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.
Ellis said she’s a “Dougling,” one of a couple of dozen Minnesota defense lawyers nurtured by Thomson. Working alongside him, she participated in the defense of some of the most notorious cases in state history. A room at her office is devoted to courtroom sketches of Thomson, as well as such clients as Lois Jurgens, Roger Caldwell, Connie Trimble and June Mikulanec.
Thomson, who died in 2007 at age 77, is responsible for putting Ellis on Ford’s case. In the 1980s, Louisiana lawyers were saturated with death penalty appeals and asking for help from colleagues in other states. Thompson agreed to take on Ford’s case. He put Ellis on it and underwrote the cost for years, she said.
In 1990, Ellis and Walker spent a week in Shreveport, La., working night and day to reinvestigate the case against Ford.
“From the get-go, [Walker] and I had a vision of Glenn walking out of prison, and he didn’t live to see it,” Ellis said, her voice cracking as she added that Thomson, as well, didn’t get to see Ford freed.
With word of Ford’s freedom, Ellis said strangers and long-lost acquaintances have reached out to thank her. She’s going to let the whirlwind settle before she reaches out to speak with Ford.
He was her only death penalty defendant.
“I can’t imagine a whole caseload of them,” she said, but added, “There isn’t a better fight in criminal defense work.”