In the winter of 2002, "John Doe" was a "quad" -- police slang for a four-time convicted felon.
Doe, whose name is withheld here due to authorities' concerns for his safety, was a 33-year-old area native incarcerated at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, facing life in prison as a multiple offender. He had already spent one-third of his life in prison for burglary, armed robbery, drug charges and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He now had four new felony charges hanging over his head from 2001 alone, including 40 counts of forgery and possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a playground. And he had a notorious history of failing to appear in court.
By mid-summer, however, his luck had changed. On July 19, 2002, Doe testified at an open court hearing as a prosecution witness in the high-profile murder case of fellow inmate Corey Miller, the internationally recognized rap artist known as "C-Murder."
The same day, at the request of the district attorney's office, a judge released Doe on a free bond, after prosecutors expressed fear for his safety in the Gretna jail.
"Because Mr. [Doe] is [incarcerated] in Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, we now have a serious concern regarding his physical safety and believe that it would be impossible to guarantee his physical safety within the prison facility," a prosecutor told Judge Stephen Windhorst, according to hearing transcripts. Doe would remain free for 16 months, without any arrests, according to the district attorney's office.
In mid-November 2003, Doe received a plea bargain agreement from the state on his four outstanding felony charges, in exchange for his cooperation with several sheriffs' investigations. Under the deal, Doe would serve five years at hard labor for two cocaine charges; his other two charges were dismissed. He would be out in time to enjoy his 40th birthday as both a five-time convicted felon and a free man.
Windhorst set sentencing for early December 2003. Doe's attorney filed a motion to reduce his prison time.
Today, however, Doe is back in jail facing life in prison and new charges -- domestic violence, federal weapons violations and illegal drug possession. Six days after his November court appearance, Doe was arrested by sheriff's deputies responding to a domestic violence call by his wife, according to Doe's former attorney Frank DeSalvo. Police found eight guns in the house, including four semi-automatic assault rifles.
Doe now faces federal charges of being a convicted felon in possession of firearms. After his arrest in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans police, acting on a tip, searched his impounded Chevy Suburban and found 56 grams of cocaine and an undisclosed quantity of codeine. He was re-booked on drug charges. Jailed in another parish, Doe missed his December sentencing date in Jefferson Parish, effectively voiding his deal with authorities there.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick defends what he says was a collective decision with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office to let Doe back on the streets. "This was not done in a cavalier way, where we just said, 'Aw, just let him go,'" Connick says. "It was a judgment call made on the best evidence and facts that we had for the safety of this individual and the good of the case."
But Miller defense attorney Ron Rakosky, who is trying to get his client a new trial after his conviction Sept. 30 for second-degree murder, says the public was put at risk by the district attorney's decision to release Doe. "I don't have to argue how dangerous this person is on the streets of Jefferson Parish," Rakosky says. "And he would have never been on the streets to do those things (that got him re-arrested) if the DA had not arranged for him to get out on a free bond, no less. I mean, this is a man whose only history of appearing in court is of not appearing."
Federal ballistics experts, meanwhile, are trying to determine if Doe's weapons were used in any violent crimes, during his hiatus from jail.
In the winter of 2002, Corey Miller was a rap artist with an unfortunate stage name. At the time, C-Murder's latest release was the CD Trapped in Crime -- and he was facing charges of attempted murder in Baton Rouge after a fight at a nightclub in August 2001.
Miller was reportedly shown on the Club Raggs' videotape pulling a pistol and attempting to fire it, though the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's office has yet to prosecute him for the alleged offense. It was not his first scrape with the law.
Miller's brother, New Orleans rapper/music mogul Percy Miller, aka Master P, addressed how his brother's attempted murder charge had affected him. "Everyone has a black sheep in the family that's done something wrong," Percy Miller told Nekesa Mumbi Moody, a music writer for The Associated Press in New York City. "We're definitely praying for him, hoping this teaches him a lesson."
The AP story appeared in print media nationwide on Jan. 12, 2002. Ironically, Corey Miller was booked that day with the murder of 16-year-old Steve Thomas, after a fight outside the now-defunct Platinum Club in Harvey.
As an inmate at the Gretna jail, Miller was issued an orange prison jumpsuit and placed in the same dormitory as John Doe.
Doe's subsequent allegations of witness intimidation in the Miller case -- including threats against the family of Assistant District Attorney Doug Freese -- is not "corroborated" by the evidence the district attorney submitted in the Miller case, Rakosky says.
The attorney says the court gave him access to police files on Corey Miller and there is "not a single sentence about people being threatened by him."
Connick argues that Doe's testimony against Miller has, in fact, been corroborated by both evidence and events. After Miller was jailed, a cell phone and charger were smuggled into Miller's prison dormitory. Two guards were bribed to get Miller access to the phone, Connick says.
"He (Miller) was using those cell phone calls to intimidate witnesses and to direct people on the outside to intimidate those witnesses and families of witnesses and prosecutors," Connick says.
Through his attorney, the jailed Doe informed the authorities of the alleged threats as well as what Connick called other "substantive information" relevant to the Davis homicide case. Based on Doe's information, guards at the jail conducted a shakedown of Miller's dormitory. The jailers found the cell phone behind a television, where Doe told authorities it was hidden, Connick says.
Doe's allegations were further corroborated by the arrest of two sheriff's deputies at the jail who allowed Miller to have access to the smuggled cell phone, Connick says. The deputies were fired and pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Meanwhile, other witnesses in the Miller homicide case were also telling authorities they were being threatened on the street, Connick says. "We had witnesses telling us people were passing in front of their houses, things were being said, notes were being left. At the same time, we had [Doe] in jail saying, 'He's got a cell phone. He's doing it (making threats) on the phone. I'm listening to him do it on the phone.' So there is plenty of corroboration that had us very, very concerned about the safety of all of our witnesses."
Connick says because Miller had the ability to compromise guards, authorities feared for the safety of their inmate informant. "You don't need a great imagination to figure, how much does he have to promise someone on the outside of jail or on the inside to take this guy (Doe) out."
At the time, the sheriff's office and the district attorney's office conducted a "very thorough" discussion about how to protect Doe, Connick says. "The decision was collectively made that the best thing to do in this situation for this witness' protection was to release him. What could have been done? It's like Monday morning quarterbacking at this point."
Connick credits Doe with helping the state to save the Miller case, if not the lives of the prosecution witnesses. "If we could have not held this case together, we may not have gotten this conviction. So he (Doe) was instrumental in probably saving lives on the front end of this case. You have to take that into consideration."
But Rakosky questions why prosecutors failed to call Doe to testify at Miller's trial. "This is the guy Corey Miller supposedly confessed to and they didn't use him at trial," Rakosky says of Doe. "I personally think the DA realized how bad this guy would look at trial." Connick declined to say why Doe was not called to testify at trial, citing ongoing litigation in the case. Rakosky also says he believes Miller's earlier sensational testimony at a hearing served the state's ulterior purposes of having Miller detained without bond and to portray him falsely as "a very dangerous person."
"Well, mind you, we hadn't even been trying to make bond," Rakosky says. At the time, Miller's attorney says, if his client would have tried to make bond, authorities in Baton Rouge were seeking to charge Miller in the Club Raggs incident.
In their zeal to prosecute Miller, Rakosky says, Jefferson Parish authorities "blindly accepted" their informant's allegations. Rakosky argues that Doe used the smuggled cell phone as well -- and says that evidence shows some calls went to Doe's home phone. "The DA has all of Corey Miller's cell numbers. There is no connection to witnesses," Rakosky says.
The lawyer says his own investigation turned up other inmates who alleged that Doe was planning to use Corey Miller to get out of jail, and that Doe invited other inmates to participate in his scheme.
"This man said, 'I can figure out a way to get out of jail on Corey Miller's back, and you guys can come with me,'" Rakosky says of Doe.
On July 19, 2002, John Doe took the stand in a hearing on the Miller case before Judge Martha Sassone of the 24th Judicial District Court. Assistant District Attorney Doug Freese questioned the inmate-witness:
Q: Sir, where do you presently reside?
A: Jefferson Parish Correctional Center.
Q: While there have you had contact with an individual named Corey Miller?
Q: Do you know that person by another name?
Q: Do you see him present in the courtroom?
A: Sitting in the orange, to my right.
Doe testified that while on the same prison pod or dormitory, Miller admitted to him that on Jan. 12, 2002, he shot and killed Steve Thomas, 16, during a fight outside the Platinum Club in Harvey.
Doe quoted Miller as saying, "I'm not some studio gangster."
Doe also testified that Miller knew where prosecutor Freese lived and that he had children -- and that the jailed rap artist was going to "reach out and touch" Freese. Asked later by defense attorney Rakosky what he thought the expression meant, Doe replied: "To kill."
Doe said he relayed his allegations to the district attorney through his defense attorney. Doe also acknowledged that he was facing a life sentence and expected to receive a deal from the state in exchange for his cooperation at a later date. Under questioning from Freese, Doe also said he did not know the parameters of the deal and acknowledged he had been convicted of simple burglary, a reduced charge of simple robbery, and two counts of distribution of cocaine.
A check of Doe's criminal history shows that he omitted his fourth felony from his testimony -- a 1992 guilty plea in Orleans Parish to possession of cocaine and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to six years in prison for those offenses.
Later on July 19, prosecutor Freese entered the first-floor courtroom of Judge Stephen Windhorst, a former state legislator with a strong record of victims' rights and pro-law enforcement legislation. Freese approached the bench. With only a court reporter and a judge's clerk listening in, the prosecutor asked the judge to release the inmate back into society, according to a transcript of the court hearing: "The reason the State is making this request is as follows: Mr. [Doe] has provided information in connection with a homicide case ... and other matters under investigation by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office," Freese said.
After discussing "various options," authorities decided that releasing Doe on a personal recognizance bond (basically a free bond) was the best way to protect him, Freese continued. Once out of jail, Doe would be "able to place himself in an environment where he will be less likely to be at risk. It is the State's request that we do this." Freese further assured the judge that the district attorney wanted Doe out of jail "solely for [the] purpose of insuring [sic] his physical safety." In addition, a deal could be expected between the district attorney's office and the inmate-witness, in return for his cooperation at a later time, Freese said.
Windhorst then ordered -- reluctantly, one source says -- that the prisoner be released on a $40,000 recognizance bond, or $1,000 for each of his 40 forgery counts. Doe, who had to be re-arrested three times in 2001 for failing to appear in court, was released on a free, unsecured bond at the request of the district attorney.
Asked by Gambit Weekly if the state got a "good deal" from the district attorney's arrangement with Doe, Connick says yes. Asked whether the public was put at risk by Doe's release, the district attorney says the answer hinges on whether Doe committed any violent crimes between his release on July 19, 2002 and when he reported to court for his plea deal on Nov. 17, 2003.
"We have no evidence that he did [harm anyone during that period]," Connick says. Asked how he can be sure, Connick says: "I can only say at the time, we had no evidence of any other charge during that period of time .... It's not like he got out and committed three murders. That didn't happen."
Convictions of drug dealers and violent street crimes often depend on the cooperation of informants with criminal histories, cops and prosecutors acknowledge. Here, the help of drug-free, law-abiding witnesses is the exception -- not the rule.
More commonly, authorities acknowledge they get witness cooperation by cutting deals with criminal informants, especially in drug cases. Law enforcement wants the cooperating criminal's information for bigger and better cases. Criminals, meanwhile, seek the mitigating effect of the authorities' consideration when they are later called before a judge for their own crimes. Freedom and information are the major bargaining chips.
University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf says both law enforcement and criminals are looking to "trade up." As Capt. Timothy Bayard, commander of the NOPD narcotics division, says: "You got to have a criminal to catch a criminal." (In separate interviews, Bayard, local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, and Scharf all emphasized they are speaking generally and would not comment on any aspect of an open case.)
Law enforcement use of criminal informants generally requires top-level approval, established policies and documentation, especially when paid informants are used. NOPD's narcotics division, for example, follows policy guidelines set by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Once the documentation takes place, we kind of enter into a contract" with the informant, Bayard says.
The risks are considerable. "The possibility of being an informant and getting killed is high," Scharf says. In cases where police believe an especially valuable informant cannot be protected, Bayard says, he will try to set the informant up with a job working for a police department in another city. "You owe him that much," Bayard says.
Local U.S. Attorney Letten says his office is diligent in protecting the identities and safety of cooperating informants. "It is sometimes a difficult job, but those who follow our instructions end up just fine," Letten says. "When witnesses don't listen, that is when problems crop up."
Moreover, Letten says, informants in federal cases "rarely" become witnesses in court. "We don't rely on informants to prove cases in court; we rely on witnesses as well as corroborative evidence such as tape recordings of conversations, surveillance evidence and actual seized contraband. Generally, informants are important for the genesis of a case but at the end of the day, we need to corroborate everything we learn from informants before we can proceed with an indictment or certainly a trial."
Scharf warns that informants may give false, "incentive-ized" testimony in anticipation of getting a better deal from authorities in their own case. Therefore, police and prosecutors say, corroboration with wiretaps, records and other witness testimony is essential.
Another danger: Informants also might try to continue committing crimes while working for the cops. Area law enforcement supervisors emphasize that they warn informants in advance their cooperation is not a "free pass" to commit crimes. NOPD might intervene on an informant's behalf in cases of misdemeanors but not felonies or crimes of violence, Bayard says.
"If it turns out the informant commits a crime while cooperating with us, we necessarily hold that person accountable for those offenses," Letten says. "Nobody gets a free ride."
Experts differ on the "gray areas" in dealing with informants. "There are so many gray areas in dealing with confidential informants. But the more afraid you are of the gray, the less criminals you will catch," Scharf says.
"I don't agree that there are many gray areas with informants," Letten says, "because we try to always make right decisions based on consensus of supervisory opinions in a case, Department of Justice policy and the law. We make sure the informants are not endangered and we make sure they are held accountable. It is a balancing act but we do it every day and we do it very well."
Connick says Jefferson Parish has written policies and guidelines for dealing with informants, usually in narcotics cases. If an arrested person becomes a cooperating witness, the informant signs a written agreement stating what information will be provided, in exchange for "consideration" when the informant's own case goes before a judge.
"This case is a bit different," Connick says of John Doe.
District Attorney Connick says Doe's testimony influenced authorities' decision to secure his release. "One of the reasons we did give him that deal was that his cooperation may have saved the lives of some of these witnesses (in the C-Murder case)."
But Rakosky notes that federal ballistic tests of the guns found in Doe's house will not be able to conclusively determine if Doe used the weapons in a major crime, such as armed robbery. After all, Doe might have used -- but not fired -- the weapons.
"I think by anyone's analysis, this is not someone who should have been on the streets. He should have been in protective custody or in some other jail, but he shouldn't have been on the streets."
When talking about the case of John Doe, parish prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys sometimes appear to switch roles. Kevin Boshea, a criminal defense attorney who as a prosecutor for the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office sent Doe to prison in 1988 on a burglary conviction, questioned Jefferson Parish's decision to release its felon/witness.
"There are 20 prison facilities I can think of where they could have put him," Boshea says. "I'm not going to say the state's argument is bogus, because they may have very good reasons for it, but I am going to tell you it doesn't make any sense. If the goal is to keep him alive ... keep him in jail."
Connick dismisses Boshea's criticisms. "You can talk to former prosecutors ... but they were not there at the time," Connick says. "Had they been there, they may have made the same decision. Or maybe not."
Connick says there were lengthy discussions among authorities about how to protect Doe in prison, especially after the two guards at the jail were bribed. "There was some discussion about putting him in isolation," Connick says. But solitary confinement would give Doe protection for only a limited period, prosecutors say. Prolonged solitary confinement poses a danger of inmate suicide, due to extreme stress. In this case, Jefferson Parish was seeking to house an inmate witness in a high-profile homicide case for more than a year.
One of Connick's assistants says the state Department of Corrections would not take Doe because he had not yet been sentenced to his state prison term. Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, responding to prosecutor's arguments that it would be "impossible" to guarantee an inmate's safety in the Gretna jail, says: "That is not an incorrect statement."
In high-profile cases like the Miller matter, Lee says, "We would do everything we can but less than locking [Doe] in a private room with one or two guards with him ... and we don't go to those extremes."
Other prisons are reluctant to accept transfers of inmate-informants because of the personnel and budget demands required for providing them with higher protection, Lee says. "That puts an economic burden on another jurisdiction," the sheriff says. "And they're going to say, 'To hell with you. We don't want that guy.' It is not simple as it may sound. It's a very difficult situation."
"There really is a fear factor for people who testify," Lee says, adding that some witnesses in the Corey Miller case may have to worry about going to jail themselves. "We have people that testified, then changed their testimony. And I'm thinking about charging them with perjury. They are saying we (sheriff's deputies) forced them to testify."
According to Rakosky, one of those bearing false witness against authorities may be John Doe. After Doe testified against Miller, Rakosky flew to New Mexico. The lawyer recalls that when he got off the plane, his cell phone began ringing. Friends of Corey Miller were calling to let the lawyer know that John Doe was out of jail.
"He was calling people associated with Miller and telling them, 1) he was out of jail, and 2) the state made him say all the allegations," Rakosky says. "I'm saying, 'Wait a minute, this guy couldn't be out of jail. It's not possible. You guys are being scammed. Be careful of who you are talking to on the phone.' And lo and behold, I find out, goddamn it, not only is he out, but the state got him out. For his 'safety,' the prosecutor says. What does that mean? What about the safety of the community?"
On a recent day, Corey Miller sat alone in the jury box during a recess in the court of Judge Martha Sassone. Handcuffed and his legs manacled, Miller wore an orange prison jumpsuit. He smiled broadly at several rows of friends and family members who showed up for a post-conviction hearing to determine whether he should get a new trial.
At one point, two deputies came in and escorted him out of the courtroom. Then, the family members of homicide victim Steve Thomas came in. They sat quietly across the room from Miller's family.
In another parish earlier the same day, John Doe sat on a courtroom bench reserved for prisoners. He was awaiting a routine hearing on one of the many charges now arrayed against him.
Doe sat quietly. Both his gray prison sweat suit and his tennis shoes looked new, a sign of relative prosperity among inmates. Unlike other prisoners, he seldom turned around to look at the "free people" in the audience.
His face was expressionless. Nothing in his eyes said he was a controversial figure in a high-profile murder case, who just lost an opportunity for a life beyond prison.
- John Doe probably helped saved lives of witnesses, says Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick.