Kia Stewart eagerly descended the courthouse steps into the arms of his waiting family and friends on Monday, April 13, 2015. In taking those strides, he also stepped back into the free world.
Kia was exonerated through a unique joint effort between IPNO and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, the newly launched Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project. The conclusion of Kia’s case, and the end of his wrongful incarceration, mark the project’s first success.
Kia was mistakenly identified as the man who shot Bryant "BJ" Craig on a public street in broad daylight on July 31, 2005, just a month before Hurricane Katrina would devastate New Orleans.
Within hours of the shooting, police developed Kia as a suspect in the case, based on a factually inaccurate anonymous tip. By the end of the day, without canvassing the scene for witnesses or doing anything else to develop leads, police included Kia’s photograph in an array for BJ’s distraught friend to identify. This single eyewitness identification was the only evidence against Kia.
At the time of his arrest, Kia was just 17 years old. He was forced to suffer through the hells of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the Orleans Parish Prison, where—he believed—he would be left to drown in a cell. Even after being belatedly evacuated, he waited for months without an attorney and with no way to contact his family. In 2006, the Tulane University Law Clinic accepted an appointment to represent Kia on his second degree murder charge. Though the Clinic students and attorneys were dedicated to Kia’s case, they were unable to locate witnesses in post-Katrina New Orleans. Four years after his arrest, Kia was wrongly convicted after a short trial at which the State presented one eyewitness.
Shortly after his conviction, the Clinic began to uncover some of the many witnesses who would eventually prove his innocence. Unfortunately, despite the Clinic filing several Motions for New Trial based on this evidence, Kia’s conviction became final and he was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he was sent to work in the fields.
IPNO began work on Kia’s case in 2013. In total, through vigorous investigation, we discovered at least 18 witnesses who saw the crime and saw that Kia was not the shooter, heard the true perpetrator confess to the crime or who proved Kia’s alibi. After bringing the case to the District Attorney’s office and doing a joint review of the evidence, IPNO and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office entered into a series of joint stipulations concerning the breadth of this new evidence. On April 13, 2015, Judge Darryl Derbigny reviewed these stipulations and ordered that Kia’s conviction be vacated and that he be immediately released from custody. The District Attorney’s Office immediately agreed to dismiss all charges against Kia for this crime.
Kia left the court house surrounded by members of his loyal and loving family and friends, as well as IPNO staff. Kia celebrated his exoneration with chicken salad, per his request. Since his release, Kia has been getting in touch with old friends and spending time with his family—especially his little nieces and nephews. He is so glad he gets to be “Uncle Kia” now. Kia has also had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. and to speak with a variety of groups concerning his case. He is working hard to make up for spending the first 10 years of his adult life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
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