As the days grow shorter and the end of August looms, Americans’ thoughts turn to Labor Day weekend. Some will head for the beach; others will laze around the backyard. Ronald Monroe will be dead—if the state of Louisiana has its way.
Barring commutation by the Governor or last-minute intervention by the federal courts, Monroe is scheduled to die in Louisiana’s electric chair on Aug. 30 for a murder that, the evidence suggests, he may not have committed. “I’m innocent, and this state knows I’m innocent,” he says quietly, more resigned than angry. “I know there’s a lot of people out there that’s for the death penalty, but why execute innocent people? It don’t make no sense.”
Monroe, 35, may have some trouble fully comprehending his situation; he is mildly retarded, with an IQ of 75. But a lot of other people can’t understand why he is facing death either. The secretary general of Amnesty International and 20 congressmen have written Gov. Buddy Roemer on Monroe’s behalf, and Louisiana’s Board of Pardons unanimously recommended that his sentence be commuted to life. But Roemer has not acted, and autumn is in the air.
It was 12 years ago, in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 1977, that someone stabbed 35-year-old phone company employee Lenora Collins in her home at 1667 Religious Street in New Orleans as her two children, Joseph, 12, and Theodise, 11, watched in horror. The assailant wounded Theodise, too, but Joseph was able to escape and run for help next door, where Monroe and his mother lived. Joseph would testify that Monroe arrived soon after he did and chased him down the street. When police came to investigate, they found Monroe in bed, his hand cut and bleeding.
Monroe testified that he had been injured hours earlier in a fight at a local bar, and his mother and his younger brother, Michael, swore he was already at home when Joseph Collins came pounding at the door. Both Joseph and Theodise identified Monroe as the murderer, and the DA suggested a motive: Six weeks before the killing, Lenora Collins’s family had sought to evict the Monroes from the two-family house they shared. That was the sum and substance of the case. No forensic evidence was offered by the prosecution; though Collins had been stabbed repeatedly in the face and chest and her apartment was a wash in blood, none of her blood was found on Monroe or his belongings nor was any of his blood found in her home. Neither did the defense offer evidence to support Monroe’s story about the bar fight; his public defender has since admitted he was afraid to venture to that part of town to investigate. “It was just my word, my mother’s word and my baby brother’s word against the two kids’ word,” recalls Monroe, who was then an unemployed laborer with no prior arrest record. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
After the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the conviction because of a prejudicial ruling by the trial judge, Monroe was retried and reconvicted.
Six months after Monroe’s second conviction, however, another murder occurred that would cast grave doubt on Monroe’s guilt. On July 3, 1980, in Pontiac, Mich., the body of 27-year-old Erma Jean Lofton had been found in a field. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the face and chest. Her husband, George Stinson, a construction worker, was arrested and charged with the crime. Stinson and Lofton had recently moved to Pontiac from New Orleans.
That September, Pontiac homicide detective Joseph Gallardo received a letter from Stinson’s cell mate, Francis Lee McWilliams. McWilliams said that Stinson had admitted to killing not only Lofton but also his estranged common-law wife in New Orleans, one Lenora Collins.
Gallardo phoned the New Orleans police department with this information and was startled by their lack of interest. “It appeared to me,” says Gallardo, “that they had someone in jail ready to be executed and they just didn’t want to be bothered.” Nor did the New Orleans authorities relay Gallardo’s revelation to Monroe’s defense attorneys, as required by law.
Without this crucial information, Monroe’s appeals dragged on unsuccessfully, and his execution was finally set for Jan. 5, 1984. But just six days before Monroe was to die, his new attorneys, the top-drawer New York firm of corporate lawyers Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, tracked down Gallardo and McWilliams. Recruited by the NAACP legal defense fund to represent Monroe pro bono, the firm had put a young associate, Douglas Morris—who would ordinarily be concentrating on international arbitration and contract law—on Monroe’s case. He rushed to the federal court in New Orleans on Jan. 4, and federal magistrate Marcel Livaudais decided that “a reasonable doubt has been shown to now exist.” Livaudais stayed the execution and suggested that Louisiana consider granting Monroe a new trial.
Monroe’s appeal to the Louisiana courts for a retrial has been denied by Judge Dennis J. Waldron, a former New Orleans prosecutor, and the Aug. 30 execution date set.
Monroe’s defense team keeps searching for new evidence and apparently keeps finding it. Three witnesses have signed affidavits that Monroe was indeed in a bar fight on the night of the killing; one of them says he cut Monroe with a bottle. A neighbor says he saw George Stinson talking to Collins’s daughter, Theodise, at the Collins home hours before the murder—though Theodise swore Stinson was not there that day. According to court papers, a former playmate of Theodise says the girl once confided that Stinson had been sexually molesting her and that she was too terrified to say a word against him. Even more damning for Stinson, yet another former wife has surfaced. Marie Lendo Lee, a Baton Rouge schoolteacher, swore in an affidavit that when she threatened to leave him in 1959, Stinson stabbed her repeatedly in the face and left her for dead. Stinson, now 59 and living in New Orleans after serving seven years for the killing of Lofton, maintains through his attorney that he is innocent of the Collins killing.
Monroe’s prosecutors are unswayed by the fresh evidence. Says Fred Harper, who is now an assistant U.S. attorney: “It is preposterous to think that those two kids would [wrongly] identify Ronald Monroe” even if they were terrified of Stinson. “Why would they put it on someone they knew? Why didn’t they say it was some other black male that they didn’t know?” Lance Africk, who helped prosecute at the second trial, agrees: “The evidence we had was overwhelming. It was beyond any doubt.” He and Harper plan to attend the execution.
For his part, Monroe forgives the prosecutors, the police, the courts, the Governor. “It’s hard for me to tell my wife and daughter to forgive the state of Louisiana, but I don’t hold no grudge against nobody. They just can’t see the evidence that’s presented to them,” he says. “I can’t say Mr. Stinson committed the crime, because I didn’t see it. But I know I didn’t do it.”
—James S. Kunen, Ron Ridenhour in New Orleans, Mark Zwonitzer in New York