At about 9 p.m. on April 12, 1979, two young black men, one holding a pistol, confronted two history professors from the University of Maine outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, where they were attending a conference and demanded money.
Professor Ronald Banks, retorted, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
His companion, John Hakola, struck out against the unarmed robber who was standing closest to him, and fled for the hotel entrance.
The man with the revolver then grappled with Banks and shot him in the head. Banks was killed instantly.
A week later, police arrested perpetrators in a separate tourist robbery and recovered a pistol that was matched by ballistics testing to the murder of Banks.
In May, 1979, Isaac Knapper, 16, a promising amateur boxer, was named by a police informant as the gunman in the Banks killing, and Leroy Williams, 17, as his accomplice. Both were indicted for first degree murder and Williams accepted a plea bargain reducing the charge against him to manslaughter (and a sentence of about seven years) in return for testifying against Knapper.
At trial, Hakola could not identify Knapper as the gunman, but said that the killer wore a dark shirt, dark pants, a grayish-white sailor hat pulled down over his eyes, and a dark bandana covering his face.
With Hakola unable to identify Knapper, the case was largely dependent upon the testimony of Williams, who said that Knapper wore a black shirt, blue jeans, a white cap and a bandana, which he pulled up onto his face as they approached Banks and Hakola near the hotel.
Knapper and several relatives and friends testified that Knapper was playing records with then at his mother’s house at the time of the crime. A prison inmate also testified that Williams told him that his mother made him “lie on” Knapper to get a deal for himself.
The defense also called three eyewitnesses who were near the shooting. One said she saw three men flee the scene, one of whom was Williams and that Knapper was not among them. Another testified that three men fled and that neither Knapper nor Williams was among them. The third eyewitness said he saw two men flee and that Knapper was not either of them.
Knapper was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal.
Years later, a prison inmate obtained a copy of a 31-page report written by New Orleans police detective John Dillman. In the report, Hakola said the gunman was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, blue jeans and a red and white bandana on the lower portion of his face and possibly a white cap.
Another witness listed in the report also said that the gunman wore a white shirt.
Moreover, the report described the April 19, 1979 robbery of tourists near a different New Orleans hotel in which the general physical description of the three robbers “closely matched the description of the two wanted subjects” in the Banks murder.
The report said that the victims of the April 19 robbery identified Rickey Mazique as the gunman, Samuel Washington (who was wearing a white sailor cap similar to those worn by the robbers of Banks) as the robber who handed the gun to Mazique, and Derrick Robertson as the other robber. Dillman’s report said Mazique said that Washington had obtained the gun from Jeffrey Zimmerman a few hours before the robbery. Zimmerman informed Dillman that he found the gun in a housing project in January, 1979 and placed the gun in a cardboard box in a closet in his residence, where it stayed until he gave it to Washington on April 19. Zimmerman said only his brother knew of the weapon’s location beside himself.
New Orleans attorney Laurie White filed a post-conviction petition alleging that the report had been improperly withheld by prosecutors under Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick because it contained both exculpatory and impeaching evidence.
In May, 1991, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed and overturned Knapper’s conviction. Charges were dismissed and Knapper was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola shortly thereafter.
A disciplinary complaint was filed against the prosecutor, but the Disciplinary Board of the Louisiana State Bar Association found no attorney misconduct. Knapper filed a civil suit in attempt to obtain damages, but was unsuccessful.