I can picture Kia now at the defense table, slumped down, doodling on a pad. I was reading his body language, and he just didn’t seem to care about what was going on. I thought, if he doesn’t care, why should we? His attitude seemed to say: Yeah, I did it.
It was my first time on a jury. I was 31, balancing two jobs while going to graduate school. It was 2009, New Orleans was infested with crime, and I remember feeling like I wanted to be part of justice. During jury selection, the prosecutors asked if I could convict someone based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, and I said, in theory, I could.
It was a very short trial. The victim’s name was Bryant Craig, and a friend of his got on the stand. Four years earlier, they had been driving and almost hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian ended up shooting Craig, and the friend seemed confident it was 17-year-old Kia Stewart. The friend’s story never changed. He didn’t stutter. I thought: If I’d seen my friend murdered, I would remember who I saw do it.
The defense was an embarrassment. It was a group of law students and their professor. The students did their best, but they just did not have much evidence to present. They had the 911 tape, and pointed out that it included no mention of Stewart. Their argument wasn’t compelling. I thought: Is this a joke?
Two of the jurors were lawyers, and as we deliberated they asked us what we all thought. I remember feeling that, if the prosecution made some mistake, surely those attorneys would have pointed it out. I don’t usually jump on the bandwagon, but they seemed to know what they were doing, and they thought he was guilty.
There was an African-American woman who just could not be swayed to vote for guilt. She didn’t feel like the prosecution proved its case. She was older, and at the time I wondered if she was thinking, What if it was my child? But her lack of support didn’t matter, because in most cases you only need 10 out of 12 jurors to agree on guilt to convict in Louisiana.
After it was done, I thought I’d given a family justice—had done my part to fight crime. But I was also unsatisfied: I had wanted to see the justice system working at the highest level, with impressive prosecutors and defenders battling it out. I felt like I was robbed of that experience.
I was a little afraid, too, since I had to walk by Stewart’s family on the way out.
One day in 2014, I was at my home in the Houston area—where I moved a couple of years after the trial—when I heard a knock at the door. I looked out the window and saw a man and woman. They seemed out of place, and I hid from them. Then my cousin called and said they’d come by earlier trying to track me down. They wanted to talk about my jury service.
I let them in, and they explained they were researchers from Innocence Project New Orleans. There was a problem with Stewart’s conviction, they told me. He was likely innocent.
I had a sunken feeling. They had found other witnesses who had not been presented at trial. The new evidence said Stewart was sleeping at the time of the crime, and a man named Antonio Barnes was the real culprit. (He was later killed while attempting a robbery.) The researchers said my assumptions about the reliability of eyewitnesses were incorrect. When you’re traumatized, like many people who witness a crime, you don’t remember as vividly, they said. And then, when you’re hungry for justice, you think your memory is clearer than it really is.
I started seeing my memories of the trial in a new light. Perhaps the eyewitness was only confident on the stand because he’d rehearsed his lines. And Kia’s body language looked different now. It wasn’t that he didn’t care — he probably felt like he had no chance. He must have felt defeated, thinking, I’m going to lose.
I signed an affidavit saying that I wouldn't have voted to convict if I'd known about this other evidence. And then I didn't hear anything until last September, when I learned Kia had been freed. He'd been behind bars for nearly 10 years. I was overwhelmed, and sad for Kia. I’m angry, too: I’ve read a lot about the criminal justice system, and I can’t believe our government allows such bad legal representation in such high-stakes trials. These are people’s lives.
I’m older now, and I see the world through different eyes. I have two sons, and I fear for them. I moved to the Houston area because I didn’t want them to be exposed to the crime that’s common in New Orleans. Raising two little black boys, I see how people make assumptions about them, and how sometimes that can turn into something tragic, like it did with Kia Stewart. We try to put them in environments that will help, but you just never know.
I want to sit down with Kia and say I’m sorry, and that I did what I had to do given what I was given. I’m sure it was such a weight on him, to sit in jail for all those years. The prime of his life was taken from him. I hope he’s recuperating. If I had my own business, I would offer him a job.
I hope I never have to be in that situation again.
D’Shean Kennedy was one of 10 jurors who voted to convict Kia Stewart.
Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states that allow people to be convicted by non-unanimous juries. Such laws can be traced to historical efforts to exclude the opinions of minorities and are currently the subject of public debates in both states. It is impossible to know if requiring that all 12 jurors agree would have spared Stewart or anyone else from being sent to prison, but prior to Stewart’s exoneration, Innocence Project New Orleans found 10 cases in which a non-unanimous jury convicted someone who was later freed. Stewart, who was freed in 2015, was the eleventh.