Nathan Brown was dressed in pajamas, playing with his 2-year-old daughter, Alicia, when police officers showed up at his Metairie apartment early one August morning 17 years ago.
They told him to get dressed. He put on some shorts but remained bare-chested except for a tattoo reading “Michelle.” Police took him to a woman who had just been accosted, her dress ripped by a man who tried to rape her before she beat him back with a high-heeled shoe.
The woman, who also lived in the apartment complex, identified Brown as her assailant.
That was 1997, the last time Brown would taste freedom until Wednesday, when a state judge vacated his conviction on an attempted rape charge and nullified his 25-year prison sentence after recent DNA testing of the victim’s dress revealed another man’s genetic markers.
Now 40, Brown emerged from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, then arrived in New Orleans to a welcome party of friends and family members at the Mid-City offices of the Innocence Project New Orleans, which helped secure his release, along with the New York-based Innocence Project.
“This is really a relief mentally, physically, to be free from serving time for a crime you didn’t commit,” he said, holding Kenard Southern Jr., a year-old grandson he’d never met. “It wasn’t an easy task being in prison for 17 years for something that you have no knowledge of, something you totally didn’t do, you didn’t know who did it. And you just was sitting there, and all you could do was just pray and just hope God would prevail.”
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office joined in a motion with Brown’s attorneys to vacate his conviction, then dropped the old charge against him.
In an unequivocal admission, Connick’s office proclaimed Brown “factually innocent,” a measure intended to grease the wheels for him to receive state compensation for his years behind bars.
The DNA tests instead point to a man Connick’s office refused to identify, who is now incarcerated in Mississippi, according to Innocence Project attorneys.
“After a thorough review of the case by my conviction integrity panel, I have concluded Nathan Brown did not commit the crime,” Connick said in a statement.
State law makes an exception to a six-year statute of limitations for sex felonies such as attempted rape “if the identity of the offender is established after the expiration of such time limitation through the use of a DNA profile.” In those cases, the deadline for prosecution is three years from the discovery.
First Assistant District Attorney Stephen Wimberly declined to name the man now implicated in the crime by DNA testing performed by a private firm this year after Innocence Project attorneys convinced Connick’s office and a judge to allow it.
The final report by Cellmark Forensics came May 29.
“It’s an ongoing investigation. We haven’t charged anybody,” Wimberly said.
Such unambiguous statements of innocence are unusual for district attorneys’ offices. More often, prosecutors grudgingly acknowledge a faulty conviction — whether intentional or not — and seek a retrial. But Wimberly pointed to other cases in which Connick’s office has made similar full-throated proclamations.
“Every case stands on its own facts. If we believe it, we’re going to say it,” Wimberly said.
Barry Scheck, the former O.J. Simpson defense attorney and co-director of the Innocence Project, praised Connick’s office while describing the case as a cautionary tale against “show-up” witness identifications, when done improperly.
He said Brown’s freedom marked the 317th exoneration resulting from DNA testing in the United States. More than two-thirds of those cases were the result of eyewitness misidentifications, Scheck said, and 34 of those were “one-on-one show-ups” such as what happened with Brown.
The woman had returned home after an evening out, parked her car, walked through the gate of the complex and was attacked from behind by a malodorous man who wrestled her to the ground, court records show. He pulled up her dress and tried to remove her underwear to rape her. He also bit her on the neck.
The woman bashed her assailant with a shoe before he grabbed her purse and ran. She chased him to the gate.
She later testified that she saw the letters “LLE” on his chest. Scheck, however, said she only made that statement after police presented her with a tattooed Brown for identification.
Brown and five defense witnesses testified at trial that he was at home, to no avail. His conviction was upheld on appeal.
On Wednesday, Brown said police were directed to his apartment by a security guard who didn’t much like him for swimming after hours in the pool and other minor misdeeds. Scheck said Brown had been one of the few black men in the complex.
Brown said he wrote letters to a variety of law clinics, seeking help and proclaiming his innocence.
“Nobody scrutinized it, on any side. Nobody heard his screams of innocence,” said Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney for the Innocence Project. “What happened to Nathan Brown is absolutely horrific. You’re home playing with your 2-year-old daughter, you get a knock on your door and never come home for 17 years.”
Brown had written the group for years before the Innocence Project opened his case in April 2013, on Brown’s 39th birthday, and started digging.
On Wednesday, Brown said he only met his trial attorney, Frank Larre, on the day his trial was scheduled. Brown said he asked Larre what his planned defense would be.
“He pointed to a letter I wrote to him and pointed to his head,” Brown said, indicating a defense strategy Larre had mapped out in his mind.
“That’s not the way it works,” Scheck interjected.
Reached by phone, Larre said he couldn’t recall the 17-year-old case.
On Dec. 16, Brown won the right to have the woman’s dress tested for DNA. A private lab found a saliva stain on the neck area of the dress, near where the assailant bit her. It produced a full DNA profile that excluded Brown.
More DNA on the dress — saliva, sweat and skin from a crime that took place on a hot August night — confirmed it, Potkin said.
Brown’s attorneys acknowledged it was fortunate that the court clerk’s office had kept the soiled green dress as evidence.
Kristin Wenstrom, an attorney for the Innocence Project New Orleans, which also represented Brown, called it a prime example of the suspect nature of cases that depend on an identification by the victim.
The victim who identified Brown did not return a message left on her voice mail. The New Orleans Advocate does not name victims of sex crimes without their consent.
Although they lived in the same complex, Brown said the victim “could be standing in this room and I couldn’t tell you that’s the person I went to prison for.”
Still, he said, “I harbor no hard feelings for her” and hopes she finds justice.
State Corrections Department spokeswoman Pam Laborde said Brown had no major disciplinary issues while incarcerated at various prisons over the years, first at Angola and most recently at Hunt.
Had he served out his sentence, Brown would have been freed under “good time” parole supervision on March 1, 2018. He was saved 1,345 days in prison — and the shame of the state’s sex offender registry — thanks to good lawyers and a dress.
He said his acknowledged innocence is more important to him than the time.
“I’m just glad to be free,” Brown said. “I could have had one day left, and if the Innocence Project had saved me one day, I’d be as happy as I am now.”
Brown said he was “a normal guy, feeling around my life, seeing what life is” when he was arrested in 1997. He said he aims to help in any way he can to push justice system reforms.
For the time being, he has found housing with Calvin Duncan, another exonerated man who spent 28 years in Angola before his release in 2011.
Duncan, with the help of Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, and others, has set up a house on Perdido Street to help transition returning inmates to society.
Brown will be the first to stay there. He will have at least 90 days to acclimate himself to life on the outside.
“He’s gonna learn from our experience,” Duncan said.
In the meantime, Brown said, he planned to eat some barbecue.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.