In 1984 Louisiana, a jury convicted Glenn Ford of shooting and killing respected and well-known jeweler and watchmaker Isadore Rozeman inside his shop. The recommendation for a death sentence took the jury less than three hours to make. Now, thirty years later, prosecutors say credible evidence has surfaced that Glenn Ford “was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder.” Ford’s conviction and subsequent release highlights the dangerous potential that exists for the U.S. justice system to kill innocent people via the death penalty.
The length of time Ford served on death row coupled with his release and exoneration will make American history. There are, however, at least two other instances of non-death penalty cases in which a person was exonerated after spending even more than thirty years incarcerated. In 2009, DNA evidence proved that Ty Eppsteiner had not committed the crime he had spent the last 35 years in prison for. In another case, a judge vacated the robbery conviction of Robert Carroll Coney after Coney claimed he was physically coerced into a false confession. This claim was substantiated by a 2003 investigation, and Coney was exonerated in 2004 after serving 38 years in prison. Glenn Ford makes the 144th person since 1973 who was initially sentenced to the death penalty but later exonerated and freed from Death Row.
Ford’s conviction as well as the appellate history of his case were riddled with constitutional errors and mistakes. Ford’s lead attorney specialized in gas and oil and had never had a jury trial, either criminal or civil. Ford’s other attorney had graduated law school only two years prior and had only defended insurance companies in slip-and-fall cases. Lawyer incompetency aside, the case itself was not solid. Much of what the prosecution had against Ford was based on the testimony of Marvella Brown, a girlfriend of one of the two sibling co-defendants, Jake and Henry Robinson. Under cross-examination, Marvella Brown admitted to the jury that she lied and that the police had helped her come up with the story about Ford, blaming a bullet that remained in her head from an old gunshot wound for affecting her thinking.
After Brown discredited herself as a witness, the prosecution focused instead on their expert testimony. Their first expert was a Caddo Parish coroner who, without ever having examined the body, testified on the time of death and that the shooter had been left-handed. The prosecution’s fingerprint expert, who testified that a single partial fingerprint the police found at the scene of the crime was consistent with a whorl pattern on Ford’s fingers, was not certified as a fingerprint expert. Finally, no experts were called to testify in the defense’s behalf because Ford’s lawyers mistakenly thought “that they [the attorneys] would have to pay for the costs of these experts.” There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, and no murder weapon was ever found. Ford was placed at the scene of the crime earlier in the day but had legitimate reason to be there as Rozeman had employed Ford to do yard work. Though the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was the first court to review the case, determined that there were “serious questions” around the trial and conviction, a new trial for this man who had a death penalty sentence was never ordered.
For 30 years, Ford continued to insist on his innocence. The glaring fair trial issues he brought to light through the various legal channels available to him, including showing that the prosecution failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, were struck down by the justice system again and again. When the justices in Washington ordered a hearing on Ford’s claims of racial bias in jury selection, the Louisiana courts backed up the prosecutors. When the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered a hearing on Ford’s claims about the failure of the prosecution to disclose exculpatory evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel, the trial court again backed up prosecutors.
However everything suddenly changed for Ford late last week. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike have filed motions to inform a state trial judge that Ford’s murder conviction and death sentence should be vacated. Pending a hearing before a judge, Ford may be released as soon as tomorrow. A sober examination of the case from inception through appellate processes and up to release is yet another example of the dangerous potential inherent in the existence of a death sentence.
By Donna Westlund