Hidden innocence: Wrongful convictions ripple through court system

by Richard A. Webster, New Orleans City Business 05/28/2007

 

Hidden Innocence is a three-part series spotlighting individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, the reasons why and the impact on their lives.

Today's installment profiles one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction - suppression of evidence.

 

Dan Bright stood in the middle of Laussat Street in the Ninth Ward and pointed to the spot where Murray Barnes was shot to death in 1995.

He walked across the street to Creola's Bar, now a flood-ravaged shell of a building.

"And this is where he ran inside and collapsed," Bright said.

It was late afternoon and the sky was gray with storm clouds.

Bright pointed to a one-story brick apartment building two blocks down the street and around the corner from Creola's. The windows and doors were gone. There was nothing inside except scattered bottles and cracked mud left over from the storm.

"That's where I was when the guy got shot," Bright said, and then he grew quiet. "If there had been a stop sign or a red light, something that would have made me five minutes latey. "It's like walking someone through my worst nightmare."

An Orleans Parish jury convicted Bright, 26, of first-degree murder in 1996 for slaying Barnes and sentenced him to death.

Eight years later, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered Bright's release and a new trial because evidence suppressed at the time of trial included a statement from a confidential FBI informant positively identifying the real murderer as Tracey Davis. The state declined to retry Bright.

"I'm angry because nothing is being done. No one is taking any responsibility for what they did to me," Bright said.

In April, DNA evidence helped exonerate the 200th person wrongfully imprisoned in the United States. Louisiana has had nine DNA exonerations, the fourth-highest rate in the country, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted people through DNA evidence.

Emily Maw, director of the New Orleans Innocence Project, said Louisiana's wrongful incarceration rate follows naturally with having the highest incarceration rate in the world and a broken indigent defense system.

Bright, however, is not counted among these numbers because he has never been fully exonerated. When the state declined to retry the case, it robbed Bright of the opportunity to have the charges dismissed in a new trial.

Now he fears he will forever be labeled a murderer for a crime he didn't commit.

"First thing and last thing anyone sees in me is death row," Bright said.

 

Innocence disputes

Bright and many others are products of Harry Connick's reign as Orleans Parish district attorney, Maw said.

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a defendant's constitutional rights are violated if the suppression of evidence denies a person a fair trial.

The landmark ruling arose from a trial overseen by Connick's office, in which the suppression of evidence was ruled egregious by the Supreme Court.

"Suppression of evidence like in Dan's case is a legacy in New Orleans," Maw said.

Connick was unavailable for comment.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said there are not that many innocent people behind bars.

"By claiming there are thousands of people who didn't do it in prison, that's cheapening the term 'exonerated' for the relatively few who might be wrongfully incarcerated," Adams said.

Bright's trial took two days and ended with a death sentence.

"Everything was in a fog," Bright said. "It was going too fast for something I didn't do."

Bright spent five years in Angola State Penitentiary on death row in a coffin-sized cell for 23 hours out of every day.

After the courts commuted his sentence to life, Bright was thrown into a dormitory populated by 72 hardened felons.

In his first six months in general population, Bright saw a man tied to a bed, doused in oil and burned alive, and another whipped with a sock full of padlocks.

And then they came after him.

One day Bright found himself in the shower threatened by a 6-foot-6, 300-pound inmate.

He had two choices - run and risk being labeled "easy prey" or fight back.

"Violence breeds violence," Bright said. "You have to become what the rest of them are in order for you to stay alive. If you don't protect yourself in Angola, every little fish in the sea is going to take a bite out of you. So I whipped him with a bat."

Bright's self-defense earned two years in solitary confinement in a cell the size of a bathroom with no television, radio, newspapers or human contact.

"There were 237 bricks in the walls, which were 10 paces apart," he said. "Once you hit Angola you're as good as dead."

 

Unlikely alliance

While Bright was fighting for his life on the inside, he made a strange ally on the outside - Kathleen Hawk Norman, the forewoman of Bright's jury and one of the people responsible for sentencing him to death.

Norman said the responsibility of holding a man's life in her hands was a terrible burden but she believed they had convicted a guilty man at the time. Four years later, when she heard attorneys had discovered a statement from an FBI agent identifying the real killer, she requested a meeting with Judge Dennis Waldron, who presided over Bright's trial.

"After the judge heard my testimony, he said either I was confused or misguided and showed me the door," Norman said. "These guys were perpetrating a fraud on the public and let me sentence an innocent man to death."

Norman devoted the next four years to securing Bright's release with suppressed evidence that could have proven his innocence at the original trial.

The Louisiana Supreme Court said the FBI failure to release the informant's statement "cannot be tolerated in a society that makes a fair and impartial trial a cornerstone of our liberty from government misconduct."

Prosecutors also concealed the criminal history of Freddie Thompson, the only witness to implicate Bright.

Of the first 130 DNA exonerations in the United States, 101 involved false identification, according to the Innocence Project.

Eight years after Bright entered Angola, the court ordered his release.

 

Losing faith

Bright has been a free man for more than two years but continues to struggle. He can't get a loan to buy a house and can't land a steady job. The children he left behind to be raised by his parents think of him as a big brother instead of a father.

During his first year of freedom Bright said he filled a paper bag with receipts to prove where he was at all times. If he went to a store he would stand in front of the security camera to make sure it recorded his face.

"They weren't going to get me again."

But because his charges were never dismissed, he remains a legal target.

"When the cops pull me over and run my license, 'death row' pops up," Bright said. "It's not that I'm innocent. It's that I got out on a technicality. One time the cops drew their guns on me, made me get out of the car, put the cuffs on me and brought me down to the police station all because death row is still on there. I thought, 'Here we go again.'"

Bright and Norman remain close friends but she said the experience destroyed her faith in the justice system.

"Dan's sister Donna saw the guy who did the murder on the streets for years after. She asked him how he could do this, let her brother be executed, and he said, 'They don't have any evidence on him. No way he goes down.'"