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‘It was fundamentally unfair.’ A prosecutor apologizes for his role in putting an innocent man on death row

Glenn Ford in New Orleans. (Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

Marty Stroud was 33 years old when he fought to have Glenn Ford sentenced to death. Stroud was relatively new in his role as assistant district attorney in Caddo Parish, La., when Ford was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder for the 1983 killing of a watchmaker who ran a jewelry store in Shreveport. “The case took about a week and a half,” Stroud recalls now. Ford, a black man before an all-white jury, was convicted and sentenced in 1984. He remained on death row for three decades. It was the first and only death sentence Stroud won as a prosecutor.

Last year, Ford was declared a free man and released from prison. His attorneys said upon his release he was sentenced due to questionable testimony as well as inexperienced defense. The lawyers he had during his initial trial had not tried a case before a jury before, Stroud said.

Other men had also initially been charged in the shooting of Isadore Rozeman, the watchmaker, but those charges were later dismissed. In 2013, Ford’s attorneys say they were told that a confidential informant for the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office pointed to one of those other men as the person who killed Rozeman, though precise details remain unclear.

In March 2014, after prosecutors and Ford’s attorneys filed motions to vacate his conviction, the state district court ordered his release. However, more than a year later, Ford is still fighting the state for compensation. He’s also facing an advanced cancer diagnosis.

Stroud knows all of this. He says he knows now that Ford was innocent and he knows Ford’s trial “was fundamentally unfair.” He knows Ford is dying, and he knows the state is not paying Ford for the decades he lost.

“When he was exonerated last year, I was thrilled,” Stroud, 63, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I thought that justice had been done.”

A.M. “Marty” Stroud III, who grew up in Shreveport and is an attorney there, read about Ford’s problems getting the state to pay him in the Shreveport Times. Stroud could not believe it, so he began working on a letter to the editor of the newspaper to try and put his thoughts together. All of the things that had bothered him about the case and all of the things about the case that had built over the sleepless nights, poured out into the letter.

“I’m not one to write letters or get on soapboxes or anything like that,” Stroud said. “But I felt that in this particular case, I had a unique view of what had happened since I actually was there and had watched the progress through the system all these years.”

The result, which totals more than 1,500 words, was published online Friday by the Shreveport Times and widely circulated on social media. In the bracing letter, Stroud apologized for his role in taking away 30 years of Ford’s life. He says he was “arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself.” Stroud explained why he had turned against the death penalty he so eagerly sought in 1984, and he expressed both his remorse for what he did and his apology to Ford for what cannot be undone.

“I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning,” he wrote. Stroud recalled that late in the trial, while arguing for the death sentence, he mocked Ford for wanting to stay alive to try and prove his innocence, adding: “I continued by saying this should be an affront to each of you jurors, for he showed no remorse, only contempt for your verdict.”

Stroud continued:

How totally wrong was I.
I speak only for me and no one else.
I apologize to Glenn Ford for all the misery I have caused him and his family.
I apologize to the family of Mr. Rozeman for giving them the false hope of some closure.
I apologize to the members of the jury for not having all of the story that should have been disclosed to them.
I apologize to the court in not having been more diligent in my duty to ensure that proper disclosures of any exculpatory evidence had been provided to the defense.

Stroud went on to work for a private firm after leaving the district attorney’s office in 1989. He has worked on a mix of civil and criminal cases, including mounting defenses in death-penalty cases. Stroud said that he was told not long before Ford was freed that investigators working on a cold case talked to someone about the Rozeman killing, and that person said that Ford did not shoot the man. Stroud said he was told: “If the prosecution had known this at the time, there wasn’t enough to have Mr. Ford arrested, much less give him the death penalty.” Ford was subsequently released.

“I have a stain because I participated in the proceeding that, looking back on, it was fundamentally unfair,” Stroud said in the interview. He said he knew that Ford’s attorneys had not practiced criminal law and that he knew “it was a mismatch from the beginning.”

Stroud also began seeing problems with a larger issue in the proceedings: The fact that Ford was not just found guilty, but found guilty and sentenced to death, which means he could have been executed before his innocence came to light.

The letter from Stroud seems rather remarkable, coming from a prosecutor who won a death sentence and wished later he could take it back. It also comes as prosecutors around the country are putting increasing resources into trying to overturn false convictions. The country had a record number of exonerations last year, a tally boosted by the efforts of prosecutors, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Mistaken convictions are a particular concern when they involve death sentences. Six of the people exonerated last year had been sentenced to death, the registry said. Wrongly executing someone is “the ultimate nightmare,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said recently. But Holder, who opposes the death penalty, called this an “inevitable” feature of the current capital punishment system, which relies on the judgment of people who can make mistakes.

Ford was the 144th death row inmate cleared since 1973, and he had spent more time on death row than any of these other inmates, the Death Penalty Information Center reported. (An Ohio man who spent four decades in prison, the longest-serving inmate later exonerated in the country’s history, was awarded $1 million in compensation this week by a state court; he had been sentenced to death, but it was commuted to a life sentence.)

Stroud’s unease with the death penalty has grown and deepened over the years, and he says Ford’s case illustrates why he now opposes capital punishment.

“This case shows why the death penalty is just an abomination,” he said. “The system failed Mr. Ford, and I was part of the system. That is why I feel it was my duty to come forward and say: At the time, I was gung ho, got the right guy, no doubt whatsoever, on a crusade, I’m a good guy, I’m on a crusade for law enforcement. I never considered that the evidence, that there was something else out there we should’ve looked at.”

Stroud was confident in his case then, but he wishes now he had done more to look into the rumors that other people were involved in the crime. In hindsight, he realizes he was an eager prosecutor less than a decade out of law school, one who wanted to make a name for himself. Stroud saw other people who were touting their careers, boasting how they were going to become judges, bragging about the number of capital cases prosecuted and death sentences won. He recalls how after Ford was sentenced, he went out for drinks to celebrate, something he now looks back on with disgust.

“Looking back 30 years ago, I was just blinded by the prospect of prosecuting a first-degree murder case and obtaining a sentence of death,” he said. “I thought that would show that I was a tough prosecutor. What it showed is how easy it is to be caught up in the system and not to step back and see that a fair process is being used.”

Stroud said after being on both sides of the issue, he has determined that it does not work. “All it is is state-assisted revenge,” he said, adding: “We can’t do it. It’s arbitrary, it’s capricious. And I believe that it’s barbaric.”

In Louisiana, the wrongfully imprisoned can receive up to $250,000 in compensation. Ford is trying to get the state to pay him for the years spent in prison, but court documents show that the state says he should not be given money because he went to a pawn shop to sell items that had been stolen from Rozeman’s store. Attorneys for Ford said last year that one of the other men initially charged in the killing had given him jewelry to pawn. Ford has also filed lawsuits claiming he was wrongfully imprisoned and that he was denied necessary medical care after signs emerged he may have cancer.

Within months of his release from the notorious Angola Prison last year, Ford was diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer; he currently has stage-four lung cancer, according to legal filings submitted in federal court this month.

While Stroud has not talked to Ford, whom he calls “Mr. Ford,” he said he has talked with an attorney for Ford, who suggested the former prosecutor write a letter to the exonerated man.

“When I started writing the letter, it was part of a cleansing process for me, stuff that had bothered me for years that I couldn’t put my finger on,” Stroud said. “It came out in this letter. The only regret that I have is that I didn’t come to this position much earlier in life.”

Even though he hoped the letter would prompt some discussion about the death penalty, he said he is still surprised by the reaction it has received beyond Shreveport.

“I knew it would probably stir some people up around here, but I never realized it would gain so much attention with other folks in other parts of the country,” Stroud said. He has been called by CNN and other outlets who want to hear more about the story. “I’m a little bit stunned by that.”

Stroud said he is not sure if he will write again to Ford. In his letter, Stroud calls for Ford to be given “every penny” called for by Louisiana’s law governing compensation for the wrongfully convicted. He also says he hopes for compassion he does not believe he has earned.

“I end with the hope that providence will have more mercy for me than I showed Glenn Ford,” he wrote. “But, I am also sobered by the realization that I certainly am not deserving of it.”

[You can read Stroud’s full letter here.]