Ford created the opportunity for entry into Mr. Rozeman’s home. Despite Mr. Rozeman’s employer-employee relationship with and trust of Ford, this trust was misplaced. Ford orchestrated the opportunity for an unauthorized entry into Mr. Rozeman’s home, which had been meticulously secured.

Before and during the murder/robbery, Ford operated as the sinister guardian of the killers. Ford then financially benefitted from the robbery, cashing in on the sale of Mr. Rozeman’s property. Continuing in his criminality, Ford made every effort to dispose of the probable murder weapon and conceal the identity of the trigger man.

Any conclusion that Ford was not integrally involved in the circumstances leading to Mr. Rozeman’s brutal death is baseless. Such a conclusion defies facts, evidence and logic. Ford’s demand for compensation clearly and perversely violates the letter, intent and spirit of the will of the Louisiana legislature.

And here is the response from Ford’s attorneys:

The court’s new claims are unfounded. As state prosecutors recognized when they exonerated Glenn, there is no legitimate reason to suspect that Glenn had any part in the crime. In fact, the only witness who ever claimed Glenn had taken part later confessed on the stand that she had lied at the direction of the police.

It is unusual for an appellate court to make factual findings that are not based on evidence. It is unheard of for a court to do so in an attempt to influence the legislative process. We haven’t seen anything like it in our combined decades of experience.

Having deprived Glenn Ford of his constitutional rights for over 30 years while he was alive and fighting for exoneration from a solitary cell, the Louisiana courts now seek to block a legislative remedy that would help make his family whole. And at least one of the judges on the panel did so by turning Ford posthumously into a murderous mastermind, which even the original prosecutors, relying solely on a witness who later recanted, did not attempt.

Ford’s lawyers say they have never seen anything like it. Neither have I. But the attitude displayed by the court here, by the aggressive push to endorse a narrative never proven in court, by the manipulation of facts and evidence, underscores the official indifference to justice that characterized this case from its beginning.