SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - It was just before 10:30 the night of May 3 when witnesses heard two men arguing then the sound of gunshots coming from behind an abandoned home on Vine Street in Shreveport.
The first police officer on the scene found Joshua LaCombe lying on the ground, not breathing. The 38-year-old man had been shot four times in the chest, shoulder and right hand.
“We were just in shock,” said Evelyn Guillory, LaCombe’s mother. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever gone through in my life."
Shortly after Guillory got word of her son’s death at her home in South Louisiana, investigators had a man named Herman Woods in custody.
Witnesses saw the 50-year-old homeless man leaving the deadly scene. At least one said Woods was in a hurry.
According to police records, during an interview inside city jail, Woods admitted to shooting LaCombe, firing his 9 mm handgun until “the gun was empty.”
Woods told police during the interview that LaCombe grabbed a metal stick while the men were arguing then charged Woods while yelling “Come on.”
Three months after his arrest, Woods walked out of jail a free man.
When prosecutors with the Caddo Parish district attorney’s office took the case against Woods to a grand jury, the single count of second-degree murder got dismissed.
The dismissal infuriated Guillory.
“There’s no reason he should have walked. I mean, it’s murder, period. It’s murder.”
After meeting with the prosecution team that handled her son’s case, Guillory became convinced that lawyers presented a weak case to the grand jury, hoping to avoid a trial, because her son was homeless and struggled with drugs.
“I don’t know how they sleep at night," she said.
In fact, LaCombe and Woods both were living in a camp of tents that homeless people had set up behind the rundown house where LaCombe was killed.
Caddo District Attorney James Stewart denies Guillory’s claim that prosecutors presented a weak case. “That’s totally not true.
“I think it’s very difficult when people are in that kind of pain. They’re not necessarily objective, they have a lot of emotion and they look at the evidence one way,” he continued.
"But our job is to present the evidence the way it is. We don’t try to make it any worse or try to make it any better.”
While Stewart would not say what grand jurors said about the Woods case, he did say the grand jury had dismissed a couple of cases recently, viewing the killings as justifiable homicides.
“The grand jury does three things. The grand jury either indicts, pretermits or no true bills,” the district attorney said. "They don’t say justifiable homicide. So a no true bill can, in effect, mean justifiable homicide.”
Through a public records request, KSLA Investigates obtained a copy of the prosecution’s file against Woods.
Inside there is evidence that people heard LaCombe and Woods arguing. One claims to have heard LaCombe yell “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.”
Another witness told investigators that there was a history of bad blood between the two men and that Woods had recently threatened to hurt LaCombe because Woods thought LaCombe was messing with his dog and belongings in the homeless camp.
“It does seem like it was a fairly easy indictment to obtain. So I do wonder why they didn’t obtain it," said Ken Levy, a professor of criminal law at the LSU Law Center in Baton Rouge.
KSLA Investigates asked him to look at the prosecution’s file against Woods.
Pointing to two additional pieces of evidence - Woods allegedly lying to police about where he hid the gun that killed LaCombe and the fact that investigators never found a metal stick at the scene - Levy said he is unsure how Woods avoided a murder charge and a trial.
“My sense is they had enough evidence to get an indictment. And whether they, again, badly played their hand or deliberately threw the case, I can’t tell.”
After talking to Guillory about her son’s case, KSLA Investigates filed a public records request with the Caddo district attorney’s office to see if other murder cases got dismissed by the grand jury.
Nine murder cases have been dismissed by grand juries over the past 2.5 years.
Levy said that is a troubling number.
“That does strike me as rather high. With nine no true bills, I have to think that with some of them, they did not handle them as well as the could have.”
According to records from the district attorney’s office, eight killers have gone to prison, three convicted for murder and five for manslaughter.
But grand juries issued nine no true bills during that same time, dismissing charges against nine murder cases.
That means 1 in 4 murder suspects arrested in Caddo Parish since the beginning of 2016 walked away free.
Levy fears that sends a bad message to would-be killers.
“They’re aware of what’s going on as well," the professor said. "And if they see people getting off the hook for murder, they’re more likely to try their hand.”
The district attorney said that amount of murder dismissals is not alarming.
“I decided in January that I was going to take every homicide to the grand jury. And the reason I did that, I want every case investigated totally,” Stewart said.
By handing every murder case over to a grand jury, the district attorney says he’s eliminating the possibility that prosecutors might prejudge a murder suspect’s innocence or guilt, letting grand juries decide if a homicide is murder or a justifiable killing.
“Our job is not just to get an indictment,” Stewart said. "I mean, we want to have a prosecutable case that we can have a conviction from.
“It’s still America and you can’t indict someone unless it’s a prosecutable case,” he added.
Of the nine no true bills, Stewart said some got dismissed because witnesses told police one story and the grand jury another.
In other cases, like the death of LaCombe, the district attorney said evidence collected by police didn’t equal murder in the eyes of the grand jury.
“The grand jury is the proper person to say whether a homicide is a justifiable homicide, not necessarily the DA,” Stewart said. "Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.”
Guillory said after meeting with the prosecutor who took her son’s case to the grand jury, she’s more convinced than ever that her son was murdered.
But due to drugs and homelessness, she said, prosecutors didn’t care.
“I don’t think he presented it right. It was like this is it, done deal," she said.
“He’s still a human being.”