Inmate Loses ‘All-or-Nothing’ Chance for New Trial in 1985 Murder of Uptown Bakery Owner Bill Long Jr
Recently I saw a photo of Judge Ben Willard in the Times-Picayune, with a postage stamp size visage of his image concerning a 1985 case he was very recently involved in. Other judges were mentioned- US District Judge Ginger Berrigan and Judge Sharon Hunter.
There was a big B&W photo of an old uptown bakery and delicatessen in business for many years, until the owner/operator was brutally murdered in 1985 right in front of his bakery.
For many years, the wife and I bought authentic Jewish pastries/breads (prune danishes, challah, etc.), sandwiches and more from that wonderful, family Jewish style bakery, prior to the horrible event.
- Prune Danish
For his latest try at freedom, Jerome “Skee” Smith counted a pretty strong witness in his corner: U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.
The federal judge delivered, testifying that Smith got a raw deal at his trial in the 1985 killing of a popular Freret Street bakery owner.
But a state appeals court has rejected what Smith called his “all-or-nothing” shot to undo the verdict — leaving him short of options after an unusually persistent run of legal appeals from Angola State Penitentiary.
Smith, now 41, claims police fed off his reputation as a young punk with a growing criminal record, and that he was nowhere close when a young black man shot Bill Long Jr. dead during a botched robbery in front of Long’s Bakery and Delicatessen.
Long, 57, served up kosher breads at his landmark spot at 4500 Freret St., and his death shook the neighborhood. Among his loyal customers was Jerome’s mother, Thelma Smith, who still lives nearby on Jena Street. Jerome, then 15, would go there for doughnuts on the way to school.
Since a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in 1986, Smith has filed eight petitions to overturn the verdict, including one that succeeded, but only briefly. Judge Sharon Hunter ordered a new trial in 2001 after a missing page of the initial police report surfaced in the district attorney’s office and landed in the hands of Smith’s lawyers, years after the trial. But an appeals court panel overturned Hunter’s ruling, finding the page would have made no difference in the outcome of the trial.
Hunter was removed from the criminal court bench in 2002 by the Louisiana Supreme Court after her section kept losing key trial transcripts.
Smith, meanwhile, got his most recent shot at freedom in a hearing held earlier this year before District Court Judge Benedict Willard, who wasn’t the only judge in the room.
Berrigan, who had represented Smith as an attorney before taking the federal bench, said several pieces of evidence that she never saw would have bolstered the appeal. Among them was a statement that showed a discrepancy in the distance that one of three witnesses said he had stood from the shooting, as well as a statement by the witness on how he picked Smith out of a photo lineup, by winnowing down the choices. At a January hearing, Berrigan, who was nominated for the federal post by President Clinton, called it “a really classic (example) of a possible, seriously possible mistaken identification.”
Berrigan also testified that she had never seen an arrest warrant application that put the time of the shooting at 4:10 p.m. Smith’s alibi, backed by a witness, placed him and his mother at a youth study center — about 15 minutes away — at 4:15.
“We never knew that the time on the police report was 4:10,” Smith said in a telephone interview from Angola.
Berrigan said the jury should have heard that evidence.
“I don’t know if Mr. Smith is guilty or not,” she testified. “But I don’t think he had a fair trial.”
Berrigan later declined to discuss the case, but said it was only the second time she has testified for a former client during her 17 years on the federal bench.
Assistant District Attorney Donna Andrieu argued that Smith failed to present anything significantly new. Willard denied Smith’s application in April, saying he had failed to meet the “tremendous burden” of proof in such cases.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” the judge said.
He wasn’t, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.
Smith, who has written voluminous legal challenges from Angola, plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court. After that, he is unlikely to win a new hearing unless fresh evidence emerges in the 26-year-old case. Earlier, Smith said it was his first real shot since 2002, and could be his last. William Long III, who is now as old as his father was when he was slain, hopes it is, but doubts it.
“What else is he going to do? He’s sitting in prison, where he belongs, of course. I was surprised the judge even wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Family members have attended every court date, convinced that Smith shot his father, he said.
“I’d go to bat for the guy if we believed him to be innocent,” said Long, a former cop. “There were people in the neighborhood telling us who it was.”
Long dismissed the time issue, saying the youth center had not changed its clocks for the switch from daylight savings time, two days earlier, lending confusion to the account of Smith’s alibi.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for DA Leon Cannizzaro, called the number of post-conviction bids from Smith unusually high in a non-death penalty case. He said it was an example of how prosecutors must defend the convictions they win, sometimes for decades.
The bakery closed after Long’s death, along with several other Freret Street mainstays, as rising crime encroached on the neighborhood. The area has recently seen a storefront revival. Long’s wife would eventually leave the city. His grandson would become a homicide detective.
Long defended the neighborhood, his son said. He also refused to back down to a gun. Witnesses described a struggle before his father was shot and fell to the ground, while his wife looked out the store window.
From prison, Smith insisted that the family “never knew the correct story.”
“I’m not bitter towards these people. They were led to believe I am responsible for the death of Mr. Long,” he said.
Thelma Smith, 65, still lives around the corner, and still insists she was with her son when the local baker fell dead.
“My son is still incarcerated for something he didn’t do. I don’t know where to go from here,” she said.
From prison, her son said he is finishing up a book.
“It’s about a judicial system that’s driven by victory rather than justice. It’s about a mother who spent her whole life to clear her son’s name,” he said. “It’s called ‘Suppression.'”