Lafayette man's manslaughter conviction overturned by Supreme Court

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled Willie James Robertson’s manslaughter conviction and accompanying 40-year sentence overturned due to lack of evidence.

Willie James Robertson

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled Willie James Robertson’s manslaughter conviction be overturned due to lack of evidence.

Robertson was convicted by a jury in the 15th Judicial District in 2014 for a 12-year-old cold-case involving 86-year-old Irene Schoops who was found dead inside her home back in October 1999. A reexamination of fingerprint evidence in 2011 would lead to the indictment by a local grand jury in 2012 of Robertson on a charge of second-degree murder. In 2013, Robertson would be convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

From the Supreme Court ruling issued Tuesday:

_[S]he was found on the floor of her kitchen, with three plastic grocery bags lying just beyond reach of her outstretched hand. The home had been ransacked. A VCR and silverware had been taken, groceries removed from the plastic bags, and a wedding ring slipped off her finger. The curtains normally open had been closed and flower pots moved from the window sill to the kitchen counter. According to one of the officers first on the scene, Sergeant Terrance Oliver with the Lafayette Police Department, “[i]t didn’t look like she had any kind of trauma to her as far as physical confrontation. Nothing in the kitchen appeared to be strewn about or anything like that. The autopsy report introduced by the state attributed the cause of the victim’s death to sudden cardiac arrest caused by severely narrowed coronary arteries.

In the state's theory of the case, the victim's heart simply gave out when she returned from shopping and at some point thereafter confronted an intruder in her home during the commission of an aggravated burglary. Although initial examination of the latent fingerprints on the sliding door evidently pried open with a screwdriver to provide entry, and on a blue metal found in the living room, had proved negative, reexamination of the prints in 2011 identified defendant as the person who entered the home. The state argued that the closed curtains and relocated flower pots indicated defendant was still in the home when the victim collapsed and took steps to conceal his involvement in her death. The defense argued that the state had proved only that the victim died of natural causes but otherwise failed to establish when the perpetrator entered the residence and thus failed to negate any number of reasonable alternatives, including the possibility that the unauthorized entry occurred after, not before, the victim collapsed and died on her kitchen floor._

In a recent opinion issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, the state’s case was found to be faulty, namely that it “failed to eliminate beyond a reasonable doubt the very real possibility that the victim was already deceased when the burglary commenced.”

Tuesday's ruling by the state Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit’s opinion. From Tuesday's ruling:

_In my view, in this circumstantial evidence case, it was incumbent upon the prosecution to present a medical doctor or forensic pathologist to opine as to the cause of death. The absence of such testimony led to the result here: a rational juror could not have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Even though the medical examiner in this cold case was deceased, the prosecution could have retained a qualified expert to examine the autopsy report and Certificate of Death to provide testimony regarding, inter alia, the cause of death, the time of death, and the cause of other injuries on the decedent’s body, such that the overall evidence would exclude “every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” La. R.S. 15:438. The prosecution’s failure to do so was fatal to its case._