On March 6, 1986, 25-year-old Michelle Gallagher, of Waggaman, Louisiana, was found lying in the middle of River Road in Avondale, Louisiana. Her pants were unzipped, her shirt was pulled up and she had been stabbed in the abdomen.
Before she died, Gallagher, who was known for being willing to exchange sex for drugs, told police that she had been dumped from a car.
Two weeks later, police arrested Michael Williams, 30, after an eyewitness said he had seen Williams in a car with the victim. The witness, Christopher Landry, knew Williams because they lived in the same neighborhood.
Landry said he saw them smoking crack and followed the car on his bicycle to a secluded area because he thought he could observe them having sex.
Instead, Landry said he saw Williams dump the victim’s body out of the car.
Williams chose to have his trial decided by 24th Judicial District Court Judge Susan Chehardy instead of a jury in Jefferson Parish because he was black and the victim was white.
The sole evidence against him was Landry’s testimony. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. The prosecution argued that Williams had time to clean his car since he was not immediately arrested after the crime.
On July 3, 1997, Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Twelve years later, in 2009, Williams’ mother overheard an ex-convict in a grocery discussing how he had met Landry in prison and that Landry had admitted lying to implicate Williams.
Williams’ mother, Betty, found out that Landry was imprisoned at the Winn Correctional Center in Winn Parish, serving a 46-year prison term for burglary.
She sent him an affidavit to sign admitting to giving false testimony. Landry signed the affidavit, admitting he was smoking crack on the day of the crime and believed that if he didn’t implicate Williams, he would be charged with the murder.
The prison warden and his secretary signed the affidavit as witnesses and had it notarized and sent it back.
Acting as his own lawyer, Williams filed a post-conviction petition with the affidavit and was granted a hearing. But at the hearing in October 2009, Landry asserted his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to testify. The petition was then dismissed.
At that point, lawyers at Innocence Project New Orleans began investigating the case with the help of Terrence Meyers, who grew up in Williams’ neighborhood and who, through the work of the Innocence Project, was exonerated of a 1992 murder in 2010.
Their investigation turned up documents showing that the eyewitness had given a number of statements, each of them containing different details. Further, they found records of a police interview with another witness, a newspaper carrier, who said he saw Gallagher staggering down the street more than a mile away from where the main eyewitness said he saw Williams and the victim smoking crack. None of the reports had been given to Williams’ defense prior to his trial.
They also obtained a second affidavit from Landry in which he said that because of his crack smoking that day, he had no memory of that afternoon when he allegedly saw Williams with Gallagher.
The findings were presented to the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, which conducted its own investigation of the case and ultimately joined in a motion with the Innocence Project lawyers to vacate the conviction. The charge was dismissed on November 17, 2011 and Williams was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
– Maurice Possley