NEW ORLEANS – John Floyd spent 36 years locked up for a New Orleans murder he insisted he didn't commit. A federal judge sees things the same way and ordered his release from jail last year and a new trial. Her decision was backed by a federal appeals court.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance said Floyd had met the "demanding legal standard of actual innocence" and found credible Floyd's claim that he was coerced into confessing to two murders that took place three days apart in New Orleans in 1980. Her ruling noted the absence of physical evidence linking Floyd to either crime.
But Floyd's legal battles aren't over.
New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said last week he will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court to reconsider the case and reinstate Floyd's murder conviction in the death of William Hines. Cannizzaro cites an 11-page dissent in this month's appeals court decision. That dissent by Judge Jerry E. Smith holds that no new evidence has been introduced that would overcome the one-year limit on filing appeals – or the deference federal courts must give to state courts under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Floyd was convicted in the death of William Hines in 1982. Although he wrote an estimated 500 letters to various officials and organizations over the years, insisting his was innocent, records indicate a proper appeal wasn't filed until 2006 by the Innocence Project New Orleans.
A former warden has declared Floyd, who admitted to abusing drugs at the time of arrest, is rehabilitated. And Floyd was acquitted of a separate murder in 1982 in a case that bore a striking resemblance to the Hines case. Still, Cannizzaro said he would continue to fight the case.
"While we believe this defendant may be rehabilitated, we also believe he was responsible for the murder of William Hines in 1980," Cannizzaro said in an emailed statement. He also said that it was "improper for a federal judge to impose her appreciation of the facts some 35 years later and overrule the trial judge who listened to all live trial testimony."
Floyd confessed to both killings: of Hines, murdered at his French Quarter apartment; and of businessman Rodney Robinson, three days later at a downtown hotel. Both were killed after apparently sharing a drink and having consensual sex with their attacker, according to the court record. Floyd later said he had been coerced into confessing by a detective who plied him with drinks and beat him.
Vance's 2016 ruling that led to Floyd's release last year notes evidence available at the time of the trial, plus new evidence, including DNA analysis and psychiatric evidence indicating Floyd's limited mental abilities made him susceptible to coercion. Evidence that someone other than Floyd killed Robinson was strong, according to the judge.
"Physical evidence recovered on the scene of the Robinson murder suggests to a near certainty that Robinson was stabbed to death by an African-American man with type A blood shortly after Robinson and the man had sex," Vance wrote. "The evidence therefore excludes Floyd, who is white and has type B blood."
Evidence in the Hines case has been lost over the years, but Vance said there were strong indications of Floyd's innocence in that case as well, including "the striking similarity" between the Robinson and Hines slayings: the finding of African-American hair in the bed of Hines, who was white; new testimonial evidence that Hines was attracted to black men, contradicting a detective's testimony; fingerprints at the Hines murder scene that matched neither Hines nor Floyd.
The Innocence Project New Orleans, which worked on Floyd's case, believes the facts of the case are overwhelmingly favor the defendant.
"If the appeals court finds that John's case doesn't qualify," said Innocence Project attorney Richard Davis, "I find it hard to see as a practical matter any case that would qualify."