Things finally seemed to be going right for Dwayne LeBlanc.
He was 18 years old in 1994 when he was accused, and later convicted, of murdering someone in New Orleans, a crime he contends he did not commit.
And now, Centurion Ministries, the nonprofit organization recognized as a pioneer in the field of working to free the innocent, had agreed to take his case. Based on Centurion’s track record of success — they’ve freed 75 percent of their clients in cases they’ve concluded — he had cause for hope.
Centurion started investigating LeBlanc’s case in 2012 after becaming convinced of his innocence. In 2014 they presented the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office with their arguments, and by the end of last year, there was hope that he might be set free.
But there was a problem, as they would eventually find out — LeBlanc had a secret. It was one that threatened an important piece of evidence, compromised a key witness, and caused the DA to doubt the veracity of Centurion itself.
Centurion has had to deal with LeBlanc’s secret. Although the blow was a setback for his case, Alan Maimon, Centurion’s full time investigator who has been the lead on the case, still believes the evidence is compelling and plans to fight to win LeBlanc’s innocence beginning with a court filing in June.
Maimon, along with Centurion founder Jim McCloskey and Jane McBunch, the volunteer who first researched LeBlanc’s case, sat down with the Echo to talk about LeBlanc’s case, starting from the beginning.
CRIME & PUNISHMENT
In 1994, New Orleans was Murder Capital USA. That was the year the city set a new record for the most killings per capita in a single year in the nation’s history — 421, a number that stands to this day.
On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 27, in the city’s infamous Ninth Ward, Richard Borden became part of those statistics after he snatched a bag of crack cocaine from a drug dealer and ran away with it. Bullets flew, and the dealer shot him dead as he fled from the scene in a car driven by his uncle, who had transported him there.
About an hour and a half later, the uncle, Lofton Fairchild, led two police officers back to the scene at 1400 Tupelo St. and saw the shooter still sitting on the front steps of the home. The dealer once again opened fire, striking one of the police officers in the right hand, and then fled into the night.
In the hours that followed the shootings, investigators learned from Geraldine Jones, a crack addict who lived at 1400 Tupelo St., that a young man nicknamed “Twin” was the shooter. An anonymous tipster identified “Twin” as neighborhood resident Dwayne LeBlanc, who went by the moniker along with his identical twin brother, Dwight.
Over the next three hours, four witnesses identified LeBlanc from a photo lineup, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. Within a few days, LeBlanc’s parole officer from a previous drug possession conviction, told detectives they could find him at his family home in New Orleans or staying with his brother and sister-in-law in Long Beach, California, where he had said he planned to attend a trade school.
Although the firearm used in the shootings was never recovered, and there was no fingerprint, hair or DNA evidence, the police zeroed in on LeBlanc as the only suspect. He was taken into custody on Nov. 3, 1994 when California police arrested him at his brother’s home.
LeBlanc was convicted of the crime in 1997 after a brief trial and was sentenced to life in prison. His appeals unsuccessful and exhausted, LeBlanc sent his letter to Centurion Ministries asking for their help.
Centurion was founded in 1983 by McCloskey, a Philadelphia native who created the organization after graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree.
Since it was formed, Herrontown Road-based organization has been responsible for freeing 54 men and women (images of many of those freed appear in the background of the cover of this issue of the Echo), who have served a total of 1,083 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. That’s an average of more than 20 years each.
LeBlanc’s letter was one of thousands that Centurion receives each year, and it’s the job of volunteer case workers to review the letters and make sure the petitioner fits the very specific criteria for the cases they take on. The person must be serving a life sentence or death sentence for rape or murder, and all their direct appeals need to be exhausted.
If there is a possibility a petitioner might be innocent, the volunteers gather information, conduct an initial investigation and correspond with the inmate. Once enough information is gathered, a case file is presented to the staff, which then decides whether Centurion is going to take on the case.
This initial step can take years, and there are volunteer case workers who have been there a decade and have never had a case accepted. But Jane McBunch, who had just started at Centurion a few months earlier, was lucky. Her first case — LeBlanc — became one that Centurion opted to pursue.
McBunch began by exchanging letters with LeBlanc to learn about the crime and his side of the story. The volunteer case workers also try to get a feel for the people they’re dealing with. What’s their background and family life? What was their life like prior to incarceration?
Centurion won’t take on a case without being absolutely convinced of the person’s innocence. In LeBlanc’s case, there seems to be ample evidence in his favor. The most compelling is LeBlanc’s assertion that he was nearly 2,000 miles away in California when the murder happened. He had even told his parole officer about his intent to go to California weeks before the crime occurred. There’s also an attendance record that shows LeBlanc was in California on the Friday and the Monday surrounding the crime on Saturday.
Then there are the Norwoods — another set of identical twins named Nathan and Nathaniel — who also lived in the neighborhood and went by the nickname “Twin.” They were known drug dealers with a history of violence who lived closer to the crime scene than LeBlanc. Throughout the course of Centurion’s investigation, people noted the striking resemblance between the Norwoods and the LeBlancs. Is it possible that the witnesses had identified the wrong person?
As part of her research into the case, McBunch went into the field, something case workers rarely do. In the summer of 2012, she was in the New Orleans area on personal business and decided to go to the city to obtain some documents in person.
Part of that included a visit to the NOPD. Sometimes getting documents out of a public agency can be difficult, especially when you’re doing the kind of work that Centurion does.
During her New Orleans trip, McBunch also met Dwight LeBlanc and got a box containing the collected documents that his brother had amassed from his trial and his appeal. He had been keeping it in his cell, but eventually gave it to Dwight for safekeeping.
The box contained a major find, one that hadn’t surfaced in any other documentation Centurion had obtained. In it were two sheets logging calls that had been made to the NOPD’s Crimestoppers tip line relating to the murder.
One anonymous tip to the line said that the twin they were looking for lived at 5714 Claude Ave. — LeBlanc’s mother’s house. Another tip was called in by Carolyn Sims, a woman who lived near the crime scene, who reported that she saw the shootings and knew who committed them. It is the Sims’ call, and the questionable circumstances in which it was made, that Centurion has come to question as its investigation proceeded.
Much of the investigation process is fruitless, but it’s necessary if they want to unearth the truth. “It’s a cliché, but we leave no stone unturned,” Maimon said. “We have to go down every possible road, even if we’re pretty sure that that road is going to dead end. So I can spend weeks going down a road that I’m pretty sure is going to dead end, but who knows? Because maybe, just maybe, I’m going to find that piece of evidence or that witness that’s going to be a game changer.”
Maimon is no stranger to investigative work, based on his experience as a former crime reporter. Prior to joining Centurion, Maimon spent many years in journalism including as a special projects reporter for the Las Vegas Review Journal. Several times in the course of that job, he reported on suspected wrongful conviction cases. One of his stories even helped lead to a new trial for the person he wrote about.
In 2012, he applied for, and was hired by Centurion for the investigator job that they had posted online. It sounded almost too good to be true. “The work I would be doing sounded exactly like the work I had been doing,” said Maimon, who lives today in Hopewell. “The only difference would be I’m not writing a newspaper story about it, I’m going directly to lawyers.”
Maimon said that reinvestigating a case requires a tremendous amount of legwork. “I only wish that amount of legwork had been put in on the front end, because then we wouldn’t be doing it now.”
Maimon and McBunch went to New Orleans in September 2012 to seek out more documentation and to meet LeBlanc in person for the first time. LeBlanc started serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but is now incarcerated at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, located a little over an hour outside of New Orleans.
They visited LeBlanc in an inmate-run refectory called the Who Dat Café, where they have menus on the table and you can place an order for a soft drink and a Po’ Boy.
McBunch said upon meeting LeBlanc, she was impressed by his demeanor. He was serene and calm, she said, and he spoke softly.
“I came away thinking what a remarkable young man, to have spent this much time in prison and it doesn’t appear that he has an angry bone in his body or any kind of animosity whatsoever toward the system,” she said. If anything, the meeting confirmed her sense of his innocence. “If he got out of prison and wanted to live next door to me, [it] wouldn’t bother me a bit,” McBunch said.
ON THE BOARD
Based on the information McBunch had assembled, Centurion put the case on a fast track. Generally the case development process takes at least a year or more, and sometimes two or three. LeBlanc’s case, from the time McBunch started communicating with him to the time they took him on as a client, was less than a year.
“Putting the case on the board” occurs when Centurion decides to accept an inmate’s case. The black letter board with white letters lists every active case that Centurion is working on (currently 16), with the earliest dating back to 1998. The only way those names are removed is when freed inmates come in and take their own names down, having been cleared of wrongdoing.
To decide whether to take a case, the staff meets to consider the most well-developed and promising cases. Together they play both advocate and devil’s advocate, arguing for and against the case. If enough people feel the case is solid, it goes up on the board. “There’s no one person who says ‘Yes, we’re taking on a case.’ We want everybody to evaluate it,” Maimon said.
By December 2012, they were about 95 percent certain they’d be taking on LeBlanc’s case. Maimon and McCloskey, who would be working on the case with him, went to New Orleans to meet with LeBlanc and conduct about a half-dozen interviews based on leads they had developed. These were enough to convince them that they should make a commitment to help LeBlanc. In early 2013, the case was officially posted, and Peter Camiel, a defense attorney based in Seattle, was retained as legal counsel. Camiel also participated in the investigation and interviews in the field.
After taking on a case, Maimon likes to follow a process established by McCloskey that involves creating an investigative blueprint. That was the next step. They started by listing all of the people they wanted to talk to and divided them into different categories — the Norwoods’ world, the LeBlancs’ world, and law enforcement, for example. Over time the list grew as they added names from information they gathered. The current version of the list is now close to 20 pages.
Most of the time after they take on a case, the case worker who developed it moves on, but McBunch stayed involved. “I wasn’t ready to let it go,” she said.
One lead she looked into was trying to discredit a statement made by Borden’s uncle, Fairchild, who said he recognized LeBlanc after seeing his picture in a TV news report about the shootings. Although Fairchild said he was certain of the network where he had seen the report, McBunch checked with them all. Based on her research, there was no evidence that any broadcast had run LeBlanc’s photo.
“That was the sole identification Lofton made,” said McCloskey, adding that he never made a live identification of LeBlanc until his saw him at his trial — three years after the crime. “He saw the photo on TV and reported by phone to the homicide division. They never provided him with a photo array or live lineup.”
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
While McBunch gathered more information at the home office, Maimon and McCloskey were out in the field putting the blueprint into action. In total, Centurion made about a dozen trips to New Orleans, with each trip lasting an average of five or six days.
In addition, the investigation took them to locales across the country. LeBlanc’s parole officer, Gregory Yuslum, for example, lives in South Carolina, so McCloskey went there to talk to him to prove that LeBlanc had sought permission to go to California before the crime was committed.
A visit from Centurion can happen at any time on any day, even a holiday. “I popped in on him on Easter Sunday 2013,” McCloskey said. “His wife answered the door and she was very nervous and asked a lot of questions. She thought that maybe someone was coming to hurt her husband. New Orleans had not been a pleasant experience for them.”
Eventually she calmed down, went into house and got her husband. McCloskey wound up having an hour-long conversation with the Yuslums on their doorstep.
He was eventually helpful, McCloskey said. Yuslum affirmed that LeBlanc had asked to have his parole transferred to California to go to school there, which clearly showed his intent to leave town before the crime happened.
“We thought that signaled a clear intention that he was getting the wheels in motion to go to California,” Maimon said. “That is a very important piece to this.”
Maimon went to Illinois to speak with the sister of Geraldine Jones, the woman — now deceased — who lived at the crime scene at 1400 Tupelo St., and who was a witness to the killing. Interestingly, although Jones apparently knew the killer, she claimed that she only knew him by his nickname, “Twin.”
“Everything that we found as we went out into the field just further reinforced our sense of Dwayne’s innocence, which is good,” Maimon said. “We have, in the history of the organization, had a few cases where during the course of investigating we find something troubling. When that happens, we’ll drop a case like a hot potato.”
When conducting interviews Centurion never calls in advance. Doing so makes it a lot easier for them to say no. “If you just show up, you’d be amazed,” Maimon said. “Being face to face with somebody is really key.”
“We don’t have a threatening presence,” said McCloskey. “We’re forthright and honest, and ask if they would help by giving us their recollections. Usually, they invite us in, or at least talk to us outside their home.”
When talking to people about his case, they present a photo of LeBlanc, and identify him as someone they are trying to free, said McCloskey. “We tell them we have good reason to believe he’s innocent, and that he’s been falsely imprisoned for 20 years. That gets their attention. And when they realize we’re not police, they relax a lot more.”
McCloskey also carries with him a copy of a magazine article about Centurion that ran in “People” magazine celebrating his organization’s 50th exoneration. “I show them the page with headshots of most of the people we’ve freed,” said McCloskey. “I also show them the picture of myself in the article — the bald-headed pudgy guy. It helps build our credibility and prove we are who we say we are.”
At the top of the list of those they wanted to talk to were the witnesses who identified LeBlanc: Jones, Officer Norbert Zenon, Officer Michael Mims, Fairchild and Carolyn Sims.
They spoke briefly to Fairchild, but he was insistent he had made the correct identification. Nothing to help them there.
Jones, meanwhile, had been murdered along with her brother in 1997, ironically at 1400 Tupelo Street. The killing was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her brother had a dispute with some thugs in the neighborhood over drugs and they showed up at the house to execute him. Jones was home when they killed her brother and heard the gunshots. When she came downstairs to find out what was happening, the killers shot her dead too.
Ironically, as part of their investigation, Centurion managed to find out who killed them.
“We spoke with a resident of that neighborhood who knew all former players and we thought we had figured out who did it,” said Maimon. “She confirmed we were right.”
They didn’t report the information to the police, though. “We don’t have any real evidence, and she (the neighborhood woman) has no confidence in authorities to want to report it to them,” Maimon said.
Next up was Zenon, one of the two officers involved in the shootout with the killer.
Centurion is often able to find the home addresses and other information about the people they want to interview through the use of several informational databases. Since the information includes the cars that are registered to them, they knew where Zenon lived and what car he drove.
Unfortunately, in order to get to Zenon they had to make their way to his home, which was located in a gated community.
“One of the parts of the job I don’t like is when people live in gated communities,” Maimon said. “I’ve encountered many times where I have to park my car near the gate, wait for somebody to come, and then (makes a whish noise) try to get in behind them.”
The first time they attempted to speak with Zenon, McCloskey and Maimon went to his apartment, but he wasn’t home. Whe they came back a few days later, Zenon pulled into the parking lot a short time after them. They recognized his car, and waited while he sat inside and finished a phone conversation.
“He sat on his phone for what seemed like forever,” McCloskey said. When he was finally done, they went up to the car, introduced themselves and explained why they were there. Zenon said he needed to think about it, and that he would get back to them.
“That’s a nice way of saying no,” said McCloskey. “He wasn’t interested. We never heard from him and we never tried to contact him again. We considered him a lost cause.”
Ultimately, they thought they had made some progress after their initial interview with Mims, the other cop involved in the shootout, whom the killer shot in the hand.
In this case it was McCloskey and Camiel who went to talk to Mims. He invited them into his home and seemed interested in helping, speaking with them for 45 minutes.
“I broke out photos of Nathan Norwood and Dwayne and showed them to him,” McCloskey said. “He was immediately struck by facial similarity of two men. During the course of our interview, he kept looking at the photos, and at one point said, ‘I hope I didn’t pick out the wrong one.’”
But what looked like a promising development turned into a dead end when they went back a few months later. Mims said that he was mistaken and that he didn’t see a resemblance.
Why? One possible reason, Maimon speculates, is that Mims’ wife is also an NOPD police officer, and she came under fire for not conducting an investigation of her officers for their part in the Danziger Bridge incident — a post-Katrina scandal that involved the shooting of civilians on the bridge by police.
“We think his wife said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Don’t get involved in this’,” Maimon speculated.
Out of all the witness interviews — in fact out of everyone they have interviewed thus far in the investigation — Sims was among the most difficult.
The day after the murder, Sims had told police that she witnessed the crime and identified “Twin” as LeBlanc after being shown his picture, but declined to make a formal statement. Several days later, though, she agreed to identify LeBlanc and met with Det. Anthony Small, the lead detective on the case, at police headquarters to make her statement.
When Maimon and McCloskey showed up at Sims’ house in the Upper Ninth Ward in the middle of the day in February 2013, she answered the door in her pajamas.
“She was probably in the same state of mind that she was 20 years ago,” said Maimon. “She was a crackhead back then and her behavior was erratic during the interview. She was very defensive about the whole situation, which made us a little suspicious, because we believe she was given some sort of an inducement to make the identification of Dwayne.”
“Look, we understand that we’re coming out of the blue 20 years after, just showing up on her doorstep,” Maimon added. “She had witnessed a murder in a neighborhood where you try not to be the person who puts somebody away for a long time, so she’s understandably a little nervous about bringing this back up again. But on the other hand we knew enough about the case to realize that there were some additional questions she needed to answer.”
The talk with Sims focused primarily on her interview with Small and her Crimestoppers report. Maimon pointed out that Sims’ interview at police headquarters with Small went from 1:45 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and that she made the Crimestoppers call identifying LeBlanc in the middle of that interview, at 2 p.m. “You do the math on that one,” he said.
Maimon read from notes from the interview where she admitted that she got money from Crimestoppers, but then backed off and asked if they had documents that prove it. They didn’t.
“I’m not telling you if it’s not on the paper,” she said.
“She was very mercurial,” Mc Closkey said. “She went back and forth from angry to being sweet. She had mood shifts multiple times throughout the interview.”
While the fact that Sims stopped in the middle of her interview to call Crimestoppers raised red flags, it made a lot more sense when they investigated Small’s past, which revealed that Small had been accused in a lawsuit of fabricating evidence to win a conviction.
Small had been fired by the NOPD in 1997 after testing positive for unlawful possession of a prescription painkiller. Although he was reinstated a year later, he soon found himself at the center of controversy for his work on the 1995 murder case that resulted in 17-year-old Shareef Cousin being sent to Louisiana’s death row.
In 1998, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned Cousin’s conviction on the grounds that the district attorney’s office improperly used hearsay evidence that Cousin confessed to the crime in question. A civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Cousin went into further detail about Small’s alleged misconduct in the case, which included creating bogus Crimestoppers tips that incriminated Cousin, and suppressing other tips to the hotline that exculpated him. The lawsuit, which was ultimately withdrawn, catalogued a variety of troubling issues related to Small’s conduct as a police officer, and specifically about his misuse of Crimestoppers tips in cases.
“It appeared to be a bit of a pattern of behavior,” said McBunch, who did much of the investigation into Small’s checkered past. “If they didn’t have a suspect, they would somehow manufacture — those are my terms — a Crimestoppers report that would support what it was that they wanted to see. And this all came out in Shareef Cousin’s post-conviction hearings that led to him being exonerated.”
The Sims Crimestoppers report seems to be a prime candidate for this scenario.
Centurion was unable to interview Small because he is in poor health, and they were also unsuccessful in talking to Small’s ex wife, who they believed might be able to shed some light on his behavior. The couple had gone through an acrimonious divorce, and Small’s ex-wife made numerous allegations in her divorce filing about his alleged misconduct as a detective. That was the source of a lot of their information about Small.
By that point, Centurion staff had managed to interview three out of the five witnesses, but hadn’t gained a lot of ground. “But that was ok, because we still had the whole Norwood thing,” said Maimon.
A major component of Centurion’s case for innocence is that the police focused on LeBlanc from the start and didn’t look into any other potential, and possibly more viable, suspects.
“Within three hours of receiving the anonymous call identifying Dwayne, Small had put together a photo array and got four identifications. The investigation was closed within 24 hours. Case closed, let’s move on to the next one,” McCloskey said.
With so many murders occurring that year, there was tremendous pressure to clear cases. “It was a factory and the quality of the goods were damaged, with high quantity over quality investigations,” McCloskey said.
As they have done in other cases, if Centurion could find the real killer, it would go a long way toward winning LeBlanc’s freedom. They set about finding as much as they could about the Norwoods.
One of the earliest breakthroughs in the field investigation was finding Keesha Cheneau, a person whose name had never come up in past investigations. Cheneau told them that Jones had admitted to her the true identity of the killer.
Maimon and McCloskey had spoken with Cheneau for the first time during their first trip to New Orleans in December 2012 after LeBlanc had mentioned her in a letter to McBunch. When they spoke with her, she corroborated most of what LeBlanc had been telling them. Subsequently they have spoken with her about a half-dozen times.
Cheneau told them that she was in the house when Mims was shot by the killer. When the shooting started, Geraldine Jones crawled into the house and told Cheneau that one of the Norwoods shot a cop, said Maimon.
Afterward, Cheneau started talking about the incident with other people in the neighborhood. When it got back to the Norwoods, they allegedly beat her up and threatened her.
After the alleged beating, Cheneau called 911 and reported that the twins who shot the cop just beat her up. A few minutes after she made the call, Len Davis, a corrupt NOPD officer who was involved in running a drug protection racket drug in the Ninth Ward, showed up and went out looking for the Norwoods.
Maimon said that they were able to prove what Cheneau was telling them through 911 call logs and through Davis’ own trial testimony. “We have evidence that Keesha did in fact call 911. That Len Davis did in fact respond and that Nathaniel Norwood was arrested by Len Davis on that day,” he said. “Her credibility was bolstered big time, because we had a paper trail corroborating what she was telling us. That was one of the breakthroughs that we got in terms of interviewing people. After that we started really strengthening our whole Norwood, twin, Len Davis piece of this puzzle.”
The next step was to talk to everyone they could identify as being a friend of the Norwoods. They also spoke with a number of people who were living in the neighborhood at the time to see what they remembered, or what they knew about drug activity in the neighborhood.
One affidavit they obtained was from a man who was good friends with the Norwoods growing up and who said he was with them when Nathan Norwood was assaulted by Len Davis. He also said that the Norwoods dealt drugs from 1400 Tupelo; the LeBlancs, as far as he knew, didn’t. He was also there when the Norwood twins assaulted Cheneau.
During the investigation they also found out that in 1996, police officers found three guns in the Norwoods residence. One was a metal .38 caliber revolver, which matched the description of the weapon the shooter used in the Borden killing, said McCloskey. Unfortunately, the weapon seems to have been lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
In February 2014, Maimon and McClosky flew to Houston to attempt to talk to the Norwoods. They were never able to get a face to face meeting with the twins, but Nathaniel ended up calling McCloskey, who had left a letter at the apartment where Nathan and Nathaniel both live.
Maimon said that he and McCloskey had made a conscious decision to hold off on interviewing the Norwoods until late in the investigation to give them an opportunity to gather as much information as possible about them. “Now others may disagree,” he said. “Some might say to go to them first, because you never know. You might not have to do anything else. But we knew our best shot was the California alibi, so we were really hammering on that and gathering as much intel on the Norwoods as we could get before going to them.”
According to notes of the interview, Nathaniel Norwood called McCloskey in response to the letter they had left at his apartment and questioned why he wanted to talk to him. McCloskey told him that Centurion is working on LeBlanc’s case and they are convinced of his innocence. Nathaniel asked why he wanted to know and what he wanted to know, exactly, from him and his twin. He then declined a request for them to meet in person.
“Throughout the conversations Nathaniel sounded composed and smart, but also guarded,” McCloskey said.
McCloskey asked the Norwood twin point blank if he was aware that Davis mistook Nathan for Dwayne, and he replied that he knew nothing about it. McCloskey told him that this happened on two occasions, according to testimony at Davis’ trial, and Norwood again denied any knowledge of the situation.
McCloskey quickly realized the interview wasn’t going anywhere, so he decided test Norwood’s reaction and told him that many people from their neighborhood commented on the striking resemblance between the Norwoods and the LeBlancs.
“You know how people are,” Norwood said. “If anybody thought that, that’s just a subjective opinion. That doesn’t mean anything. That’s their opinion, but that’s not my opinion.’”
In the end, McCloskey’s assessment of the interview was that “at no point during the conversation did Norwood express any sympathy or compassion for LeBlanc, nor did he express any hope that we will be successful in their efforts to free to him. He made no comment or inference about Dwayne’s guilt or innocence.”
Another key to the case is the fact that Officer Len Davis stopped the Norwoods during the murder investigation while looking for LeBlanc. If he mistook them for LeBlanc, was it possible that the witnesses might have misidentified LeBlanc as the killer? Might the killer have been someone else with the nickname “Twin” who looked very much like him?
Centurion was able to establish that Davis confronted the Norwoods on at least two occasions between Sept. 16 and Oct. 11, 1994.
In the first incident, Davis and his partner, Sammie Williams, stopped a car being driven by Nathaniel in response to Cheneau’s report of their assault on her. He, Nathan, and the car’s other occupants were ordered onto the ground.
“We have affidavits from people who were with the Norwoods during the stop who quote Davis as saying, ‘which one of you shot the motherf——-g cop’,” said Maimon, “and one of the Norwoods said, ‘No, you got the wrong twins!’”
Then on Oct. 11, Davis and Williams again were out hunting for the killer, when they encountered Nathan outside a convenience store and proceeded to chase him through the neighborhood. The officers caught up to Norwood, and Davis assaulted him. During testimony at Davis’s murder trial, Williams says Davis mistook Nathan Norwood for Dwayne LeBlanc two times.
In addition, the assault of Nathan led to an internal affairs complaint by Kim Groves, a friend of the Norwoods, who witnessed the beating. When Davis found out about the complaint, he had her killed by a hitman. Davis, who was under investigation by the FBI for his drug activities, was caught on tape talking about the murder and was subsequently convicted of the crime.
Maimon said that Centurion has grappled with trying to figure out Davis’ involvement, but the only thing that seems clear is that he mistook the Norwoods for LeBlanc.
Although they badly wanted to interview Davis face to face, prison authorities wouldn’t allow Centurion to visit with him. Maimon and McCloskey initially conducted two separate 15-minute phone interviews with Davis and then another 15-minute phone interview several months later.
They went into the interview knowing that Davis had no reason to tell the truth. “He’s still trying to get off death row, so he was really very cognizant of what he was saying and how it connected to his own situation,” said Maimon. “I would say it was definitely one of the more memorable interviews. This guy’s kind of like a mythical figure. When we go to New Orleans and talk to people about this case everybody of a certain age knows Len Davis.”
During the interview, McCloskey brought up Sammie Williams’ testimony against Davis at his trial and talked about how Williams talked about their stop of the Norwoods, said Maimon, reading from a transcript.
“Okay, well first of all, Sammie is a lying piece of frickin feces. Let’s get that on the record right now. He would say anything. Sammie is basically a whore for the government. Whatever lies they put in him, he told,” Davis told McCloskey.
After Davis eventually acknowledged that he stopped the Norwoods, McCloskey tried to get him to talk about the reason he was after them. Also, did he know who they were before he stopped them?
Davis acknowledged that he had arrested the Norwoods’ mother once, but he never gave a clear answer to the other questions.
“Take it at face value,” said Maimon “Davis said he was mistaking Nathan for Dwayne. We’ll take that as the official version and that’s fine, because that speaks to their similarity (between the two sets of twins), and on multiple occasions Davis mistakes Nathan for Dwayne.”
Maimon said that Davis is important to LeBlanc’s case because “even though he’s a rogue police officer, he’s still a police officer and he’s repeatedly stopping another set of twins.”
“He’s the tie to the other suspect,” McBunch said. “That’s really the most direct line, in my mind anyway, to another suspect.”
Maimon added that there’s also a legal concept that essentially says that if one police officer is doing something, that means it’s the entire police department doing something. “Len Davis was acting in the name of the New Orleans Police Department when he kept stopping the Norwoods.”
While no one came out and said that one of the Norwoods committed the crime, the reaction of people in the neighborhood they interviewed was revealing. “I think it was more manifested in people saying that Dwayne didn’t do it, rather than people saying who did do it,” Maimon said.
Separate from the developments in New Orleans, Centurion realized that the easiest way to exonerate LeBlanc is to simply prove he wasn’t in New Orleans at the time of the crime. If they could prove that LeBlanc was in California, they wouldn’t have to worry about proving who actually killed Borden.
LeBlanc claims that he went to California to live with his brother, Leonard, about a week before the murder and was attending a trade school there. Having just been released from jail on a drug possession charge, he wanted to get out of town and turn his life around.
LeBlanc also had good reason to get out of New Orleans. People wanted to make LeBlanc pay for a crime his brother, Dwight, had committed.
Dwight LeBlanc had just been convicted of being an accessory to murder of a man named Tom Ashley, and Ashley’s friends and family made it clear that they were going to go after LeBlanc.
“They didn’t mistake Dwayne for Dwight, but Dwayne was the next best thing,” said Maimon. “That was the primary reason that he wanted to get out of Dodge. He knew his brother Leonard was doing pretty well in California, so it was a good opportunity to follow suit, turn his life around and get out of the Ninth Ward.”
LeBlanc arrived in California on Aug. 19 and started school on Aug. 22. To help prove that, Schawanda McCall, Leonard’s wife at the time, had obtained a copy of school attendance records that placed LeBlanc in California at the time of the shootings and provided them to Centurion.
To bolster the alibi, Centurion conducted numerous interviews in California totalling about four weeks.
Maimon’s first trip to California was in May 2013, and the first thing he did was to contact the California Bureau For Private Postsecondary Education, the agency that regulated trade schools, such as the one LeBlanc went to. They were able to give him information that the school — the Travel and Trade Career Institute — went out of business in October 2005, and that a man named Roger Erickson was listed as the school’s former owner and custodian of records.
Maimon tracked him down and interviewed him at his home in Indian Wells, California, on the same trip. Erickson told Maimon that all of the records had been destroyed, but he did attest to the legitimacy of the attendance record.
Erickson then put Maimon in contact with Arlene Almaleh, who was his second in command at the school. Because she lived in San Antonio, Maimon contacted her through email, attaching the school record. She also affirmed that the record appeared to be correct and was exactly the way that attendance was documented by the school.
“Unless you can determine that the copy you have has been tampered with, it seems unlikely that these records are not correct,” she said.
So now he had two people involved with the school stating they believed the record looked legitimate. Maimon kept in contact with Erickson and Almaleh through 2013 and then made contact with another set of school personnel in spring 2014.
Although they had affidavits from Erickson and Almaleh, neither them remembered Dwayne. Centurion decided that they needed to get as many people as possibly to help authenticate the document to bolster the case, so Maimon flew back out to California in spring 2014 to talk to people that Erickson and Almaleh said might be able to help. After tracking those people down, he was able to get three more people from the school to confirm that the record appeared to be authentic.
Unfortunately, the person in the best position to remember LeBlanc, a counselor named Annie Stafford who took an interest in LeBlanc and drove him to and from school, refused to cooperate.
“She had had a lot of trauma in her life, and for whatever reason some people just don’t want to get involved,” Maimon said. “She didn’t want to get involved 12 years ago when they tried to get her to come to Dwayne’s post conviction, and when I came to her door in Carson, California, she hadn’t changed her tune.”
Meanwhile, McCall had gone through a messy divorce from Leonard in 2008, a split that created significant bitterness between the former spouses and strained McCall’s relationship with her former in-laws. Centurion believed that based on the rift, McCall had no motivation to help establish LeBlanc’s innocence other than wanting the truth to come out.
They contacted McCall early in the investigation and she proved to be a wealth of information. “At that point, Schawanda knew more about the case probably than we did, because she had made it her mission in the 1990s to prove (he was innocent),” said Maimon.
Back after LeBlanc’s conviction, McCall had a tough time dealing with the fact that her then-brother in law had been convicted when she knew he was in California with her and Leonard when Borden was killed.
“You know, so many people are under the naive impression that the truth will come out, but when it doesn’t, it’s cold water in the face,” said Maimon. “So she became like a de facto investigator in the ’90s, working with Dwayne’s post conviction attorney to try to get him freed. She’s the one who got the attendance record, for example, back in 1999.”
A COMMON SENSE ARGUMENT
By the beginning of 2014, the investigation had been going for more than a year, and Centurion was attacking it on multiple fronts — authenticating the attendance records and trying to figure out the Len Davis/Norwood puzzle.
They continued to delve deeper into the Norwoods’ world, and at first didn’t gain much ground. “Nobody slams the door in our face, but they would talk to us for an hour and say nothing,” said Maimon.
Finally though, they were able to track down individuals who were able to shed some light on the Norwoods’ past. “People who have no axe to grind with the Norwoods,” said Maimon. “In fact, people who were very close to the Norwoods, but who start filling in some of the blanks in terms of what was going on in that neighborhood at that time.”
In February 2014, Maimon wrote a report outlining their entire case to date and sent it the New Orleans DA’s office. They weren’t yet planning to file an appeal, or even formulate a legal strategy, but they figured they’d feel out the DA and see what kind of response they got.
“What we were doing was making a common sense argument to the DA,” Maimon said. “What we basically had at that point was a good alibi, documentation of Dwayne’s intent to go to California, and an alternate suspect.”
The initial response from the DA was positive. In one meeting they showed DA officials a mug shot of Nathan Norwood and a mug shot of Dwayne. “When they first saw those photos they were pretty stunned by it.”
The DA found their argument compelling enough that they decided to start reinvestigating the case themselves. Maimon gave the DA their “entire playbook” and the names of all the people Centurion had interviewed. The DA then reached out to the people from the trade school and brought LeBlanc in from prison to speak with him.
“They really were taking this seriously for a while, making it clear to us that if that attendance record could be, in their minds, authenticated, then we would be in very good shape,” said Maimon.
At one point during the summer of 2014, the DA asked Centurion if they might be willing to accept a plea deal. That was a good sign. Although they might not be willing to throw out the conviction and fully exonerate LeBlanc, they thought there might be a chance they would allow him to plea to a lesser offense and get out with time served.
One tense moment during the talks came when the DA let them know that they had tracked down Leonard LeBlanc and invited them to sit in on their interview with him.
The problem was that no one from Centurion had ever spoken to Leonard. They were cautious of him because McCall had badmouthed her ex-husband, saying that he was bad news and had no interest in helping his brother get out of jail.
They had just held a meeting that morning with the DA, when they got the call from them about Leonard. They said they had found him in the Orleans Parish jail and brought him in for questioning.
“We had never ever laid eyes on him, hadn’t vetted him and had no idea what he was going to say,” Maimon said.
Fortunately, their fears were unfounded. “The DA interviewed Leonard and he did a great job. His memory was great and everything he said were things that we believed and that in some cases corroborated as being true,” Maimon said. “He came across as just very credible and very sincere. He did a nice job, so when we left that interview we were feeling really good.”
THE SECRET EMAILS
By late 2014, Maimon had every reason to be optimistic. They had assembled a strong case, and the DA talks were going in a positive direction.
And then, before Thanksgiving, the DA found out about the love letters.
As part of its assessment of the case, the DA wanted to talk to McCall, especially because she was the one who had obtained the only existing copy of Dwayne’s attendance record.
McCall, who is now living in Austin, Texas, was flown by Centurion into New Orleans and went straight to the DA’s office for her interview. Before sitting down with the DA, they administered a voice stress test by a New Orleans police officer, which is somewhat like a polygraph, and she was told she was told she passed by the officer who administered the test.
“That’s when the district attorney came in, Donna Andrew, and you could say that at that point, we realized in the DA’s mind that things were starting to unravel,” Maimon said. “I’m cautious to use that word, because I don’t think our case has unraveled, but our relationship with the DA was unraveling.”
When McCall walked into the room where Andrew was to interview her, she immediately saw a pile of papers on the desk labelled “emails between Schawanda and Dwayne.”
The DA had discovered that for more than a year, LeBlanc and McCall had been exchanging “love letters” with each other. Suddenly, in their minds, it called into question not only her credibility, but also the credibility of Centurion, and the authenticity of the school records, because McCall had obtained them. They felt they had been lied to.
“I think they were hoping that she would fail the voice stress test and then afterward admit that she wasn’t telling the truth,” Maimon said. “But she apparently passed the voice stress test and then when she was confronted, she didn’t back down.”
McCall acknowledged that she and LeBlanc had had an e-mail correspondence, but that it had ended some time ago. The last email between the two had been about eight months earlier.
As for Centurion, McCloskey, Maimon and McBunch said they had no idea that the affair had happened and were shocked when they found out.
McCall phoned Maimon after the interview, and asked him, “Are you sitting down?” She told him what had transpired.
“It was just devastating, because for all the work we put into the case and everything that we knew about the case, we just didn’t know that this was happening,” Maimon said.
Maimon said he believes the situation is what soured the D.A. “I think they were looking for something to latch onto. I think that it gave them an easy way to ignore all the compelling evidence we have of Dwayne’s innocence. Here you have somebody who was e-mailing with Dwayne and it was steamy, and she’s the person who got the attendance records.”
The DA’s office seems to have concluded that McCall either knew somebody or that she herself changed the record and indicated that to them when they officially severed communications with Centurion.
“That’s despite the fact that she had gotten them 15 years earlier,” McCloskey pointed out.
Although McCall has never visited LeBlanc in all the years he has been in prison, Maimon believes they started exchanging letters at some point after her marriage to Leonard ended. The correspondences took place throughout 2013.
Maimon said that despite the difficulties the situation created, he understands why it happened. He just wishes that they had exercised better judgment.
“Look, imagine being in prison for that period of time. You might be looking for some kind of human contact. We don’t fault Dwayne for having done that,” he said. “But, there are 2 billion women on earth that he could have done that with, just not Schawanda.”
They officially found out that they were done with the DA when they went to New Orleans this February, hoping to meet with them for a third time, but while they were in New Orleans, a letter arrived back at the office in which the DA made it clear that they were done communicating with Centurion.
THE COURT CASE
With the DA talks having broken down, the next step is to take LeBlanc’s case to court. They expect to file a motion for a new trial in June.
“At that point we said, ‘Ok, we tried,’ and then immediately started formulating our legal strategy,” said Maimon.
Since then, they have met with Emily Maw, the head of the New Orleans Innocence Project, who is going to be the local counsel on the case when they file it. Centurion needs to work with local lawyers in many instances because their attorneys are not licensed to practice in those states.
They figured out that they needed to file the appeal by June, because they had obtained an important document in June 2014 — LeBlanc’s parole records — and they have one year to file from the date of discovery of that piece of evidence. According to Maw, a convict can’t petition based on a claim of innocence in Louisiana. It must be on a procedural issue.
At this point, the case they’re filing will likely be based on a Brady claim (failure by the prosecution to disclose evidence to the defendant) and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel going back to LeBlanc’s original trial.
In this case, that’s the information about the Sept. 16, 1994 report by Keesha Cheneau. There are also the stops of the Norwoods by Len Davis — both of which are exculpatory material that should have been turned over to the defense.
“Imagine if at Dwayne’s original trial it had come out that there was another set of twins that the police kept stopping?” Maimon asked. “In two states, Louisiana and Oregon, there does not have to be a unanimous verdict. Dwayne was convicted 10-2, so there was already enough doubt in some jurors’ minds about his guilt. Imagine if that piece of evidence had been presented? Another set of twins? Also called Twin?”
Also in their favor is that fact that the judge who presided over the original trial and the post conviction hearing is no longer on the bench. “It’s always problematic to go back in front of the court that was involved in the conviction in the first place, so this is a fresh set of eyes,” Maimon said.
After their filing, the DA will have an opportunity to respond, and Centurion’s initial goal will be to get an evidentiary hearing and have a judge weigh their evidence and witness testimony.
Centurion plans to call the people who can help to legitimize the attendance record, people who knew the Norwoods and those who had first-hand knowledge of Davis’ stops of the Norwoods. They also plan to call the alibi witnesses, even those who already have testified either at trial or post conviction.
They also won’t shy away from involving McCall, who remains a key piece of LeBlanc’s case, despite the “love letter exchange.” Helping to legitimize her involvement, Maimon has obtained an affidavit from LeBlanc’s post-conviction attorney who attests that he instructed McCall to get the record.
“That at least eliminates the notion that she went out there on her own doing this,” Maimon said.
The most compelling piece of new evidence, said McCloskey, is LeBlanc’s parole records that show his clear intent to go to California. That while he was still incarcerated on the drug possession offense he was putting the wheels in motion to go to a very specific address in California, the same place he ultimately ended up being arrested.
“It proves this wasn’t some story he concocted after the fact, and it’s something that his trial attorney, with diligence, could have found,” Maimon said.
They can also bring in people they’ve talked to who can give a clearer picture of the whole Len Davis/Norwoods situation, and submit into evidence all the documentation they have.
“It’s not just people saying it happened. We have call logs. We have a report showing that Davis arrested Norwood on September 16, so it’s not any one piece, it’s that whole situation,” Maimon said.
McCloskey, meanwhile, will be retiring from Centurion to write a book, and long-time director Kate Germond will take over from him. Although he won’t be working on any new cases, McCloskey will still work on the ones he is currently involved in, including LeBlanc’s.
Ultimately, the goal is justice for LeBlanc, however long it takes. “There are a lot of roads to travel and court hearings to be held before that can happen, but that would be the desired outcome,” Maimon said.
Regardless of what happens, LeBlanc can rest assured that he has a tireless advocate fighting in his corner in Centurion. His name won’t be coming off the board until he’s free to come in and do it himself.
And that’s a good thing, because for LeBlanc — as with most of their other clients — Centurion isn’t his last hope, it’s his only hope.
This month, Centurion Ministries is holding an event celebrating McCloskey’s retirement. Attending will be many of the men and women that the organization has helped to set free. Afterwards they help provide support for those they help. McCloskey says that Centurion considers them “friends for life.”
Centurion bears all of the costs for its indigent clients, and operates through contributions from individuals, foundations, churches and synagogues. It receives no government funding. For more information, go to centurionministries.org.