Defending The Innocent

A strong public defender system is the best safeguard against innocent people being sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. In Louisiana, since aggressive efforts began in 1991, at least 25 men have been proved innocent after spending significant periods of time (between 4 and 30 years) in prison. Wrongful conviction is not isolated to one area of the state. Innocent people have been sent to prison from all corners of the state, from New Orleans to Houma to Lake Charles. While many factors caused these wrongful convictions, one common theme in almost every case is that the defendant did not receive a strong defense at trial and during his initial appeal. Innocent people, wrongfully convicted, spend decades in prisons while perpetrator remain free. Well-trained and adequately resourced public defenders would have prevented these convictions.

Wrongful convictions cost everyone. It is an unspeakable horror for an innocent person and their family, it deprives the victim of justice and closure, it falsely terminates the search for the real offender, it costs much more to correct the mistake than it does to administer justice fairly and accurately the first time around, and it erodes public confidence in the criminal justice system. If properly resourced, the public defender agency will help restore that trust by preventing wrongful convictions and promoting community safety. A strong public defender system improves the performance of the entire criminal justice system by being a worthy adversary at every stage of legal proceedings.

A strong public defender system protects indigent defendants against wrongful conviction, and raises the protection of innocent defendants across the board. Often poor defendants families do not want to rely on an overstretched public defender so they pool together their savings for a cut price "paid lawyer." However, these lawyers are often just as under-resourced as public defenders when it comes to serious charges. Without means to conduct investigation or hire experts, and insufficient time to prepare, the lack of meaningful funding for public defense leads to wrongful convictions even for those who do not have a public defender.

John "JT" Thompson was 22 years old in 1984 when he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder in Orleans Parish. He was represented by a public defender. John's appeal raised numerous 'Ineffective Assistance of Counsel' issues relating to his defense at the trial level. After serving 18 years in prison, in May 2003, an Orleans Parish jury took only 35 minutes to acquit JT of all charges. In the 18 years he spent in prison between his arrest and conviction, 14 were spent on death row. He survived 8 execution dates, repeatedly coming within days of execution. In September 2009, a jury awarded JT $14 million for his wrongful conviction. The civil penalty came after a finding that a systematic training failure in the District Attorney's Office contributed to his prosecutors' withholding of crucial evidence that could have kept JT out of prison.

The biggest way an under-resourced attorney fails innocent defendants is by not being able to perform independent investigation. This means the State's case is not challenged, any alibi is not properly prepared and leads on the true perpetrator are not followed up. For example, Ryan Matthews and Travis Hayes were convicted of a murder that occurred when they were each seventeen (Ryan was sentenced to death and Travis to life without parole). They were both eventually cleared and freed, but if the defense had adequately investigated the case before trial then the juries that voted to convict would have heard full alibis, details of prior criminal conduct by the State's witnesses, convincing physical evidence that Travis's car could not have been the one used in the crime and, possibly even, the identity of the true perpetrator (Ryan's attorneys were passed on rumors about the real killer before trial but did not follow up, years later DNA testing of crime scene evidence proved the rumors true).

Under-resourced lawyers cannot effectively establish their clients' innocence. Travis Hayes' attorney recalled his client's case, "I would have been able to do more if I'd had more resources, but the family struggled to pay the initial retainer, let alone the remaining fee. I had nothing to spend on investigation and no help on the case. I didn't want to get off the case because I believed in the kid, but for the money I got from them, I just couldn't provide an effective defense in a first degree murder case."

Under-resourced public defender programs also cause wrongful convictions because innocent defendants are represented by attorneys who:

  • Are not familiar enough with the facts of the case to present a coherent defense;
  • Are inadequately prepared to challenge questionable forensic evidence;
  • Are insufficiently trained to prevent the prosecution presenting inadmissible evidence and arguments.

This inevitably leads to injustice.

The need for strong indigent defense extends beyond trials. All defendants are entitled to an automatic appeal after conviction, but when the defendant is poor this appeal may be never filed or delayed by years. Even when the appeal is filed, key arguments are often omitted or lifted verbatim from other briefs. Preparing an appeal that ensures a trial is properly reviewed is time consuming and specialized work, but such review is a vital curative safeguard against wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

Greg Bright served more than 27 years in Angola prison for a crime that he did not commit. He went to trial when he was 18 years old. His public defender conducted no investigation, failed to dispute the problematic testimony of the lone witness, and overall presented virtually no defense for the innocent Mr. Bright.

It is a simple fact that rich people are almost never sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. This is because they can afford a top-notch defense a defense that protects the defendant from wrongful accusation. When the public defender system lacks the resources, manpower and talent to provide high quality defense services, society run an incredible risk of convicting and sentencing an innocent person to prison - not because he is guilty, but because he is poor.

Albert Burrell and his co-defendant Michael Graham (a man he had never met until they were arrested for allegedly collaborating on the same crime) were not represented effectively by their court-appointed defenders. One of their attorneys has since been disbarred. Mr. Burrell and Mr. Graham were wrongfully convicted in Union Parish and spent more than 13 years on death row at Angola prison. They were released in 2000.

The Louisiana Public Defender Board provides funding for a portion of the Innocence Project New Orleans work in Louisiana. However, the majority of their funding is obtained through charitable foundations or private support.

Photographs of Mr. John Thompson, Mr. Greg Bright, and Mr. Albert Burrell used with their permission and consent of the artist, Jenny Bagert.