- Associated Press - Saturday, September 23, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - For John Floyd, freedom is a flip phone.

It’s a snap-on western shirt and a pair of Dan Post cowboy boots - some of his first acquisitions upon leaving the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in June after 36 years.

But mostly, Floyd said, it’s the steady job he has working with animals on a farm, and the keys to a truck that he can drive around Carencro, the sleepy Lafayette suburb that he now calls home.

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“Everybody likes me down here in Carencro,” Floyd, 68, said matter-of-factly. “I’m pure country.”

Although he has not yet cleared the legal thicket that kept him at Angola for more than half his life, professing his innocence to anyone with ears, Floyd declares those days are behind him.

He recently got a driver’s license and now makes about $10 an hour, a big step up from the 20 cents he earned hourly at the prison 100 miles away. Floyd said he has friends back at Angola. But the letters he writes before dawn, while sipping on coffee, aren’t for them.

“I said, ‘Once I walk out that gate, I’ll never look back.’ “

Last week, Floyd took a ride to a Carencro animal shelter, Acadiana Animal Aid, in hopes of picking out a pup along the lines of a Jack Russell terrier.

Floyd, whose IQ has been tested at 59, played freely with the dogs. At Angola, where he earned standing as one of former Warden Burl Cain’s most trusted charges, he cared for bloodhounds and other animals.

He was among seven inmates who made the trip with Cain to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina to lend a hand. Part of that help, Floyd said, was outfitting the city’s tent jails - “like little Superdomes” - that were meant to be temporary but stood for almost a decade.

“The thing he has going for him is he works real hard, and he’s very reliable. And he’s good with animals,” Cain said. “Peacocks, birds, chickens, dogs - if he had time to feed the animals, they were gonna be fed.”

The longtime Angola warden, who resigned last fall amid probes into side business dealings, vouched for Floyd’s release this year, pending an appeal lodged by federal prosecutors over a judge’s decision in May to vacate Floyd’s murder conviction.

Key evidence withheld

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance had ordered prosecutors to either swiftly retry Floyd for the grisly 1980 stabbing death of William Hines, a Times-Picayune proofreader, or turn him loose. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to Floyd’s release in exchange for a delay.

Vance threw out Floyd’s conviction and life sentence in a pair of rulings that endorsed his claim of a false confession that his lawyers blamed on dirty police work and Floyd’s susceptibility to suggestion.

The judge found that police had failed to turn over key evidence that included fingerprint test results from the tidy French Quarter apartment where Hines was found brutally slashed.

Floyd had confessed not just to Hines’ murder but also to the similar fatal stabbing, just three days later, of Rodney Robinson, whose body was found outside his blood-spattered room at the Fairmont Hotel.

Floyd told police he had returned with both men to their rooms for sex, then had gone “berserk” and stabbed each of them with a buck knife he pulled from his boot.

Then-Criminal District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg acquitted Floyd in Robinson’s murder while convicting him in Hines’ killing. Floyd was sent to Angola on a mandatory life prison sentence.

More than three decades later, however, Vance found the two confessions were inexorably linked, and that the withheld fingerprint evidence from both murder scenes supported Floyd’s claim of innocence in both killings.

Floyd left Angola on June 22 with conditions: Unless he has court permission, he must stay in Louisiana pending the outcome of the appeal, and he can’t stay away long from the farm where he works and lives in a donated Winnebago Adventurer.

With Vance’s permission, Floyd drove with his attorneys in July to Mississippi, for a homecoming of sorts with his family. He drove up to find balloons along the roadway.

“I just wish my mom coulda saw me. Every night she’d get down on her knees at the bed and prayed for me. Every night,” he said of Gertrude Floyd, who died in 1996.

“I couldn’t go to funerals. That hurt a little bit. I got over it. I’ll overcome all of this,” he said. “I felt bad when I first come (to Angola), because I was set up for a crime I didn’t commit. A blind man could see that. It was just cold I had to spend all those years out there.”

‘He’s moved on’

Floyd grew up sharecropping on a farm in Puckett, Mississippi, the sixth of 10 children in a Pentecostal household. Becky Cook, a younger sister, said what strikes her now is her brother’s lack of venom.

“To me, he just seems so full of joy and appreciation that he’s out. He just feels free,” said Cook, 60. “That’s the very first thing I noticed when I seen him. He had no bitterness at all. I kind of thought he would, but he doesn’t. He forgives, and he’s moved on.”

Floyd recalled being a drifter after he left home. He said he got a job pulling cash from jukeboxes and pinball machines in Jackson, Mississippi, and later worked as a roughneck in the oil fields.

“New Orleans - that’s where I would go to party,” he said.

Floyd’s attorneys warded off questions to him about the murder case, citing the pending appeal.

“I was an alcoholic back then too,” Floyd said.

According to police accounts, he also talked about doing PCP around the time he began bragging on the street about the two killings - drawing police attention and ultimately leading to his arrest. He’d become known in the Quarter as “Crazy Johnnie.”

Floyd later claimed a pair of New Orleans Police Department officers plied him with beer to draw out his confessions. One of them, former homicide Detective John Dillmann, also beat him, he claimed.

Dillmann would later write a true-crime book about the investigation titled “Blood Warning: The True Story of a New Orleans Slasher.”

“I grabbed a handful of his hair with my left hand and the collar of his shirt with my right. I slammed him into the front of the building, keeping him disabled by yanking back on his head and neck,” Dillmann wrote of the arrest.

Prosecutors have described that account as a literary embellishment.

Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, called Floyd’s case a cautionary tale of misconduct from a dark era of New Orleans policing.

“Basic police precautions guard against this stuff: You make sure you’re dealing with someone who is functioning intellectually. You don’t ply them with alcohol. All of those procedures are there for a reason,” Maw said.

“Today’s NOPD wouldn’t have interrogated John the way they did. And they wouldn’t have been satisfied by what they got from it. And John wouldn’t have endured the 35 years he did.”

In their appeal, prosecutors concede that the DA’s Office “does not take issue with Floyd being permanently released from custody.” They noted that Floyd rejected a pair of offers to release him immediately in exchange for pleas to lesser crimes.

What they fear, they say, is a bad precedent from Vance’s decision.

‘He loves his freedom’

At Angola, Floyd was never shy about professing his innocence, to other prisoners and visitors alike. That garrulous quality, along with his affinity for animals, has helped him find what may be his ultimate landing spot.

A few years ago, a traveling trick-riding act, the Trixie Chicks, rolled into Angola to audition for the prison’s famed rodeo. Floyd took care of their expensive show horses.

“From the day we got there he started talking to us about his story. He knew he was going to get out. He told us that from day one,” said Kelsey Temmen, who owns the trick-riding group.

“We knew from the very get-go he was different. For horses of that caliber, he just wanted to know how he could take better care of them.”

Temmen spoke with Parker Lovell, a friend who runs children’s riding programs on a farm in North Carolina.

Lovell said she’s furnished a modular home with windows overlooking a pasture on the farm. The home and a job await Floyd when his case is resolved, Lovell said.

“John is going to be charged with helping look after the whole farm. Helping me with the horses. Helping me fix fences, mowing, keeping the tractor running,” Lovell said. “Typical farm life.”

Lovell said she trusts her gut, and “my immediate response to him was, ‘Oh my gosh, what a really great guy.’ “

Floyd said he’s ready to take up the offer and move north. He’s not worried about how the appeals court might rule, he said.

“They know I’m innocent,” he said. “I’ve got patience.”

On Wednesday, Floyd got a visit from Cain, his former warden. The Carencro farm where Floyd works and lives is owned by Charles Chatelain, a friend and former business partner of Cain.

“He just has a real good situation, and that’s what it takes to make it on the street,” Cain said of Floyd.

“He’s a unique inmate. He did his time in a unique way. He would always say, ‘I’m gonna get out (by) the next holiday. I’ll be here till Christmas. I’ll be here till Easter. I’ll be here till the Fourth of July,” Cain said. “We’d always kind of laugh, but he’d be able to do the time because he was always going to get out.”

Floyd’s life now seems in many ways similar to his years at Angola, where he worked with animals, cut grass and held privileges that included leaving the prison grounds under guard to work elsewhere for the state.

But Cain said the difference for Floyd is palpable.

“He’s really happy. He loves his job. He loves his freedom,” Cain said.


Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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