Henry’s attorneys warn that further delaying his release could be tantamount to a death sentence, as covid-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus — has ripped through the state prison system. A judge is scheduled to decide Henry’s fate in a bond hearing on Friday.
The case puts a twist on the national debate over how to handle inmates locked in overcrowded prisons with limited medical care. Since the pandemic began, criminal justice experts have raised concerns that prisons could become hot spots, pushing for the release of elderly and sick inmates and those convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Their predictions have played out in many states with rapidly growing prison outbreaks — particularly Louisiana, where 120 inmates and 78 staff members have tested positive as of Wednesday. At the Angola state penitentiary, where Henry is being held, the number of cases has ballooned to 29 inmates and 27 employees as of Wednesday, with one death in each group.
One of the state’s longest-serving female prisoners, who had been recommended for release by the parole board, was hospitalized with coronavirus last week, according to local news reports. Gloria Williams, 73, was serving life without parole for second-degree murder and has been waiting nine months for Gov. John Bel Edwards to sign off on the board’s decision and commute her sentence.
Last week, Edwards (D) announced plans to furlough certain inmates who meet specific criteria, such as having underlying health conditions and nonviolent convictions.
Henry’s case raises a different point. His attorneys argue that the coronavirus threat in prisons should expedite his release, given that new DNA evidence points to a possible wrongful conviction and that his family has raised money for bail ahead of a new trial.
“These facilities are ticking time bombs, and in many ways, they are like the closed-in quarters of a cruise ship,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, which has advocated for decreasing prison and jail populations during the pandemic. “If we know there are individuals we believe did not commit the crimes they’re serving time for, it’s incumbent [on] us, morally and ethically, to be sure they have the ability to vindicate their claims, and not receive a death sentence while waiting for that to happen.”
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro declined to comment, as Henry’s case is pending. In addition to the coronavirus exposure, his office argued for delaying Henry’s release because prosecutors weren’t given the chance to present evidence on why he shouldn’t be granted bail.
Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, also declined to discuss the case, but said prosecutors are within their rights to introduce the impact of the coronavirus when considering someone’s release from prison.
“What we might normally do or what we’ve done for the last 50 years, this is new stuff,” Lampert said. “Everything is on the table these days when you start dealing with public health and public safety.”
Louisiana is not alone in considering such cases. In Cincinnati, prosecutors argued against the immediate release of Chris Smith, whose robbery conviction was overturned by new DNA evidence. The attorney general, in a letter to the court, said that Smith, whose high blood pressure makes him particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, “will likely be treated better in his current setting in prison if medical exigencies arise than if he were released,” according to Smith’s attorneys. A federal judge ordered Smith’s immediate release last week.
In Henry’s case, prosecutors originally argued that he had little reason to worry behind bars, calling the threat of covid-19 in Angola “overblown.” They said his relatively young age and “average health” meant he was unlikely to suffer severe illness if he did contract the virus, adding that Henry would be in greater danger if he was sent back to New Orleans, where “thousands have been infected and the death rate is the highest in the country,” according to court records.
But an appeals court didn’t buy the argument and upheld Henry’s release on bail. Before he could secure the money, a staff member at Angola tested positive for coronavirus.
Prosecutors then flipped the argument, pointing to Henry’s potential exposure as a reason he should stay behind bars. The Louisiana Supreme Court stepped into the fray April 17, vacating the lower court’s decision to release Henry and ordering the new bond hearing Friday.
Before his conviction was overturned, Henry was serving a life sentence for the June 2004 murders of Durelli Watts, 89, and her 67-year-old daughter, Claire Gex. The killer stabbed Watts more than a dozen times and set her body on fire, then turned on Gex as she was walked up the front stairs of her mother’s home.
Henry, a father of three, has maintained his innocence, claiming he was applying for jobs in the French Quarter at the time of the murders. Prosecutors’ case was based on three eyewitnesses.
Six years after Henry’s conviction, the Innocence Project in New York retested DNA evidence found under Watts’s fingernails. In a 2019 hearing, a forensic scientist testified that the results excluded Henry as a suspect, according to local news reports.
Ad hoc Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Dennis Waldron, who presided over Henry’s original trial, overturned the conviction on March 11, saying “it is highly probable that the newly discovered evidence would have produced a different result.” He set bail at $400,000 ahead of the retrial.
Henry’s family held an online fundraiser to secure part of the 12 percent — about $48,000 — required by the bondsman. The rest was raised by his aunt, Sheryl Henry-Batiste, who mortgaged her home of more than 20 years.
Angola officials told Henry on April 3 he would soon be going home, and he gave away his belongings to other inmates. But the district attorney filed the emergency writ with the courts and temporarily blocked his release.
Henry-Batiste was devastated. She worries that with each day, the risk to her nephew’s health increases.
“Darrill is innocent, and they’re trying to keep him in prison where he doesn’t belong,” Henry-Batiste said. “I just want to get him out of there. I want him home.”
The prosecutors’ arguments are not new. They have also fought to prevent the release of several pretrial inmates in the city jail, claiming they can’t be trusted to practice social distancing.
“If the defendant is released on bond during the Coronavirus outbreak and goes into public places, it will pose a threat to the general public,” the DA’s office stated in multiple court filings.
Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation for the Innocence Project, said such claims show a disregard for the health of people in prison and a dangerous misunderstanding of the virus that has brought much of the world to a standstill.
“It’s unconscionable for the state to try to keep Mr. Henry in prison during a pandemic,” said Potkin, who represents Henry. “Mr. Henry lives in a dorm with close to 100 other men. It would be beyond devastating for him to become sick and die with new DNA evidence proving he is a wrongfully convicted, innocent man.”