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Michael Wearry spent 14 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in West Feliciana Parish. (AP file photo)
Michael Wearry spent 14 years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in West Feliciana Parish. (AP file photo)

From death row to freedom

On Feb. 15, Michael Wearry walked out of a Louisiana prison after being incarcerated for 25 years. In Minnesota, Fredrikson attorney Ed Cassidy breathed a sigh of relief, as he and his team had spent the last 15 years waiting for that day to arrive.

In 1998, 16-year-old Eric Walber was murdered by being run over by his own vehicle.  Wearry was convicted of Walber’s murder in 2002 and sentenced to death. For the next 14 years, Wearry was in an 8-by-9-foot cell in solitary confinement on Louisiana’s death row.

The conviction was based on testimony of an informant who changed his account of the crime and had a personal beef with Wearry. Wearry’s alibi was also not seriously considered, and Wearry’s attorney also failed to uncover exonerating evidence that would have corroborated Wearry’s alibi.

Ed Cassidy

Ed Cassidy

“The firm has been involved in post capital conviction cases in Louisiana since the 1980s and worked with the Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana (CPCPL) and Mwalimu Center for Justice in New Orleans, Louisiana,” said Cassidy. “My partner Steve Kaplan had worked with them on the Damon Thibodeaux case and they contacted us in 2008 about taking on another case.” Fredrikson became involved in Wearry’s case in 2009.

Throwing a legal Hail Mary, the team petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Wearry alleged that his counsel provided ineffective assistance at trial and that the prosecution failed to disclose evidence supporting his innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Wearry in 2016. In a per curiam opinion, it reversed Wearry’s first-degree murder conviction. This announcement became national news but created a buzz in the legal community because being granted absolute relief without arguments is extremely rare.

“The Supreme Court had described the State’s trial evidence resembling a ‘house of cards.’ These were their words, not mine,” said Cassidy.” When asked when he realized Wearry was innocent, Cassidy responded, “The big one was there was no forensic evidence tying Michael to the crime, and the prosecution relied on testimony of a jail-house snitch named Sam Scott who had variable accounts of what had happened.”

In its opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the fact that the prosecution did not disclose key evidence that called the star witness’s testimony into question. Cassidy says that the police also fabricated evidence. “And when the deputies interviewed Scott, they had asked what was the color of the car and kept running through the primary colors until they landed on the one that matched,” claimed Cassidy.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision, and sharp rebuke of the prosecutorial methods employed in the case, Wearry was retried.

“[I]n this case, we had an African American man who was originally convicted by an all-white jury,” Cassidy said. “And there Michael faced retrial in front of a second all-white jury when there was a negotiated sentence to guarantee Michael’s ultimate release.”

Wearry pleaded guilty to manslaughter in December 2018. He received a 25-year sentence with the Department of Corrections. Wearry was credited for time served since March 4, 1999, and was freed Feb. 15 from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.

“I’m incredibly pleased with the outcome of this case and to see Michael finally leave the prison as a free man,” Cassidy said. “He is getting his life back and is able to reconnect with his family, including grandchildren.”

Wearry has also brought a civil rights lawsuit against District Attorney Scott Perrilloux and Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Detective Marlon Foster, accusing them of fabricating evidence in his case by coercing false testimony from a 10-year-old boy. In October 2022, the 5th Circuit held that the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity did not protect the men from responsibility for their alleged conduct.

“We applaud Ed and his team for this tremendous time, effort, and excellent skill and legal work to bring this case to a successful conclusion, given the many challenges over such a period of time,” stated John M. Koneck, president of Fredrikson.

“Fredrikson has a strong tradition of public service and believes that it is a part of a lawyer’s professional responsibilities to provide pro bono legal services for the benefit of the community,” Cassidy said. “Our culture encourages lawyers to meet their responsibility through pro bono matters. Fredrikson attorneys and staff contribute thousands of hours in pro bono services to individuals in need and nonprofit organizations throughout our communities.”

Cassidy was honored as a 2016 Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer for his work on Wearry’s case.

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