Three months after Nathan Brown walked free following DNA proof of his innocence in a 1997 rape attempt, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office has agreed that Brown will receive $330,000 in state compensation for his 16 years, 10 months and 18 days behind prison walls on a bogus conviction.
The deal comes from an Attorney General’s Office that has adopted a rigid posture in some other compensation cases, arguing that convicts released on overturned convictions must prove their “factual innocence” in order to get compensation funds under state law.
Attorneys with Caldwell’s office made that argument successfully in late July in the pending case of Damon Thibodeaux, whose 1997 conviction for raping and murdering 14-year-old Crystal Champagne in Bridge City was tossed out after he spent 15 years in prison.
Critics complain that forcing freed inmates to prove a negative — that they didn’t commit the crime — sets the legal bar far too high, distorting the intention of a compensation law that entitles exonerated inmates to as much as $330,000. That figure includes $25,000 per year for up to 10 years of wrongful incarceration, plus another $80,000 for loss of “life opportunities.”
Brown will get the maximum under a consent judgment that Caldwell’s office plans to present in a Gretna courtroom Tuesday morning for a judge’s signature.
Laura Gerdes, a spokeswoman for Caldwell’s office, insisted that “the vast majority of these cases are paid out without opposition.”
She said the state’s attorneys “carefully review the evidence and facts of each specific case before determining our position.”
Not including Brown, 36 people have applied for compensation since the statute was signed into law in 2005, according to Caldwell’s office. Of those, 25 have been ordered by a judge to receive compensation. Five claims have been denied. Six people, including Thibodeaux, have pending cases.
Brown’s release was facilitated by lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office, which took the unusual step of proclaiming him “factually innocent” when it agreed to vacate his conviction and nullify his 25-year prison sentence.
In a statement, Innocence Project New Orleans called Brown’s a rare case where DNA so clearly proved his innocence.
“It would be troubling if they didn’t consent to Mr. Brown’s compensation because his case is so exceptional,” the statement said. “The vast majority of criminal convictions do not have biological evidence that can be DNA tested. Mr. Brown suffered a great injustice, one of the worst injustices that can be suffered in a democratic society, but in this way he was lucky.”
Brown, 40, now lives in eastern New Orleans and works at a local restaurant.
“I basically had to rebuild a whole life,” he said early this month at a new transitional house in New Orleans where he lived for a few months after his June release.
Now a grandfather, Brown had last tasted freedom on Aug. 7, 1997, when Jefferson Parish deputies knocked on the door of his Metairie apartment and told him to get dressed as he lay in bed in his pajamas.
A woman who also lived in the complex had just been accosted, and she named Brown as her assailant.
She said she had returned home after an evening out and walked through the complex gate when a man attacked her from behind about 1:15 a.m., wrestling her to the ground, according to court records.
He pulled up her dress and tried to remove her underwear and force apart her legs, she said. The man also bit her in the neck before she bashed him with a shoe, grabbed her purse and ran.
A security guard in the complex — who Brown recently said had a running beef with him — directed police to Brown’s apartment. Brown put on a pair of black shorts with thick white stripes. In a sketchy description, the woman had told deputies her attacker wore black shorts, according to court documents.
The woman later testified she saw the letters “LLE” on her assailant’s chest. Police had earlier presented Brown to her bare-chested, with the name “Michelle” tattooed on his chest.
According to Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, it was a classic case of suggestive eyewitness identification.
Research shows that such seemingly reliable identifications are notoriously trouble-prone, and according to Scheck, more than two-thirds of exonerations in the U.S. come from faulty eyewitness identifications.
On Thursday, the National Research Council is slated to release a report describing the pitfalls of eyewitness identifications in a bid to improve their reliability.
Brown’s conviction came in an era when DNA testing wasn’t done. Recent DNA testing of the victim’s dress revealed another man’s genetic markers. Connick’s office in June would not reveal the identity of the man, although Innocence Project attorneys said he’s incarcerated in Mississippi.
But Connick left no doubt that Brown’s freedom wasn’t the result of a legal technicality.
“After a thorough review of the case by my conviction integrity panel, I have concluded that Nathan Brown did not commit this crime,” Connick said in a statement.
Under the agreement, Brown will receive $25,000 immediately and the same amount each year for nine years. He can get the other $80,000 if he presents evidence of lost opportunities because of his incarceration.
“There can be no question Nathan Brown is factually innocent,” Scheck said on the day of Brown’s release. “The DA says it; the DNA says it. No question about it: This man deserves the compensation.”
Staff writer Chad Calder contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.