New Orleans man freed after 21 years of incarceration

District attorney determines 17-year-old murder charge is 'not prosecutable'

By Emily Lane | The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Kevin Santiago lay asleep at the New Orleans jail June 26 when a deputy called his name.

"She opened the door, told me I was rolling out," Santiago, 48, said two days after his release from custody after serving 21 years of a life sentence at Angola, for a drug conviction. "I had a happy feeling."

His 26-year-old son, Kevin Santiago Jr., picked him up from the jail. The elder Santiago last saw his son during a prison visit before Hurricane Katrina, Santiago said. The last time he saw Kevin Jr. outside the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections or the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, the boy was 4.

One of the first meals Santiago ate on the outside, he said, was lobster and shrimp from Red Lobster. The city has changed so much, said the Upper 9th Ward native. "It's blowing my mind."

"It's a big adjustment," Santiago said on the phone.

Had it not been for a 17-year-old warrant executed after Santiago left Louisiana State Penitentiary, that lobster meal and adjustment period would have started about a week sooner.

Rather than leave Angola and join his family, authorities took him to the Orleans Justice Center jail and booked him on a new charge stemming from an old murder warrant. The March 2001 warrant states Santiago fatally shot 20-year-old Iben Gilberd on Nov. 23, 1993, in New Orleans East. Sworn by a now-retired New Orleans Police Department detective, the warrant cites an unnamed witness, who his attorney and the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office have said has recanted.

Santiago said he is sorry for the Gilberd's family but had nothing to do with that crime.

"I don't know nothing about it," he said. "I never been arrest for no gun or no violent charge a day in my life."

The DA's Office formally refused the murder charge against Santiago on Tuesday (June 26) in Orleans Parish Magistrate Court, court records show.

A September 2017 memo from the DA's office calling the murder charge "not prosecutable," was written after representatives from the DA's office met with NOPD homicide investigators at a meeting referred to as a "charge conference," according to Ken Daley, a spokesman with the DA's office.

Santiago found out about the warrant last year during his parole hearing, when the panel informed him of a detainer on his record and pointed to the 2001 warrant from NOPD, he said. Since that time, his attorney Michelle Rutherford learned the witness from the warrant recanted and tried to resolve the issue before his release, to no avail.

"Mr. Santiago shouldn't be made to suffer after he finally got justice," Rutherford said, as her client remained jailed in New Orleans.

Because of the active murder warrant, Santiago was taken from Angola to the Orleans Parish Justice Center jail on June 20, four days after Orleans Criminal District Judge Tracy Flemings-Davillier ordered his release on the drug case. He slept at the New Orleans jail six nights before the charge was formally dropped. NOPD did not say why the warrant wasn't recalled following the September charge conference.

Daley said prosecutors refused the charge after NOPD confirmed it had not developed new evidence in the case since the September charge conference. Ambria Washington, a spokeswoman for the NOPD, said Thursday the department had no new information about the Santiago case.

Santiago said he just wanted to move forward.

"There was a time I never thought I was going to get out," he noted.

The life sentence a judge ordered him to serve in 1999 was based on the application of Louisiana's habitual offender law to Santiago's cocaine possession conviction, which stemmed from a 1997 arrest. His previous convictions were for heroin possession and possession of stolen goods.

A 2001 law put an end to life without parole for nonviolent offenses, Rutherford said. But the Louisiana Supreme Court just this year ruled state judges should actively re-sentence people who fit that category and were sent to jail before the law changed.

Santiago, who graduated in 1989 from Marion Abramson High School, worked on his case himself from prison after the law change, he said.

"I had to learn from the law to get myself out," said Santiago.

Now that he's free, he said, being on the outside feels "lovely."

Watching his 72-year-old mother watch him with his son has been among the best moments, Santiago said. He noticed the tears in her eyes, he said, when she saw him and her grandson together.

"When that day came, it took pressure off of her," he said.

Published: Tue, Jul 31, 2018