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The Advocate: Free on bail, New Orleans man fights to avoid return to Angola in 2002 robbery case

Troy Rhodes in his room at The First 72+ following his release.

Years into what was supposed to amount to a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Troy Rhodes peered into the grave of a fellow inmate and felt a moment of despair.

"A little thought crossed my mind: 'What if I would die here? I would be put in a hole like that,' " Rhodes said. "But I immediately erased that thought. I refused to buy into that."

Rhodes, 50 was released on bail Thursday on the order of a federal judge, who ruled in March that he was denied a fair trial and appeal in connection with a 2002 attempted murder and armed robbery of a bread delivery driver.

He had spent almost 16 years behind bars.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office has appealed U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo's ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Even if they lose there, prosecutors intend to retry Rhodes on the same charges in state court.

In other words, Rhodes is not out of the woods yet. But in an interview Friday, the 7th Ward native recounted his winding legal and personal journey to his current state of semi-freedom.

Rhodes declined to discuss the case itself, on the advice of his attorney, Southern Methodist University law professor Pam Metzger.

As part of her ruling on Wednesday, Milazzo ordered Rhodes released on a $50,000 property bond secured by his wife's house in New Orleans East. She also ordered that he must live in a transitional house on Perdido Street owned by the First 72+, a nonprofit organization that works to smooth inmates' re-entry into society.

A jury voted 10-2 to convict Rhodes of the 2002 shooting of a bread delivery driver on Touro Street. Prosecutors said he hopped into the man's van and threatened him for money, then blasted him in the gut with a shotgun when the driver would not hand over more.

The state's case rested in large part on the driver's identification of Rhodes in a photographic line-up from his hospital bed on the same day that the driver underwent liver surgery.

Rhodes' appellate attorneys argued that his lawyer at his trial should have questioned the driver about his medical records, which could have shown that he was under the influence of painkillers when he said he recognized Rhodes.

The appellate attorneys also argued that another lawyer failed to fully investigate the case on his first appeal.

Rhodes laid the groundwork for many of those arguments in legal briefs he wrote himself. Eventually those arguments were adopted by a pair of federal judges, leading to his release over the objection of the DA's Office.

Rhodes said that in all his years behind bars, he never stopped believing he would one day be released, despite his 99-year sentence. He credits his faith and his wife.

Many nights in prison he would write legal briefs while also taking notes for the bachelor's degree that he eventually obtained from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, he said.

Metzger said Rhodes is a skillful "jailhouse lawyer."

"Troy identified one of the most complicated issues under federal habeas law," she said.

Milazzo cited his good behavior in prison as one of the reasons she felt confident releasing him on bond.

Rhodes said he volunteered for a notoriously tough part of the prison to minister to his fellow inmates. He lived in a noisy dormitory with 85 other men.

He said the first thought to flash through his mind when he got the final word about his release was, "God is good."

On Thursday night, Rhodes went to sleep in a bed inside the First 72+'s transitional house. He said he doesn't plan to put any personal touches on his room's barren walls, but he was grateful for his first quiet night in years.

"Last night, being alone in the room, sleeping without the noise, with the lights off ... it was so peaceful. It was the peace I've been looking for for so long," he said.

The District Attorney's Office is fighting to send Rhodes back to prison. The delivery driver, David Blohm, is still adamant that Rhodes shot him.

In a legal brief filed Friday, prosecutors said that federal judges Helen "Ginger" Berrigan and Milazzo came to the wrong conclusion about whether Rhodes received effective help from his lawyers.

Berrigan in particular went too far in interpreting the delivery driver's medical records to show that he was on painkillers, the DA's Office said.

"The district court’s interpretations of isolated details in the available records are implausible, inconsistent and contrary to everything else these records reflect about Blohm’s care, his condition, and his actual use of pain medication," Assistant District Attorney Christopher Ponoroff said.

Rhodes knows he is still in legal limbo. But he said he has no doubt that he will soon be able to join his wife in her New Orleans East home.

"I believe in scriptures, and I just believe that God opened doors that no man can close, and I just believe that this is going to work itself out," he said.

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