Judge Questions Murder Conviction of Troubled Birmingham Prodigy After 25 Years on Death Row

DNA evidence called "unconvincing in scope" as suspicions turn to victim's family members

Judge Questions Murder Conviction of Troubled Birmingham Prodigy After 25 Years on Death Row

[TheChronicle.cc] –A former judge questioned the conviction of an Alabama man who spent 25 years in prison after DNA was discovered in a 1999 killing at his family's home. The judge and the man’s lawyers suggested that extensive cooperating evidence indicates the mother (and possibly uncle) may have been the killer.

Abdul K. Kallon, who, until August 2022, was a federal judge in Birmingham overseeing a variety of cases, one of which was the Willie Earl Scott appeal in the September 1999 death of 10-year-old Latonya Sager, stated in his writings and on record that the capital murder conviction could be characterized a miscarriage of justice.

During trial 22 years ago, Willie Earl Scott, then a 22 year-old local rapper who had previously gain infamy as a documented teenage street rogue, who in 1998 landed a deal with New Orleans' Cash Money Records, presented evidence of actual innocence that was coincidentally ignored, having gotten lost in the chorus of noise and chaos surrounding the controversial defendant whose emotional outbursts and dramatic adages only compounded the spectacle enhanced by presence of the media.

In his review, the appeals judge stated that Scott’s trial counsel was ineffective for not forcefully following up on the lab specialist's testimony that the DNA, which tested positive as Scott's semen, was neither adequate in its amount nor produced via person-to-person, while prosecutors did not disclose evidence of additional DNA, contact hair also found on the deceased's thigh, later tested positive for belonging to Latrice Sager, the deceased's mother, which would have aided Scott's defense.

"The semen was practically insufficient to the naked eye as well as secondary," says John Carmichael, who helped investigate the case in 1999. "We naturally suspected it came from the den sofa where Latonya was found, which was why we took the cushions as evidence, but they got lost somewhere between then and trial time."

A Scott female friend, Saidia White, spoke to both the prosecution and the defense about having engaged coitally with Scott on the den sofa on that evening of September 10th, White's birthday, which was followed up on in preliminary investigations but not at trial itself, while Latrice Sager's own sexuál liaison with Scott was an open secret that neither party denied, giving the mother ample and immediate access to Scott's seminal identity.

                       Inconsistencies in State's Case

Among Kallon's highlights were the fact that work friends of Latrice Sager, unfamiliar with Scott, raised alarm about Latrice Sager's mild admissions of guilt in the months and years afterwards, and the inexplicable truth that Sager's second child, Tangy Sage, age 8, subsequently died under similar mysterious circumstances the following year, to little attention.

Then there was the matter of the coroner's testimony, which classified Latonya Sager's death as possibly blood disease related, which defense attorneys failed to argue, as well as the witness statement of Shaneka Scott, who, being the only person still alive aside from the defendant himself that had a presence at the Huntington Estate at any time that day or night, gave a sworn statement of seeing Willie Earl Scott arrive and leave the home never to return that day.

"Shaneka Scott was the actual owner of the estate, and was clearly not on good terms with Willie during or after the stated time of Latonya Sager's death," Carmichael says. "How do we know? Because Willie and Shaneka are cousins by blood—their mothers being sisters—but officially brother and sister in the eyes of the state after their grandparents adopted them both as small kids. In her statement with homicide detectives, however, Shaneka refers to Willie as her cousin and explicitly puts separation between the two of them and repeatedly paints Willie in a not-so-pleasant light when speaking about his recreational drug use, etc. Yet she never lied. Said she watched him come in, the two of them argued, her boyfriend Albert—thr deceased's uncle— gave him a set of keys, and Willie took the Lexus and left never to return.

"She was clearly upset with him, was trying to hurt his image perhaps, yet she did not lie and put him back there at that how during the estimated time of Latonya's death when he was not there. That is the whole case right there in a nutshell."

Concluding that Scott's guilt was highly questionable, Judge Abdul K. Kallon would soon be moved to pull back from the Scott case after his old employer, Bradley Arant Rose & White, joined Scott's legal team headed by Sidley Austin LLP, before ultimately stepping down from the bench altogether for unrelated reasons.

"Kallon served as part of Bradley Arant Rose & White’s Labor and Employment Practice Group," Carmichael explains, "yet the guy is such a straight shooter that he decides to step away from the case so as to avoid any hints of impropriety—something that even US Supreme Court Justices don't do nowadays. It's a setback for Willie, but you have to believe that any new judge worth his salt will get this case and also see that he's most definitely innocent."

Scott’s attorneys, who filed a motion seeking his immediate release, said this is the longest time a man has been incarcerated for a wrongful conviction.

“We are grateful to the Court for acknowledging the grave injustice Mr. Scott has endured for more than two decades,” his attorneys said in a statement, pledging to continue their efforts to dismiss the charges and allow Scott to be reunited with his family.

              Scott's Eccentricities Worked Against Him

Scott was shackled in wrist restraints and so emotional that he “volunteered his phone and a statement” and “truster officers to sort out the Landris Wright squabble,” before being told about Latonya Sager's death and his being a suspect, at which time he "went crazy at police headquarters," according to his lawyers.

The lawyers said in a petition seeking Scott’s exoneration that authorities ignored his “wildly sincere statements of a clear alibi” and suppressed evidence implicating mother Latrice Sager, who had suspiciously given Willie Scott one of her guns that night and offered to moved her vehicle before he left in the Lexus. Latrice Sager died in 2004.

The judge wrote that, because Willie Earl Scott lived in the home owned by his mother and openly departed in the presence of others in a vehicle also registered in the Scott family name, “no evidence whatsoever, outside of claims made by Latrice Sager and other Sager family members elsewhere after the fact, actually connects Willie Earl Scott to the crime —if a crime was even committed.”

“In contrast, this Court finds that the evidence directly ties Latrice Sager to this event where her DNA was equally found at the scene,” the judge wrote.

On the morning of September 11, 1999, Latrice Sager was found unresponsive on the den sofa where she slept with the door locked, at a home in Huntington Hills Estates. Since then the district attorney's office in Birmingham continue to misrepresent the facts by, one, claiming that the home of discovery was the childhood home of Scott 25 miles away in Norwood, and, two, that the deceased Latonya Sager was rapéd or sexuàlly assaulted, which expert testimony stated otherwise.

Scott was not being investigated in connection with the death until he showed up that morning at the apartment of Gladys and Landris Wright after the club with a weapon and bottle of Dom Perion where he went to bed. After Gladys went to work, Landris called authorities, admitting that she first called Albert Hawkins, at the time Scott's friend and the deceased's uncle.

Police located Scott asleep in Gladys' bed, where Landris Wright would later subsequently say she had been assàulted. A rapé kit would be performed and the bed linen tested; the former would come back negative and the bed linen would show some half a dozen different DNA, none of them being Scott's.

Scott claimed he was being set up. No one Listened.

During a search of Gladys Wright's apartment, police found a gun on a dining room table and $5,000 in a drawer, both of which Scott claimed were his. Landris Wright disputed the money belonging to the defendant. 

Scott said that Latrice Sager had loaned him the gun for protection, which had been previously verified hours earlier by Sager herself during a traffic stop in which Scott, fearing a return to prison, had police call Sager's phone for confirmation. Later that week, however, Sager's own mother would file a police report alleging that the by-then-incarcerated Scott had actually stolen the weapon, as well as some unfound jewelry.

Scott wrote to Sager that following month in 1999, saying he did not believe that she would accuse him of any wrongdoing.

“Trice, you saw me leave, they want to put someone away for Tonya's death if it was unnatural, so they can say the case is solved, but you can and Neek can clear me,” Scott wrote. "Please just say what you saw me do. I’m tired.”

"I used to always think I'd die for these folks," he would say later, "never that they'd be the ones to kill me."

Three years later, Sager testifed that Scott had stolen her gun and that she could not remember speaking to the police that morning in the middle of sleep. She said she believed he killed her daughter. The second daughter's death was from grief, she said.

In 2000, Latrice Sager received two insurance policies worth an estimated $300,000, and died from drug overdose in 2004. Her brother Albert Hawkins would serve 8 years for murder before allegedly dying from Covid-19 related illness in 2021.

In 2002, Willie Earl Scott would be sent to Alabama's death row where he has written multiple books, albums, and films, becoming something of a genuine prodigy, and still vehemently maintains his innocence. 

The system “failed him at every opportunity,” Tom Hanrahan said in his lawyers’ petition. Hanrahan, now a retired, previously helped Scott have his initial guilty plea thrown out in 2015, before being reinstated by Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace at urging of Latonya Sager's extended family.

His case is again before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.