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Bernell Juluke, Jr.

Other Exonerations in Orleans Parish, Louisiana
Just before 9:30 p.m. on August 22, 1994, 19-year-old Rondell Santinac was killed in a drive-by shooting outside the Desire Housing Project in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. Santinac was a passenger in a car driven by 22-year-old Samuel Raiford.

After the shooting, Raiford got out of his car and ran a block south to the house of his girlfriend’s mother and called 911 at 9:22. At 9:25, the dispatcher sent out this suspect description to police: “b/m wearing unk color clothing in a blu chevy beretta.”

Officers Len Davis and Sammie Williams arrived at the crime scene by 9:27, and Davis quickly broadcast a more specific description: “perps Pernell Maze bunch of gold in his mouth.”

Twenty-three minutes after the 911 call and five miles from the shooting, Officer Tommie Felix pulled over a gray Chevy Beretta for a traffic stop. The driver was Bernell Juluke Jr., who was 18 years old. Leroy Nelson and Kunta Gable, both 17 years old, were also in the car. Raiford had initially only mentioned one perpetrator, but after the teenagers were in custody, Davis broadcast that there were three perpetrators in a Chevy Beretta.

Police took the three teenagers to the police station, where Raiford viewed each through a one-way mirror and identified Gable and Nelson as the shooters and Juluke as the driver.

Raiford knew the three teenagers and initially said he had seen them about an hour before the shooting, arguing in the Iberville Housing Project with a young man named Jacob Carter. Iberville is just a few blocks from where the officer made the traffic stop.

Police did not recover the murder weapon and found no physical evidence connecting the defendants with the shooting. They were charged with first-degree murder.

Prior to trial, the defendants moved to suppress Raiford’s identifications. At a hearing, Raiford again asserted that Nelson and Gable were the shooters, but when asked who the driver was, he wavered. “I think it was Bernell,” he said. A judge denied the motion to suppress.

Their joint trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court began on February 27, 1996.

Raiford testified that he saw Gable and Nelson hanging out of the passenger-side windows of the Beretta with AK-47s as they opened fire. He said that he told the police who responded to the shooting that Gable and Nelson were involved and that he gave officers a description of their clothing. He said he knew the defendants from the Iberville neighborhood and that Carter often drove the car that he and Santinac used that evening. He testified about the fight between Juluke and Carter, but now said it happened much earlier, around 6 p.m.

Raiford had identified the three defendants at the police station, and at trial he said Nelson and Gable were the shooters. However, he testified that he could not identify Juluke as the driver, but he assumed it was him because he saw the three young men together earlier in the evening. In addition, he said his initial identification of Juluke was based in part on the police telling him that Juluke had been arrested with Nelson and Gable.

Attorneys for the defendants challenged Raiford’s testimony and its inconsistencies with previous statements. At trial, Raiford said the Beretta was blue, but he had testified at a motions hearing that the car was turquoise and – according to a police report – had described the car as “lime green” in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. The officer who took the report acknowledged the discrepancy but testified that Raiford had already described the vehicle as blue and “it was the same car.”

Felix testified about the traffic stop. He said he was on patrol when he spotted the Beretta, which fit the general description of the broadcast for the car wanted in connection with the shooting. Felix said he stopped the car and asked Juluke for his license; Juluke said he didn’t have one. Felix said Juluke gave him a name and then the police dispatcher said that same name over the radio. Felix’s testimony did not include the actual name spoken by Juluke or the dispatcher. The officer said he asked Juluke again for his name, and Juluke gave him a different name.

The state’s theory was that “Pernell Maze” was Juluke, as he had an older half-brother named Warren Mays who was a well-known musician and drug dealer. He was shot to death in 1999.

The defendants did not testify, but two witnesses who saw part of the shooting also described the car, which they said was often parked nearby, as turquoise green with a loud, custom sound system. Russell Spurlock, the owner of the gray Beretta driven by Juluke, testified that his car lacked any customization.

Other witnesses, including Carter, testified that Gable, Nelson, and Juluke had remained at Iberville until around 9:30. Izell Henderson, another of Juluke’s half-brothers, testified that he had been driving Spurlock’s Beretta that evening and that he gave the car to Juluke at around 9:30 p.m. to take a drive and let off some steam after the argument with Carter. Several witnesses testified that Raiford had made statements after the shooting that indicated the defendants weren’t involved.

In closing arguments, the prosecutor urged jurors to carefully weigh Raiford’s credibility. “This attorney wants to tell you that Samuel is this incredible liar, this perjurer, but he’s honest and he is truthful when he tells you, [that] when the car drove by they were shooting.”

The jury deliberated for 10 hours, then found the three defendants guilty of second-degree murder on March 1, 1996. Each received a sentence of life without parole and were imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

They appealed their convictions. On January 21, 1998, Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions for Gable and Nelson but overturned Juluke’s conviction for insufficient evidence. The state appealed, and a year later, on January 8, 1999, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the lower court. It said that the defendants shared a common alibi, limiting the importance of Raiford’s testimony that he only assumed Juluke was in the car.

“In the context of evidence which indisputably placed the defendant together with Gable and Nelson before the shooting and in their company at the wheel of the gray Beretta within 15 minutes or less afterwards, rational jurors would not find the exculpatory possibility asserted by counsel … sufficiently reasonable,” the court said.

In December 1994, officers Williams and Davis were indicted in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on charges of conspiracy and drug dealing. Davis was indicted separately in that same court for conspiring to kill a woman who had filed a complaint against him. In April 1996, a month after a jury convicted the teenagers of murder, a federal jury convicted Davis of conspiracy in the woman’s death, for which he received the death penalty. In December 1996, Davis and Williams were convicted of the conspiracy charges. The government’s case against the officers had originated with an FBI investigation into corruption in the New Orleans Police Department. A wiretap had caught Davis saying that he had little regard for his oath to protect and serve, that he was “on this bitch strictly to get what I can get. Use my job to benefit me."

During the sentencing phase of Davis’s trial, Williams said that he and Davis helped drug dealers in New Orleans carry out acts of violence, including telling them when to carry out these crimes and misdirecting other officers in their investigations.

Davis and Williams had arrived at the scene of Santinac’s murder within two minutes, and Davis had quickly broadcast the initial report about a “Pernell Maze.” But there was little mention of their involvement at the trial, and prosecutors pushed back at efforts by the defense to highlight the rogue officers’ involvement in the case.

In 2002, Juluke filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. The motion said that the initial report prepared by Davis and Williams listed no information about the shooters. “As these officers have been demonstrated to be capable of planning murders and cover-ups of murders, any murder case in which they are involved should be closely examined for their possible participation,” the motion said.

Juluke asserted two other broad claims. First, he claimed that his public defender had failed to provide effective representation because he had not attended a pre-trial hearing on the motion to suppress Raiford’s identification of the three defendants. In the absence of Juluke’s attorney, the attorneys representing Nelson and Gable, concerned with their own clients, did not question Raiford more closely about what he meant by saying, “I think it was Bernell,” or how Raiford came to identify Juluke by inference.

Separately, Juluke said that the state had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in the form of police communication logs that indicated there was no police radio traffic that Felix could have heard at the time he stopped Juluke. That appeared to be at odds with Felix’s testimony that Juluke gave a different last name after hearing the radio chatter. The logs also established that the traffic stop happened 23 minutes after the 911 call about the shooting. (The Louisiana Supreme Court had interpreted the evidence to suggest that the time between the two events was as little as 10 minutes.) While not necessarily exculpatory for Gable and Nelson, Juluke’s motion argued that the added minutes “created a reasonable hypothesis of innocence, that someone other than Mr. Juluke drove the car.”

On January 26, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Adrian Duplantier denied Juluke’s motion. He wrote that any errors committed by Juluke’s attorney were harmless and that any disclosure violations by police or prosecutors didn’t rise to the level needed to secure a new trial.

Juluke appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower-court ruling on June 9, 2005.

In 2021, Jason Williams, the newly elected District Attorney of Orleans Parish, created a civil rights division to reinvestigate claims of innocence and wrongful convictions. Gable, Juluke, and Nelson quickly asked for a review of their convictions.

On September 27, 2022, the District Attorney’s office and attorneys for the three defendants moved jointly to vacate the convictions.

“All parties agree that—because significant information bearing on their guilt or innocence was kept from the jury at their trial—the defendants suffered a miscarriage of justice,” the motion said.

According to the investigation by the Civil Rights Division and attorneys for the three defendants, prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory information that undermined Raiford’s trial testimony. He testified that the car used in the shooting was a blue Beretta, but he told homicide detectives on August 23, 1994, that the car was “lime green” and testified before the grand jury that the car was “wine green.” The prosecutor attempted to steer Raiford toward a “bluish green,” but Raiford said, “like a turquoise green, the color that bottle is.” These statements were not turned over to the defense.

Separately, Raiford had testified before the grand jury that the fight he observed between Carter and the defendants was the day before the shooting and in another section of the Iberville projects. He also told police that he didn’t actually see the altercation; he heard about it from a friend. These inconsistent statements were also not disclosed.

Prosecutors had presented Raiford as “honest and truthful,” but about a month before the trial, Raiford gave what appeared to be false testimony at a hearing after pleading guilty to attempted burglary. The motion said it was not clear whether this evidence would have been admissible at the trial of Gable and his co-defendants, “but is a relevant consideration in assessing the veracity and reliability of the only eyewitness, on whose word the convictions of these three defendants rest.”

The motion said that six weeks after the three defendants were convicted, Williams testified at Davis’s trial that Davis protected drug dealers across New Orleans and that the two officers shielded their associates from homicide investigators trying to solve violent crime in the city.

“The jury that convicted the defendants was … unaware that the first officers on the scene of this crime, who communicated out all the information that caused the defendants to be suspects, were in the practice of covering up the identity of true perpetrators at murder scenes in the Desire and Florida Housing Projects at the very time of this homicide,” the motion said. It criticized previous prosecutors for never reviewing convictions that might have been tainted by the involvement of Davis and Williams.

The motion didn’t provide a clear answer as to why Davis named “Pernell Maze” in his initial communication to the dispatchers. Investigators with the Orleans Parish District Attorney interviewed Davis in federal prison, where he is still awaiting execution. Davis said that he could have heard the description of a Beretta from Raiford and assumed the car belonged to Warren Mays, whom Davis knew, and then suggested the name to Raiford, or just called it into dispatch on his own. But the motion said that explanation made little sense, as Raiford testified he couldn’t identify Juluke.

In a 2018 interview with the Visiting Room Project, Juluke said that Davis inserted him into the shooting as a way to pressure Warren Mays to pay protection money. (The project interviews men serving life sentences at Angola.) “He’s the reason I’m in prison,” Juluke said. “They more or less wanted him. They more or less thought he was in that car. I mean, they stopped that car, and they wanted – how could you say it – they wanted to mess with me to mess with him. They wanted him to pay them $5,000 a week.”

In the interview, Juluke said the years in prison had frayed the friendship between him and the other defendants. “We not beefing, we not hard up about each other, but we not as tight as we once was,” he said.

At a hearing on October 19, 2022 in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Emily Maw, the head of the district attorney’s civil rights division, said, “The state won a conviction against three teenagers that came from the actions of NOPD officers that we knew were actively contributing to the record homicide rate that the residents of this city were suffering through in 1994. The injustice in this case … is further compounded by the fact that for all these years these three defendants have cried out for someone to look into this case and no one has.”

Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier vacated the convictions and told the men: “You all deserve the utmost apology. Your lives were taken away from you in the manner they were, that should not have happened.”

Maw later dismissed the charges, and the three men, now all in their 40s, were released from prison later that day.

Gable, Juluke, and Nelson attended the hearing via Zoom. Juluke did not speak. Nelson said, “I’m thankful for everything that happened and I’m just ready to move on with my life, and that's just about it.”

Gable apologized to Santinac’s family, who did not attend the hearing, but said he had nothing to do with the killing. “I never seen your son in my life,” he said. “I apologize that had to happen. But I never seen him in my life.”

Gable, Juluke and Nelson (listed as Sidney Hill) filed a federal lawsuit in October 2023 seeking compensation for their wrongful convictions.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/8/2022
Last Updated: 10/21/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No