St. Paul lawyers play driving role in release of Louisiana death row inmate

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2014 - 11:18 PM

Decades of work in St. Paul and Louisiana led to Glenn Ford’s release from prison after nearly 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

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It was "a reminder to fight the good fight," said attorney Deborah Ellis, on this photo of then death-row inmate Glenn Ford.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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For years, when she’d walk into her downtown St. Paul office, criminal defense lawyer Deborah Ellis would see a photo of Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford perched at eye level on the reception desk.

It was “a reminder to fight the good fight,” she said.

On Tuesday night, Ellis watched on television as Ford, 64, walked out of Louisiana State Prison in Angola. He was one of the longest-serving death row inmates in U.S. history to be exonerated and released. “I’ve been crying ever since,” Ellis said.

The rare and dramatic moment came hours after a judge granted the state’s request to vacate Ford’s murder conviction. And it came after three decades of exhausting, discouraging work and failed legal appeals by Ellis and other attorneys, including several from Minnesota. In 1984, Ford, who is black, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in the November 1983 killing of Isadore Rozeman in his jewelry store-home in Shreveport, La.

Refusing to plead guilty

Ford, who lived near Rozeman and did jobs for him such as raking leaves, was convicted on questionable forensics and the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have seen him in the area on the day of the murder. Ford said he was innocent.

The two trial lawyers who represented Ford had no criminal legal experience and were paid a total of $750. They weren’t given police reports with evidence favorable to Ford.

Early appeals failed. The case even went to the U.S. Supreme Court on the argument that prosecutors had unfairly dismissed the only three black jury candidates without good reason.

In the late 1980s, Ellis and Neal Walker of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center stepped in, raising 60 concerns about the conviction. The Capital Post Conviction Project of Louisiana also joined the fight.

But over and over, attempts to overturn the conviction failed. “We didn’t win on any of the issues we presented over the years,” Ellis said.

Ford, maintaining his innocence, rejected offers to plead guilty in exchange for escaping the death penalty. The appeals kept him alive, Ellis said. “You never want to push things fast because you could push someone to death,” she said.

In late 2013, the fight got a powerful boost when a confidential informant pointed toward Ford’s innocence. The judge called the new evidence credible, writing that Ford “was neither present at, nor a participant in the robbery and murder” of Rozeman, and ordered Ford’s release.

It wasn’t the only death row fight that Minnesotan attorneys have been involved in. Minnesota lawyer Steven Kaplan and the New York-based Innocence Project also played a role in the 2012 release of another Louisiana death row inmate, Damon Thibodeaux.

As Ford walked away from prison late Tuesday, he told a local TV station, “It feels good,” but acknowledged that he feels some resentment because “I’ve been locked up almost 30 years for something I didn’t do. I can’t go back and do anything I should have been doing when I was 35, 38, 40, stuff like that.”

A passion for defense

On Wednesday, Ellis, 62, sat in her office and read from Ford’s death warrant, which had ordered that he be shot through with “electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death” between midnight and 3 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1991. “It’s gross,” she said.

Ellis became interested in criminal defense work after her childhood neighbor, T. Eugene Thompson, was accused of hiring a hit man to kill his wife in 1963. Eventually Ellis would work on behalf of Norman Mastrian, who was convicted of helping orchestrate the murder of Carol Thompson.

In law school, Ellis was clerking for a judge when she saw storied Minnesota defense attorney Doug Thomson work a case. She sent him a letter asking to work for him and he hired her — part time while she was in school and full time after she graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

  • related content

  • In a frame grab from video, Glenn Ford, center, walked out of prison Tuesday in Angola, La., a free man.

  • St. Paul lawyer Deborah Ellis read Wednesday from a copy of Ford's death warrant ordering his electrocution in February 1991.

  • It was "a reminder to fight the good fight," said attorney Deborah Ellis, on this photo of then death-row inmate Glenn Ford.

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