Court reinstates Nolan James murder conviction

Wade McIntyre

The reversed murder conviction and life sentence of decorated Vietnam War veteran Nolan James of Donaldsonville was reinstated June 17 by Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal.

Judge Jane-Triche Milazzo of the 23rd Judicial District  Court ordered a new trial for James in Feburary on grounds that state prosecutors suppressed evidence that was crucial during the Purple Heart recipient’s original trial in 1983.

The appeals court ordered a reversal of the new trial order and the vacating of James conviction for murder in Ascension Parish in 1983.

The court said James’ application was “filed untimely,” and the evidence presented did not meet the exception of facts not known under La. Code Crim. P. art 930.B.

Evidence at issue presented on James’ behalf did not meet the facts-not-known requirement under Article 930.8, and there was “no reasonable probability” that the evidence if presented “would have made a different result reasonably probable,” the appeals court said in its ruling.

Triche-Milazzo based her ruling on an Amicus Curia Brief presented by Indigent Defender attorney Blaine Hebert during a Dec. 15 evidentiary hearing last year.

The judge had ordered a new trial within 90 days or that ruling.

Kurt Wall, director of the Louisiana Attorney General Criminal Division said the AG’s office was “extremely pleased and gratified” with the First Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

“We are happy that a convicted murderer will be forced to finish a mandated by a jury almost 30 years ago,” he said.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said he was relieved on behalf of the victims involved in the James’ case.

During a bond reduction hearing for James in March, the sheriff’s office introduced a warrant from 1979 that named James as a suspect in a Washington D.C. murder that took place two days before the murder in Ascension Parish. James, a Donaldsonville native, was living in Washington D.C. at the time.

“He’s a convicted murderer and should spend his life in the pen,” Wiley said. “He’s right where he belongs.”

District Defender of the Louisiana Public Defender  Board Alan Robert, who was James’ attorney in the 1983 trial, said the court of appeal ruling is not surprising.

The next step for Indigent Defender attorney Hebert will be to file writs to the State Supreme Court, according to Robert.

“I would feel certain that he plans to file writs to the State Supreme Court,” he said of Hebert Tuesday.

If the State Supreme Court does not rule favorably to a James’ appeal, the case would then go to the federal court system, where James would have to get a federal defender to handle his case.

Triche-Milazzo did not make a finding that the suppressed evidence would have necessarily produced a different jury verdict, but said she found that the cumulative effect of the evidence not presented undermines faith in the jury’s verdict on a charge of second-degree murder.

The judge listed 10 instances in her ruling where the main witness for the prosecution had statement inconsistencies differing from subsequent testimony at the trial.

The Amicus written by Robert produced new information that the prosecutors withheld 27 years ago.

According to Robert’s Amicus, James, who maintained his innocence throughout the trial, refused a plea bargain offered by the District Attorney during jury deliberations that would have reduced the charge against him to manslaughter with parole eligibility in seven years in exchange for a guilty plea.

The Amicus also notes that the defense was not made aware before the trial of a surprise prosecution witness who had taken evidence from the scene where James was arrested.