A New Orleans man pegged by police as a notorious killer suspected in several gang-style slayings was acquitted of first-degree murder Wednesday after one of the state's key witnesses recanted his identification of the defendant.
It was the second time Antoine Thompson, 22, stood trial in an 8th Ward shooting in which Norman Royal, 27, was killed on the front porch of his Music Street home and two of his friends were seriously wounded by three gunmen.
Thompson was first tried last November along with a second man. The trial ended in a mistrial for Thompson but a manslaughter conviction for the second man, Lonnie Allen.
The trial took a dramatic turn Wednesday when Royal's neighbor a former New Orleans police officer convicted of having sex with a juvenile, recanted his identification of Thompson.
In the first trial, Frank Oliver testified that Thompson was one of the men he saw leaving and then returning to the red, late-model getaway car parked in front of Oliver's home. The car was later traced to Allen.
Wednesday, Oliver said Thompson was not one pair of gunmen he saw fleeing the scene. "That's not the man I saw," Oliver said after stepping down from the witness stand to look at Thompson.
But prosecutors Lionel Lon Burns and Duane Evans said Oliver, who was taken into custody after Thompson's last trial to serve his sentence, now had reason to change his story.
They hinted that he may have been threatened because he is now in Orleans Parish Prison where Allen and Thompson are also housed.
"Which individuals share the address of Mr. Foti's castle?" Evans reminded jurors in closing arguments. "Mr. Antoine Thompson, Mr. Lonnie Allen and now Mr. Frank Oliver."
Without Oliver's identification, the state had to make its case with three survivors of the shooting who made only tentative identifications of Thompson as one of the masked gunmen.
This allowed defense attorneys Jeff Smith and AF "Sonny" Armond to hammer away at the sate's lack of evidence.
"They have absolutely no evidence against Antoine Thompson," Smith told jurors in closing arguments. Maybe if Norman Royal had been a rich, white tourist in the French Quarter or a famous gospel singer, they wtuld have called on a ballistics expert."
Burns countered that Detective Carlton Lawiess had done an exhaustive investigation of the shooting. He bristled at Smith for hinting that New Orleans police show preference to certain victims.
"I'm insulted and you should be insulted," Burns told jurors. "This was a good investigation."
Although their defense attorneys have said the two did not know each other, police said Thompson and Allen were members of the loosely organized Ninth Ward Troopers, a street gang that authorities say has waged a war of murder and robbery in the city's 8th and 9th wards.
Wednesday's acquittal was a blow to police and prosecutors, who have painted Thompson as street killer for hire. He remains a suspect in the separate shooting deaths of 16 year-old James Williams Jr. and 33-year-old Adrian Johnson, both of New Orleans. Family members say Wiliams was killed for his tennis shoes. In both cases, prosecutors were forced to let Thompson go free after witnesses failed to appear in grand jury proceedings. Police say he remains a suspect in other slayings.
The Times-Picayune, Thursday February 3, 2000
By Rhonda Ballet, Staff writer
8th Ward murder suspect acquitted
Former cop recants first trials testimony