Judge overturns man’s conviction, death sentence

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge has overturned a 56-year-old man’s death sentence and conviction in a 1993 murder during an armed robbery of a Natchitoches Parish nightclub.

U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell of Alexandria granted Willard Allen’s petition seeking to overturn his 1994 first-degree murder conviction in the Sept. 7, 1993, slaying of Herman Ferguson during an armed robbery of a night club where Ferguson was a patron.

“We find the state trial court allowed an avowedly biased juror … to be seated on petitioner’s jury,” Drell wrote in his ruling, issued last Thursday.

“The juror … was never otherwise rehabilitated, nor did he ever indicate he would weigh the evidence and/or decide the case fairly and impartially,” Drell wrote.

In addition, the court granted Allen’s appeal of whether he had adequate assistance of counsel.

Allen’s trial attorney, James Calhoun, did not challenge the juror’s inclusion either for cause or with one of his peremptory challenges, and the trial court seated him on the jury, the ruling said. “The issue was never considered on appeal, as the appeal was handled by petitioner’s trial attorney, who did not raise it,” it said.

“Accordingly, we find petitioner’s unreliable conviction cannot be the basis for criminal punishment, much less a sentence of death. … he has met his burden to have that conviction vacated and for a new trial,” the ruling states.

New Orleans attorney Andrew Lee, who was appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1999 to help with Allen’s post-conviction relief, described the decision as thorough.

“It addresses the points in a very solid way, and we appreciate the hard work that went into the result,” Lee said.

Lee added that Allen “has the right to a new trial because the first trial was constitutionally infirm, not a fair one.”

Lee said he spoke with his client, who remains in custody at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, after the judge’s decision. “He was very pleased,” said Lee, who took over the case within 21 days of Allen’s scheduled execution.

“We managed to get the execution stayed and then we went through the state (appeal) system then the federal (appeal) system and now we’re here,” he said.

Drell returned the case to state court with instructions to conduct a bail hearing within 45 days of the judgment. In addition, the state has 270 days to decide whether to retry the case. If that doesn’t happen, the judge said, the state must “unconditionally discharge petitioner from custody,” he wrote.

Lee said he did not know how the state would proceed.

Natchitoches Parish District Attorney Van H. Kyzar was not immediately available for comment Friday. The office was closed through Monday for Presidents Day.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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