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Kia Stewart

Other Louisiana Cases with Official Misconduct
On July 31, 2005, 28-year-old Bryant Craig was fatally shot on North Prieur Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. A passenger in Craig’s car said that Craig was driving to his mother’s home to celebrate his birthday when he almost struck a pedestrian. When Craig pulled over, he quarreled with the pedestrian, who drew a handgun, shot Craig eight times and fled on foot.

Police later testified that within hours of the shooting, a tip to Crime Stoppers claimed that the gunman ran into a building at 646 N. Prieur Street. Seventeen-year-old Kia Stewart had previously lived at this address. Crime Stoppers never found any record of such a tip. After James Alexander, who was riding with Craig, identified Stewart in a photographic lineup, police issued a warrant for his arrest. Stewart voluntarily surrendered to police on August 8, 2005.

Less than a week later, the mayor of New Orleans ordered the city evacuated and on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the city. The disaster effectively left the case—as well as hundreds of other criminal cases—in disarray.

Stewart survived the flooding at the city jail and ultimately was indicted for second-degree murder by a grand jury in February 2006. His defense team included a law professor at Tulane University Law School who had never tried a murder case and rotating teams of law students.

Initially, the defense persuaded the trial court to dismiss the indictment because Stewart had been without a defense attorney for so many months. However, the Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and Stewart went to trial in Orleans Parish District Court on April 21, 2009.

James Alexander, the passenger in Craig’s car on the day of the shooting, identified Stewart as the gunman. The prosecution did not call any of the detectives who investigated the case to testify, which devastated the defense plan to elicit testimony from the detectives that another man—Antonio Barnes, who was killed in 2006 in Houston—was a suspect in the shooting.

As a result, the defense presented no witnesses, although Stewart had witnesses who would have testified that he was in bed at the time of the shooting. The defense had made little or no effort to try to find residents of the neighborhood where the shooting occurred—virtually all were scattered by the hurricane.

The trial lasted two days, during which the defense gave an opening statement that took up one page of transcript, engaged in cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that consumed 15 pages of transcript, and gave a closing argument that took five pages to transcribe. On April 22, 2009, the jury convicted Stewart on a vote of 10 to 2, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Later in 2009, and again in 2010, at hearings on a motion for a new trial, five witnesses testified for Stewart. Three of them said they saw the shooting and that the gunman was Antonio Barnes. Another witness said he picked up Barnes after the shooting and Barnes said that he shot Craig. The fifth witness said that not long after the crime, Barnes admitted he was the gunman. The motion for new trial was denied because of what the judge said were inconsistencies in the testimony of the witnesses.

Stewart’s conviction was upheld on appeal by the Louisiana Court of Appeals in 2011. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review the case in 2012 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it in February 2013.

In 2013, the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) began re-investigating the case and discovered additional witnesses who either identified Barnes as the gunman or said Barnes had confessed that he shot Craig. They discovered that police reports had been disclosed to the defense showing that Barnes was considered a suspect and that the murder was still under investigation after Stewart was arrested. The police investigation was discontinued in the aftermath of the hurricane and the defense never followed up on the reports.

The IPNO investigation showed that James Alexander, the prosecution’s eyewitness, had been asked to view the crowd that gathered after the shooting to try to identify the gunman. After studying the crowd for quite a while, Alexander said he did not see the shooter. However, Stewart, who had been roused by the gunshots and was standing in the crowd—as was most of the neighborhood.

Alexander told IPNO investigators that he began to doubt his identification after speaking with Craig’s mother, who had been informed by witnesses that Barnes was the gunman. Police then showed him another photo lineup that included a photograph of Barnes. When Alexander said he didn’t see the gunman and was informed that Barnes was in the lineup, he became more confident of his identification of Stewart. However, the photo of Barnes showed him with long hair in short braids, and by the time of the shooting, Barnes had shaved off the braids.

In 2014, IPNO approached the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and the case became one of the first to be investigated by the Conviction Integrity Project, a joint venture of the District Attorney’s Office and IPNO. After months of investigation by the prosecution, prosecutors and IPNO lawyers compiled eight pages of agreed facts, as well as 90 exhibits.

The documentation included evidence of at least 18 eyewitnesses who either said that Stewart was not the gunman or that Barnes was the gunman.

In April 2015, Orleans Parish Judge Darryl Derbigny vacated Stewart’s conviction without objection from the prosecution. The judge said, “There is a stark contrast between the abundance of evidence that could have been found by an effective pre-trial investigation and the total lack of evidence presented at trial on Kia Stewart’s behalf…There is an abundance of evidence that Antonio Barnes, not Kia Stewart, committed this crime.”

On April 13, 2015, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro dismissed the murder charge and Stewart was released.
Stewart sought compensation from the state of Louisiana. In July 2016, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter denied the claim, but said he would allow lawyers for Stewart to seek a rehearing. Ultimately, Stewart was awarded $259,646 in state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/15/2015
Last Updated: 10/5/2022
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No