If then-New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro had had his way in 2004, Darrill Henry would have been sentenced to death after three eyewitnesses identified him as the killer of 89-year-old Durelli Watts and her daughter Claire Gex.
The jury found Henry guilty, but wound up giving him life, so he sat in Angola until three years ago, when DNA found under Watts' fingernails proved not to be his. Only now, however, has DA Jason Williams decided that Henry will not face a retrial.
While Henry has been exonerated in the eyes of the law, the grieving relatives of murder victims these days are always hankering for “closure,” as the vogue word has it — even, it seems, at the expense of fingering the actual perpetrator. Watts' family demanded another trial, although it was inconceivable that the outcome would have been anything but an acquittal.
Eyewitnesses tend to have total confidence in their recollections, and their testimony is often enough to secure a conviction. But modern research has confirmed that eyewitnesses may have a very clear memory of things that never happened, and countless miscarriages of justice have resulted. The Innocence Project found that eyewitness testimony was a factor in 78% of convictions that were overturned when DNA evidence was uncovered.
There were in any case obvious reasons to doubt the testimony that put Henry in Angola. The witnesses gave conflicting descriptions of the perpetrator, and one of them had a strong motive to curry favor with prosecutors because he faced sentencing for rape and possession of child pornography. No evidence backed up the witnesses' stories.
Whoever did kill Watts and Gex is clearly a psychopath who needs to be locked up. Police were under pressure to make an arrest after Watts was stabbed 14 times in the head, face and chest on her front porch in broad daylight and then, still alive, set on fire. When Gex arrived to check on her mother, she was shot to death.
The distress such a grisly double murder must have caused survivors is unimaginable, so it was only natural that they should clamor for redress. Cannizzaro's office argued that, although the DNA under Watts' fingernails did not belong to Henry, he might still be the murderer, but that was clearly a stupendous improbability. Judge Dennis Waldron, who had presided over the trial in 2004, promptly overturned the conviction.
In response, prosecutors issued a statement of unbelievable crassness.
“If Mr. Henry is innocent, we hope today is a relief,” they wrote.
Well, there is no if about it. DNA says he is innocent and “relief” hardly does justice to what he must feel after so many years in a notorious maximum security prison. Williams' office is also comforted by the thought that he didn't get away scot-free if he is guilty, because he “has been investigated and prosecuted and gone through the legal system for years.” Instead of regretting a major injustice for which they were responsible, our bold prosecutors find a reason to rejoice.
If Henry is not eaten up with resentment, he must be some kind of saint.
Conclusive courtroom identifications are a staple of television drama, and juror surveys have established that eyewitnesses command considerable credence in the real world. We will never know how many innocents have gone to prison, or even suffered execution, as a result.
Email James Gill at firstname.lastname@example.org.