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Cedric Dent

Other Orleans Parish, Louisiana exonerations
At about 10 p.m. on September 2, 1997, 19-year-old Anthony Melton and his cousin, Jerry Hamilton, were walking through a vacant lot near the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, Louisiana when Melton was fatally shot in the head from behind.

Hamilton, who was 18 years old, told the first police officers on the scene that the gunman was short, brown-skinned, and had short hair. He said he heard a shot, ran toward the housing project, then turned around and saw the gunman pointing a pistol at him.

This was the first of six times that Hamilton would give an account of that night and every account was different. Four of those accounts were never disclosed by the police and prosecution. Ultimately, Hamilton identified 22-year-old Cedric Dent as the gunman. He pointed to Dent in a photographic array and identified him at trial.

On May 18, 1999, a jury in Orleans Parish District Court convicted Dent of second-degree murder. Dent was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In none of Hamilton’s descriptions did he mention that the shooter had gold teeth, a mustache, or a flattop haircut—all of which Dent had. While Hamilton maintained the shooter was about 5 feet 6 inches tall, Dent was 5 feet 8 inches tall.

In August 2022, more than 23 years later, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office filed a motion to vacate the conviction. The motion was granted, and Dent was released.

His release concluded a long legal battle waged first by Dent from prison, acting without a lawyer, and later by Meredith Angelson, an attorney with Innocence Project New Orleans, and Colin Reingold, an attorney with The Promise of Justice Initiative.

In May 2022, Angelson and Reingold filed a petition seeking to vacate Dent’s conviction. The petition outlined the arc of how Hamilton’s ability to identify the gunman had evolved.

In his first account of the shooting, Hamilton said that he and Melton had left the Jackson Market and were walking through the vacant lot next to the housing project, one of the oldest and more notorious housing projects in New Orleans history. Located in the lower Garden District, the project was where Sister Helen Prejean moved in 1982 to live and work with poor people. While there, she began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, whose execution inspired her book and the film “Dead Man Walking.” One year after Melton was killed, the project was demolished and replaced with mixed income housing.

About an hour after the shooting, Hamilton spoke to a detective and said the gunman was “a black male with a small head, buck eyes, short about 5’6,” thin build with short hair.” He said the gunman wore a white t-shirt. He did not describe any pants. Hamilton said the gunman had been in front of him and Melton while they were in line to pay for their purchases at the market.

He said the gunman went to the side of the building when Hamilton left the store. Hamilton said that when he ran, it was only “two steps.” When he looked back, he saw the gunman “about seven feet behind Anthony and pointing a gun at me.” The gunman then fled. Hamilton was unable to say which hand the gun was in or describe it.

On November 10, 1997, Hamilton for the first time mentioned, during a conversation with a prosecutor, that he had gone to another store while Melton stood in line to pay for drinks at the Market and that when he returned Melton had just finished paying. Rather than saying that the shooter was in the line ahead of them, Hamilton said the shooter “already had his stuff.”

Although he told the prosecutor that he saw the gunman at the store, Hamilton said he himself was at the store for only a few seconds before he and Melton left to walk home. In this conversation, instead of saying he ran, he said he jumped off his bike when the shot was fired and looked back to see the shooter pointing a gun at him. For the first time, Hamilton said the gun was black, though he couldn’t tell if it was a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol.

On November 13, 1997, Hamilton testified before the grand jury that indicted Dent. In this testimony, Hamilton said he left the market to buy bread and returned to meet Melton in the market. He now said that he did not see the gunman until the gunman was standing at the side of the building between the store and a parking lot. When he heard the gunshot, Hamilton said, “I tried to run, but I turned around” and the gunman was only a “[c]ouple of feet” away.

At first, Hamilton said he saw the gunman’s face because a light was shining toward the gunman—although there was no such light at the scene. Asked a second time if he had been able to see the shooter’s face, Hamilton replied, “Yeah…I got a good look at him.”

None of those statements—two statements to police, his statement to a prosecutor, and the statement to the grand jury—were disclosed to Dent’s defense lawyers prior to his trial, according to the post-conviction petition. “In a trial that hinged on the reliability of Mr. Hamilton’s testimony and his ability to accurately identify the shooter, his testimony about what happened that night went unimpeached,” the petition said.

On September 13, 1997, Dent voluntarily went to police after learning that police were looking for him. Dent denied involvement in the crime and said he had been at the Belle Promenade shopping mall in Marrero, Louisiana in a movie theater watching the film “Hoodlum.” Hamilton identified Dent as the gunman in a lineup.

In June 1998, during a hearing on a motion to suppress Hamilton’s identification, Hamilton gave another version of what he observed. He said he first noticed the gunman outside the store by a window. He said that when he came back to the market, Melton “was coming out of the line…he was getting his stuff.” And for the first time, Hamilton said that although there were numerous people hanging outside the market, he noticed the gunman “following us, I noticed that much…What really made me notice him was he kept looking at me.”

Hamilton was certain that he did not run away. When he heard the shot, “I jumped off my bike and turned around,” he said. In this account, the gunman was 10 feet away and pointing a gun at him.

A jury was selected on May 17, 1999, and the trial was over on May 18—it lasted two hours. The lead detective, Michael Buras, testified that there was “no light at all” at the location where Melton’s body was found, suggesting that it would have been difficult, if not impossible to see the gunman.

Hamilton now said that when he came back to the market, the shooter was in line to make a purchase. And he said that when he and Melton walked past the shooter to leave, the gunman was “just looking at me and I am looking back…just kind of staring each other down.” He said the gunman was “looking at me funny.”

He said that as he and Melton walked away, “I kept turning around and I saw him behind us.” And for the first time, Hamilton said that he and the gunman stared at each other for “like about ten seconds” before the gunman fled.

Dent’s defense lawyer presented no evidence and did not attempt to verify Dent’s claim that he had been at the movie theater at the time of the crime. He also had not cross-examined Hamilton as to any prior version of events Hamilton had given. No physical evidence connected Dent to the crime. After a two-hour trial and three hours of jury deliberation, Dent was convicted.

The petition asserted that Detective Buras had failed to disclose the existence of another eyewitness. Notes of a conversation Buras had with a witness named Rodney, which were discovered years after the trial, showed that Rodney said he saw a man 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing 130 to 140 pounds, with a brown complexion, and wearing a white shirt with a design on the front. Rodney said the person followed Melton from the store to the lot where Melton was shot. Rodney said the shooter had a blue steel handgun in his right hand. Like Hamilton, Rodney did not mention gold teeth, a mustache, or a flattop haircut. When Dent turned himself in at the police station, his weight was noted as 160 pounds.

At trial, Buras falsely testified that Hamilton was the only witness. The petition noted, “Erased completely from narrative of the case, Rodney was not called to testify because no one knew who he was except Detective Buras, and Detective Buras had not asked him whether the man he saw was Cedric Dent or someone else.”

The petition also accused Buras of manipulating police reports that described how Dent came to be a suspect in the case. Although Buras “had no leads on the shooter,” on September 4—two days after the shooting—Buras ran Dent’s name through a computer system to get his criminal background. At that time, Dent had some traffic violations and a minor non-violent crime conviction. According to the petition, the information erroneously indicated that Dent lived at 701 St. Mary Street.

The petition said that Buras then spoke with Valirey Melton, who was Melton’s mother. According to Buras’s notes—which had not been previously disclosed—she told Buras that “concerned citizens told her that they know who shot her son.” The notes said she told Buras that “C.D.”—apparently referring to Cedric Dent—killed him after an argument at the market.

However, the petition said, Buras’s report said that he first got Dent’s name from Melton’s mother, even though he had already run Dent’s name through the computer. The report also said that Melton’s mother said the information came from a “female witness who did not want to be involved.” According to Buras’s report, this witness saw Dent cut in line in front of Melton in the market. This witness claimed to know Dent and that he lived at 701 St. Mary Street, which was false.

Dent’s conviction had been upheld in 2001 by the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He had filed two post-conviction petitions in the next three years, but both were dismissed. In 2005, Dent had filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied in 2006.

Along the way, Dent had been able to obtain some of the undisclosed records by filing a public records request for the District Attorney’s file on the case. In 2009, working without a lawyer, he filed another petition for post-conviction release. However, that motion never made it to a courtroom and went unanswered for years.

In 2020, his legal team filed another records request with the prosecution and the resulting disclosure amounted to more than 1,000 pages of records, including the notes of Hamilton’s conversation with a prosecutor and Hamilton’s grand jury testimony. Records were requested from the New Orleans police department, which resulted in the disclosure of 50 more pages of records, which did not include Detective Buras’s handwritten notes. When the legal team asked to review the homicide file in person, police said the file could not be found. After a subpoena was issued, however, the file was located, and in it were Buras’s notes about Rodney, the undisclosed second eyewitness, as well as his notes that showed how he had manipulated his report to indicate that Melton’s mother was the initial source pointing to Dent, the petition said.

The petition said that Buras had eliminated Rodney and attributed portions of Rodney’s statement to Hamilton “in an attempt to make Mr. Hamilton’s identification look more reliable.”

The petition noted that the legal team had located a man named Rodney who was working the night shift at the market at the time of the shooting. Rodney no longer had any memory of the circumstances of that night. However, had Buras made a record of him, Dent’s defense could have located Rodney at a time when his memory was clear, the petition noted.

The petition also said that Buras’s obfuscation of his conversation with Melton’s mother meant that Dent’s attorney was “blocked from several powerful avenues of impeachment of the officer who had martialed the evidence that Dent had anything to do with this crime. Armed with full knowledge of the inconsistencies and timeline of contradictions that existed between Detective Buras’s report and the underlying documents, adequate counsel could have thoroughly undermined the integrity and thoroughness of Buras’s investigation.”

The defense could have “made clear to the jury that the evidence against Mr. Dent was so thin that the lead officer felt the need to fabricate more to make him look guilty when he was not,” the petition said.

The petition also accused the prosecution of allowing Hamilton to testify falsely, noting that at trial, “the prosecutor was aware of at least four versions of the story Hamilton had told about the night of the murder.” When Hamilton said he saw the shooter was in line when he returned to the market, “the prosecutor knew or should have known that [Hamilton] had said at least three times before, including under oath, that this was not the case,” the petition said.

Dent also sought relief on the ground that he had been convicted by a non-unanimous jury. The vote to convict Dent was 10 to 2. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional.

On August 8, 2022, the Civil Rights Division of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to vacate Dent’s conviction. The motion was based primarily on the prosecution’s claim that Dent did not get a fair trial because his defense lawyer failed to investigate Dent’s alibi claim and present evidence to support that claim, and because the defense lawyer failed to adequately cross-examine witnesses about the discrepancy between the descriptions of the gunman and Dent’s appearance.

The motion to vacate was granted, the case was dismissed, and Dent was released.

The prosecution released a statement saying: "After a thorough review of Mr. Dent's case, our office concluded that—like many convictions decided by non-unanimous jury—his guilty verdict stemmed from a trial that was unfair precisely because one of the twelve jurors had voted to acquit and because of constitutionally ineffective assistance from his defense attorney. The legal system failed Mr. Dent, and just as significantly, failed the victim of this crime and his family."

Dent’s attorney Angelson said, “Cedric Dent is a victim of the failures of every system that was put in place to protect his rights as a person accused of a crime—a police department that did the bare minimum to investigate a serious crime; lawyers that didn't have the resources or the wherewithal to investigate his case; and a district attorney's office that concealed evidence that should have been turned over and would have helped Mr. Dent get the not guilty verdict he deserved at trial.” /div>

Dent subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/16/2022
Last Updated: 9/14/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No