May 28, 2007
Innocence Project overturns convictions without DNA help
New Orleans City Business
Emily Maw, director of the New Orleans Innocence Project, opened the drawer
of a filing cabinet in her second-floor office on Baronne Street.
"Look at all of them," Maw said as she opened a second drawer stuffed with
letters from prisoners.
There were 2,500 letters, all asking for assistance in proving innocence.
"Most of these people probably aren't innocent. But maybe one in 15 is and
that's a big number," she said.
In its six-year history the New Orleans Innocence Project, a nonprofit
dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, has secured the release
of 12 innocent men from prison, including seven since Hurricane Katrina, who
served more than 200 years total for crimes they didn't commit.
As of April, 200 wrongfully convicted people nationwide have been exonerated
through DNA evidence, including nine from Louisiana, giving the state the
fourth-highest wrongful conviction rate in the country, according to the
Maw said the state's poor performance is directly linked to its high
In 2005, Louisiana led the nation with 797 inmates per 100,000 people, 62
percent higher than the national average of 491, according to the U.S.
Department of Justice.
Ineffective counsel and the suppression of evidence by the prosecution also
play a major role in wrongful convictions.
Kathleen Hawk Norman, chairwoman of the New Orleans Innocence Project, was
the forewoman on a jury that sentenced Dan Bright to death for first-degree
During the trial, Norman said Bright's attorney didn't present a defense.
But the jury took little notice.
"There is this weird circular logic that goes on in a jury room that is
shameful to me now," Norman said. "If there is no defense presented, that
must be because there is no defense. And if there is no defense, it must be
because the guy is guilty. It didn't occur to me at the time that the system
After Bright spent eight years in Angola State Penitentiary, the Louisiana
Supreme Court ordered his release citing suppression of evidence by the
Defense attorney Barry Scheck co-founded the New York-based Innocence
Project to exonerate the wrongfully incarcerated through DNA evidence. The
New Orleans branch is one of the few in the country that takes on non-DNA
cases such as Bright's.
No other group is eager to touch these cases because it is incredibly hard
to prove innocence without "black-and-white" DNA evidence. Such cases can
take as long as eight years to resolve, Maw said.
But the New Orleans group has a secret weapon.
"All of our cases are screened by 50 self-trained inmate counselors in
Angola," Maw said. "It's one of the reasons we've had such a great track
record. They are the best screeners we have and direct us straight to the
good non-DNA cases."
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys
Association, said not everyone freed from death row is innocent. Some are
released due to legal errors or attorney wrongdoing during trial. He
cautions against overusing the term "exonerated.
"The overuse of the word 'exonerated' by people who are just blowing smoke
further delays justice for those people who really need the process," he
said. "If someone really didn't do it, they shouldn't have to wait in line
behind 10,000 people just trying to waste the court's time."
Source : New Orleans City Business