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John Floyd

Other New Orleans Exonerations
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On November 26, 1980, the body of William Hines was found in his apartment in New Orleans. Two days later, the Friday after Thanksgiving, the body of Rodney Robinson was found in a room at the nearby Fairmont Hotel.

The murders happened in the city’s French Quarter, and police investigated the crimes under the theory that the same person had killed both men. Robinson and Hines had each been stabbed to death. There were no signs of forced entry. Both men were naked. At each crime scene, there were two glasses of whiskey and extensive blood splattering. Both men were gay, and the police believed that Hines and Robinson had each invited a man in to have sex.

A security guard said she saw a black man running out of the Fairmont Hotel the night Robinson was killed, although she did not get a good look at his face. A blood-stained cap was found outside Robinson’s room. It contained a hair that, after analysis, was determined to be from a black person other than Robinson. There were pubic hairs found on Hines’s bed that were also determined to be from a black man. Hines was white, but a friend told police that Hines liked black partners.

The police initially pursued black suspects. One potential suspect was released after his fingerprints didn’t match those left in Robinson’s room. Another was let go after an interrogation failed to bring a confession. This part of the investigation would not be disclosed to Floyd’s defense attorney.

The police also received a tip from a man named Gerald Griffin. He said 31-year-old John Floyd, who is white, had made some offhand comments about the murders of Hines and Robinson after Griffin and Floyd had spent the night drinking together a few days after the murders. Floyd, Griffin said, wanted to know whether checking into a detox center might prevent him from being held accountable for his actions.

At the time, Floyd was a drifter and itinerant deckhand with a substance-abuse problem. He had no permanent address and would occasionally have sex with the men who let him stay the night. When drunk, Floyd was a bit of a troublemaker. Around the bars, he was known as “Crazy Johnny.” A bartender named Stephen Edwards told police that Floyd threatened to hurt him the way Hines was hurt.

On January 19, 1981, Detective John Dillmann and Officer John Reilly found Floyd at a bar in the French Quarter. They began questioning him about the murders, but then asked Floyd to accompany them to the police station. A few hours later, Floyd had signed two confessions. He was charged with two counts of second-degree murder.

Floyd was tried for both murders at a single trial, which began on January 5, 1982. Several witnesses testified that Floyd had made vague statements of guilt or involvement. There was no physical evidence tying him to either crime scene. A tissue containing semen had been found in Robinson’s room, and Floyd had confessed to wiping his penis with a tissue after having sex with Robinson. But the blood type of the semen didn’t match Robinson or Floyd, and neither did the hair found in the blood-stained cap (although the blood type matched Robinson’s).

Floyd took the stand in his own defense. He said the police had threatened and beaten him before he signed the confessions, and that the officers had plied him with drinks before taking him to the police station. (Several years later, in 1987, the Louisiana Supreme Court would suppress a confession Dillmann had obtained because of strong evidence that he beat a suspect.)

On January 6, 1982, Judge Jerome Winsberg of Orleans Criminal District Court convicted Floyd of second-degree murder in the death of William Hines, and acquitted him in the death of Rodney Robinson. He was sentenced to life without parole at the state penitentiary in Angola.

Floyd’s trial attorney was delinquent in filing an appeal. He forfeited the right to make oral arguments, and the brief that he ultimately filed contained less than seven pages of argument. Floyd’s conviction was affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court on June 27, 1983.

For more than 20 years, his case went nowhere. He lacked an attorney and was at a prison where it was all but impossible to review trial documents. In addition, Floyd had greater deficiencies than most inmates. Later testing showed he had an IQ of 59, was easily manipulated, and had an inability to read beyond a second-grade level. At trial, he had been unable to read his own confession.

But despite those hurdles, Floyd was dogged in asserting his innocence. He wrote more than 500 letters to the Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO), which began investigating his case in 2004.

The IPNO appealed Floyd’s conviction in state court, but the motion was hastily denied by a trial judge and that ruling was affirmed 4-3 by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2010. His attorneys turned to the federal courts, filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in New Orleans in November 2011.

The petition asserted Floyd’s innocence in both crimes, based in part on evidence that was withheld by the prosecutor and in part on other newly discovered evidence.

During the investigation, police had dusted a whiskey bottle and two glasses in Hines’s apartment. In 2008, IPNO discovered a fingerprint analyst’s log book that said the prints found were neither Floyd’s nor Hines’s. But the results of that analysis had not been disclosed. Similarly, records showed that fingerprints found on glasses in Robinson’s room and in his car matched neither Robinson nor Floyd. That information was also withheld from Floyd’s defense team.

During the trial, a forensic analyst had testified about the hair found in the blood-stained cap. When Floyd’s attorney asked him whether it was possible to compare that hair to pubic hairs found in Hines’s bed, the analyst said that such a comparison wasn’t possible because the hairs were from different parts of the body. What he failed to say – and the state didn’t disclose at the time – is that pubic hairs had also been recovered from Robinson’s bed. By the time that information was revealed, in 2004, the hair sample from the Hines crime scene had been lost. Mitochondrial DNA analysis done in 2007 on the Robinson hair samples excluded Floyd as the source.

One reason that Floyd’s attorneys had trouble discovering new evidence is that most of the police files were missing. Dillmann had taken them, in violation of department policy, to write a book about the murders. The files were never returned and then destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Dillmann’s account in his book, published in 1989, as well as in later interviews about the case supported Floyd’s assertion that the confession was coerced and false.

For example, Dillmann had testified that he and his partner were only with Floyd at the bar for a few minutes before he was taken to the police station. He didn’t mention any drinks. Reilly testified that they bought Floyd only one beer. But in an interview in 1998, Dillmann boasted about plying Floyd with drinks before arresting him.

Separately, prior to Floyd signing his confession, Dillmann had shown him a photo of Hines’s body in the apartment. In the photo, Hines was lying on his back on the floor, clear of the bed. Floyd’s confession said that after he stabbed Hines, “He fell on the floor next to the bed. I got dressed and when I left he was still lying there.” But that photo was taken later, and the body had been moved; when police arrived at the apartment, Hines’s legs were under the bed, and he was in a fetal position.

Floyd gave two confessions, one for Hines and one for Robinson. In the Hines confession, he had also confessed to killing Robinson. His attorneys argued that his acquittal on the charge of killing Robinson, combined with the powerful evidence of his actual innocence in that murder, made his confession to Hines’s murder equally untenable.

In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Vance granted Floyd’s petition. She noted the substantial physical evidence that Floyd didn’t kill Robinson, and reasoned that his confessions to the police and his statements to acquaintances were therefore also suspect. “This Court finds that Floyd’s confession to the Hines murder – as discredited by its association with the false Robinson confession, Floyd’s vulnerability, and evidence of Detective Dillmann’s improper interrogation techniques – is an especially unreliable confession.”

The state of Louisiana appealed. While that appeal went forward, Floyd was released from prison on June 22, 2017 under supervised probation. The former warden at Angola noted that Floyd had been a model prisoner, one of only a handful trusted to help out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld Vance’s order on June 25, 2018.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro of Orleans Parish dismissed the charge against Floyd on November 20, 2018. He said he still believed Floyd was guilty but that a retrial was impossible because witnesses and much of the evidence from the trial were no longer available.

Floyd learned of the dismissal while he was visiting relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday. “He just said, ‘Thank God,’” said Richard Davis, the deputy director of IPNO. “I think (he) was overwhelmed and just wanted to be with his family.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/3/2018
State:Louisiana
County:Orleans
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1980
Convicted:1982
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*