NEW ORLEANS — A white man whose murder conviction in the killing of a Black man was vacated because he killed himself while his appeal was pending should not have been legally exonerated, Louisiana’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Thursday’s ruling in the case of Kenneth Gleason — convicted in one Black man’s death, charged in another and accused of an attack on a Black family’s home. It reversed an appeals court order and decades of precedent that said convictions in Louisiana must be tossed when a defendant dies before his or her appeal is resolved.
The high court’s order said that from now on in such cases, appeals will be dismissed, and a note will be placed in the court record stating that the conviction removed the defendant’s presumption of innocence but was neither affirmed nor reversed on appeal.
Writing for the court, Justice Piper Griffin said the practice of vacating convictions upon a defendant’s death is short-sighted. “It ignores consideration that the state has an interest in preserving a presumptively valid conviction,” Griffin wrote. And, she said, it is unfair to victims.
“Abatement of the conviction subordinates the victim’s constitutional guarantees of fairness, dignity, and respect to the reliance interests of the convicted,” Griffin said. “To abate a conviction would be as to say there has been no crime and there is no victim.”
In a partial dissent, Justice Scott Crichton agreed that the precedent that essentially exonerated Gleason should be abandoned, but he wanted to go farther, noting evidence that Gleason had killed two men in what appeared to be racially motivated attacks.
“In my view, the victims of defendant’s shocking and senseless crimes, their relatives and friends, and the entire community impacted by defendant’s vicious spree, deserve the finality of his conviction being unambiguous in the records of the court system,” Crichton wrote.
Gleason, 27, hanged himself in his cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in Sept. 21. He had begun a life sentence for the first-degree murder of Donald Smart. Smart, 49, was shot in a park near Louisiana State University as he was walking to his overnight shift as a restaurant dishwasher in September 2017.
Gleason also had been charged in the fatal shooting of Bruce Cofield, 59, a homeless man who was sitting at a bus stop on a busy street in Baton Rouge two days before Smart was killed. And authorities also said Gleason had fired gunshots through the front door of a Black family.
He wasn’t charged with a hate crime, but an FBI agent testified that Gleason searched the internet around the time of the crimes for topics including Nazi propaganda and white nationalism. Law enforcement told The Associated Press that officers who searched his home found a handwritten copy of an Adolf Hitler speech.