Two men convicted of murdering an elderly Union Parish couple in 1986 will not be compensated for the nearly 13 years they spent on death row at Angola State Penitentiary.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport on January 13 affirmed a ruling by 3rd District Court Judge Wayne Smith dismissing a compensation claim by Albert Ronnie Burrell and Michael Ray Graham Jr. They were convicted in 1987 in separate trials in the double homicide of William and Callie Frost in their Union Parish home.
Two different juries concluded that Burrell and Graham were guilty of the homicides and returned recommendations of the death penalty on the defendants. Both served 13 years on Angola’s death row before Judge Cynthia Woodard granted a request by Michael Graham in 2000, for a new trial based upon claims that the district attorney at that time, Tommy Adkins, had wrongfully withheld crucial evidence from the defense. Burrell was also granted a new trial after the Graham ruling. Now retired District Attorney Bob Levy, who succeeded Adkins in the case recused his office from the retrial because one of the defendants’ attorneys had become employed by his office.
The case was forwarded to the state attorney general, who after reviewing the case more than 14 years after the original trials, concluded that the evidence as it existed at that time could no longer support a subsequent conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. The murder cases were subsequently dismissed, and Burrell and Graham were released from prison.
Burrell and Graham filed a claim for compensation on August 28, 2008 under a new statute which had been adopted by the legislature that authorized compensation for incarcerated individuals whose convictions are overturned and dismissed. The statute awards $25,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, up to a maximum of 10 years. In order to succeed in such a claim, a defendant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he is factually innocent of the crimes for which he was charged.
Then Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who would normally defend the state against such claims, recused his office because of its involvement in the original criminal proceedings. Caldwell requested District Attorney Jerry Jones from the 4th District to handle the claims in his stead. The case was handled by assistant district attorney Neal Johnson.
The trial of this matter lasted four days, and included more than 6,000 pages of exhibits, including the transcripts of testimony of witnesses, many of whom are now deceased. After taking this matter under advisement, Judge Smith on August 6, 2014 dismissed the claims of Burrell and Graham concluding that both individuals had failed to prove that they were factually innocent of the murders of the Frosts.
Attorneys for Burrell and Graham, Nick Brustin of New York, N.Y., and Charles Joseph Lloyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota, appealed Smith’s decision, which was heard before a three-judge panel at the 2nd Circuit in Shreveport. After reviewing the evidence the appellate court agreed with the findings that the defendants were likely involved in the murders for which they have escaped justice, Johnson said.
Johnson said it is unlikely that the defendants, who have also lost a federal jury compensation trial, will appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“It is hard to get a writ granted before the Supreme Court without sufficient constitutional issues which this case does not have,” Johnson said.