Kia Stewart exonerated, freed
April 13, 2015

Kia Stewart and Emily Maw
Kia Stewart and IPNO Director Emily Maw
By Helen Freund, NOLA.com

A man convicted on murder charges in a pre-Hurricane Katrina killing in the Lafitte housing projects had his conviction vacated and murder charges dropped Monday (April 13).

After spending nearly 10 years of a life sentence behind bars for the killing of Bryant "B.J." Craig Jr., Kia Stewart, 27, was able to walk out of the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse a free man.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny threw out the conviction following requests from Stewart's attorneys and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office. It marks the first major case overturned as a result of a joint probe by the Joint Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project, an effort the district attorney and Innocence Project New Orleans launched last summer to examine a number of cases.

Following the ruling, Stewart, still shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, shook his head and broke out into a wide grin. A sheriff's deputy removed his handcuffs in the courtroom and Stewart was able to change into a pair of dark slacks and a red shirt. He kept on his black Angola-issued Crocs, which he admitted were "pretty worn out."

"Man, I'm feeling good!" he exclaimed once he exited the courtroom, his relatives surrounding him, some hugging and kissing him for the first time in nearly a decade.

Derbigny was the same judge who presided over Stewart's conviction on April 22, 2009, when an Orleans Parish jury ruled 10-2 that Stewart was guilty of second-degree murder in Craig's killing. Craig was shot to death on his birthday, July 31, 2005, less than a month before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

Craig was reportedly shot following an argument that ensued when he nearly struck a pedestrian standing in the middle of the road. Following a brief investigation, police identified Stewart as a suspect in the killing, and he turned himself over to authorities a few days later.

But at Stewart's trial, prosecutors relied on just one eyewitness, a friend of Craig's, who identified Stewart as the killer. Prosecutors chose not to call the New Orleans police detective in the 2005 case, Laflora Young, who was fired before the case came to trial.

Stewart was represented by attorneys with the Tulane University Law School Criminal Litigation Clinic who, at the time of his trial, said they were unable to locate any witnesses, most of whom had relocated following the storm. The same attorneys who represented Stewart during his trial later asked the judge to grant him a new trial, which Derbigny refused at the time.

During an evidence hearing in Derbingy's courtroom Thursday (April 9), Stewart's attorneys and prosecutors told the judge they believed Stewart had not received a fair trial and had received ineffective assistance of counsel. They noted multiple witnesses claimed they saw another man, not Stewart, kill Craig, but those other witnesses were never called on to testify at Stewart's trial.

On the morning of the shooting, police said Craig and his friend, Jason Alexander, were on their way to the home of Craig's mother to celebrate his birthday when Craig turned the corner onto the 700 block of N. Prieur Street. There, he nearly struck a man who, in turn, confronted Craig before pulling a gun and shooting him multiple times.

Craig died at the scene. The gunman, later identified by six witnesses as Antonio Barnes, fled. Stewart, who had been sleeping at a friend's home nearby, was seen walking over to the murder scene, joining the crowd of onlookers.

One witness later told attorneys for Stewart that they saw him "wiping sleep from his eyes," and that the 17-year-old "still had drool around his mouth, like he had just woken up."

Alexander was the sole eyewitness to the shooting, and identified Stewart as the shooter, something his attorneys later attributed to an "honest mistake."

"This is a very unusual case," Emily Maw, Stewart's attorney and Innocence Project New Orleans director, told the judge. "There is so much evidence that Kia Stewart did not commit this crime."

One by one, the attorneys took turns reading off the names of multiple witnesses who said they saw Barnes kill Craig but were never called on by the defense team at the time.

Barnes was shot dead in 2006 while trying to rob a Katrina evacuee in Houston of their FEMA check.

Maw pointed to "at least 18 witnesses" who could have testified in Stewart's defense, and called Stewart's representation at trial "deficient ... either because they lacked the capacity or the expertise." Besides the six people who said they specifically identified Barnes as the shooter, Maw said, three other witnesses were able to confirm that it was not Stewart who committed the killing.

A friend of Barnes', Mike Mabon, later said he was nearby the shooting and saw Barnes running away from the crime scene carrying a gun on the morning Craig was shot. Mabon said Barnes confessed to him later that day that he killed Craig because Craig almost hit him with his car.

Another man testified that he drove Barnes past the crime scene so that Barnes could "make sure Mr. Craig was dead."

Barnes reportedly confessed to at least five people that he committed the murder, Maw said.

Richard Davis, another Innocence Project attorney representing Stewart, said in a written release that the case "demonstrates the fundamental importance of a well-resourced and well-trained public defender's office."  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, no functioning public defender's office existed, and Stewart ended up being represented by an organization that was  "ill-equipped to do the investigation his case needed," Davis said.

In an order vacating Stewart's conviction,  Derbigny wrote there was a "total lack of evidence presented at trial on Kia Stewart's behalf."

"There is an abundance of evidence that Antonio Barnes, not Kia Stewart, committed this crime," Derbigny wrote. "If the jury had heard even some of this evidence, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome at trial would have been different."

After Derbigny issued his ruling, prosecutors announced they had decided to drop all charges against Stewart.

"At this point, the DA's office does not believe that it possesses evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stewart committed the murder in 2005," Christopher Bowman, a prosecutor and spokesman for Cannizzaro's office said. "As such, we have dismissed the case against him."

Maw lauded the efforts of Cannizzaro's office in investigating Stewart's case after the organization approached them last year.

"Individuals within that office quickly saw that the case was worthy of reinvestigation and worked cooperatively to get to the bottom of what happened," Maw said.

As the ruling was announced, family members of Stewart's who packed the right gallery of the courtroom hugged and cried when their loved one was finally able to greet them as a free man.

After the ruling, Stewart spoke about the anticipation that preceded this day.

"I woke up this morning thinking it was going to happen, but had to see it to believe it," Stewart said, adding that he woke up Monday still housed at the Angola prison.

"I came down in a car and now I'm a free man," he laughed, as if in disbelief.

"When God delivered them to me, that's when I knew," Stewart said, referring to his attorneys, most of whom had tears in their eyes as they laughed and embraced him while posing for pictures outside the Criminal District courthouse. 

Stewart said he harbored no ill will towards the man whose testimony put him in jail.

"I'm not mad at all. He made a mistake, that's all."

And of his attorneys with the Tulane Law Clinic, Stewart said he had "nothing but love" for them.

"Right now, I just want to enjoy and spend time with my family," Stewart said.

When asked what Stewart had planned for his first day of freedom in nearly 10 years he said, "I'm gonna live."

Tulane University issued a statement Monday afternoon on behalf of its law clinic.

"We represented Kia when no one else would and zealously defended him," it reads. "Only after he was convicted did credible witnesses come forward to declare his innocence.  ... We were shocked when Kia was convicted, heartbroken when he lost his appeal and in the courtroom to share his joy and hug him when he was finally released."

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