Criminal Justice News

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Louisiana Man Exonerated After Serving Nearly 17 Years for an Attempted Rape that DNA Evidence Shows He Didn’t Commit



Testing on saliva from victim’s clothing matches to a young man who lived near the scene of the crime and is serving time for a felony in Mississippi

Contacts:             Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org          
                                Jené O’Keefe Trigg, 504-943-1902, jeneot@ip-no.org 

(NEW ORLEANS– June 25, 2014) — Nathan Brown walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center today after a Jefferson Parish judge overturned his 1997 attempted aggravated rape conviction based on new DNA evidence proving his innocence and pointing to another man who lived near where the assault occurred and is currently incarcerated on a felony in Mississippi. The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office joined the Innocence Project in requesting that the conviction be overturned.  Brown, who always maintained his innocence, wrongly served nearly 17 years for the crime due to a cross-racial misidentification and an inadequate defense lawyer whom he met the first day of trial. 

“Mr. Brown is another victim of an unduly suggestive police show-up procedure,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York.  “There are best practices to minimize the risk of misidentification from a one-on-one show-up, and we’re hopeful that this case will inspire law enforcement in Louisiana to adopt the procedures recommended by the International Associations of the Chiefs of Police.” 

Brown, who is black, was 23-years-old when he was charged with the August 1997 attempted rape of a white woman that occurred in the courtyard of the apartment complex where they both lived. After returning from a night out with friends, the victim was tackled to the ground from behind while walking to her apartment. The assailant bit her neck, ripped her dress open and took her purse before the victim was able to fend him off by striking him with her high heels, which she was carrying.  The victim saw him flee on a bike shortly before reporting the incident to a police officer who had been called by neighbors who heard her screams.   

According to the victim’s description, the assailant was a black man of average build who was wearing black shorts and no shirt. She also said the man had a very strong body odor. Although the victim believed her attacker lived outside of the apartment complex and initially told police she saw him riding away on a bike, a security guard for the complex directed police to Brown. When police knocked on Brown’s door just minutes after the crime, he was in his bedroom wearing pajamas, rocking his young daughter to sleep.

Rather than asking Brown to come to the station house to participate in a line up, the officers conducted a highly suggestive show-up, taking Brown, who was told by the police to “get dressed” and changed out of his pajamas into black shorts, to the victim who was waiting in a patrol car. Brown had no shirt on during the show-up.  The victim was initially sitting in the patrol car and then asked to get out to take a closer look and smell him, at which point she identified him as her assailant. Although Brown did not have strong body odor, but rather smelled of soap, she explained at trial that she believed he must have taken a shower and that meant he was her attacker. 

Brown’s mother retained a private lawyer to represent him.  His lawyer met Brown for the first time on the day his trial was set to start.  The trial took place just three months after the crime. At trial, the victim claimed that she recalled seeing a tattoo with the letters “LLE” on the assailant’s chest, but a police officer testified that the victim didn’t mention anything about the tattoo until after the show-up (during which Brown did not have a shirt on exposing a “Michelle” tattoo on his chest). Brown testified in his own defense and told the jury that he was at home caring for his “fussy infant daughter” at the time of the crime.  Despite the fact that four relatives who were at home with Brown that night testified as alibi witnesses, Brown was convicted in less than a day.  He was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole for the crime of attempted aggravated rape.

“Most people would be shocked to learn that an innocent person could be convicted on the basis of so little evidence at a trial lasting less than a day,” said Vanessa Potkin, Brown’s lead counsel at the Innocence Project. “Nathan’s story highlights some of the common failures of our criminal justice system that we would like to think are a thing of the past.  His conviction was the product of a rush to judgment by all involved. He became a suspect because he happened to be one of the only black men living in a mostly white apartment complex.  Once he was brought out of his home in the middle of the night to be identified by the victim, there was almost no other investigation, despite the evidence that he was at home with family when the crime occurred and didn’t have a bike or the purse taken from the victim.  Yet this was enough for a jury to send him away for 25 years. You would think this case occurred in 1937, not 1997.”

Brown has maintained his innocence throughout the past 16 years and contacted the Innocence Project to help prove that he was wrongly convicted. With the consent of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing of a stain on the shoulder on the dress the victim was wearing where she was bitten. The stain tested positive for saliva and yielded a full male DNA profile that excluded Brown.  This profile was consistent with male DNA found on three other areas of the dress, including the front where the assailant ripped it open.  The profile was entered into the federal DNA database and there was a match to an offender convicted of a felony in Mississippi, who is a black male and, at the time the crime happened, was a 17-year-old living within blocks of the complex where the victim was attacked. 

“Mr. Brown’s mother paid for an attorney who it appears did almost nothing to prepare for the trial,” said Emily Maw, Director of the Innocence Project New Orleans.  “Unfortunately we have seen that happen far too many times here in Louisiana. Of the 41 people who have been exonerated in Louisiana, more than two thirds had less than effective defense lawyers.”   
Following his release, Brown will be living in a newly renovated apartment run by First 72+, an organization created by formerly incarcerated individuals including Calvin Duncan to assist with the reentry of exonerated individuals.  Duncan will serve as a mentor to Brown as he gets back on his feet.        

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of the 316 convictions overturned through DNA testing. While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification evidence is often unreliable. In case after case (many involving cross-racial identifications, which has been proven to increase the risk of mistaken identification) judges and juries have relied on testimony that could have been more accurate if scientifically proven reforms proven had been implemented.

Requiring that police identification procedures be conducted blindly – meaning that the officer who conducts the procedure is unaware of the identity of the suspect – reduces misidentifications by reducing the chance for the officer to influence the procedure either intentionally or unintentionally. Yet, Louisiana lags behind other states in enacting legislation requiring that police identification procedures be conducted blindly.  Louisiana is also one of the few remaining states that bar expert psychologists from testifying in criminal trials about the voluminous scientific research documenting the unreliability of eyewitnesses. 

Brown was represented by Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project and assisted by local counsel Emily Maw of Innocence Project New Orleans. The Innocence Project and Innocence Project New Orleans are independent 501(C)(3) organizations that are affiliated through the Innocence Network. 

A copy of today’s legal filings are available at http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/PCR_and_Order.pdf

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