In 1986, Anthony Johnson was convicted of stabbing his girlfriend to death in Bogalusa. He was sentenced to life in prison and might have stayed there — if lawyers from the Innocence Project New Orleans had not been able to use his criminal case file to find DNA evidence that freed him and ultimately proved his innocence.
Now, IPNO attorneys fear that a separate case from St. Landry Parish could prevent them from accessing those crucial case files in the future. On Tuesday, the Louisiana Supreme Court heard arguments about whether prosecutors can block access to such files when they receive requests from the attorneys for inmates.
The justices made no decision after hearing arguments from the attorneys fighting for access to case files and the St. Landry Parish prosecutors who are trying to block them. However, several justices seemed skeptical of the arguments from the St. Landry Parish District Attorney’s Office.
The legal battle centers on the district attorney’s case file for Stephan Bergeron, a Eunice man who was convicted of forcible rape and two counts of simple rape in St. Landry Parish in May 2013. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
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After his conviction, Bergeron hired James Boren, a Baton Rouge appeals lawyer. In June 2015, Boren sent a public-records request to the St. Landry District Attorney’s Office, asking for a copy of its case file on Bergeron.
The office told Boren he had no right to access the file because of a 1995 state law that denies prisoners the right to make public-records requests. The law was designed to prevent inmates from overwhelming government agencies with onerous and frivolous records requests.
Boren was “standing in the shoes of his client” when he made his request, said Alisa Gothreaux, a lawyer for the DA’s Office.
A district court and the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal both upheld the district attorney’s denial of the case file. On Tuesday, the case reached the Supreme Court.
Johnson, the exonerated ex-convict from Bogalusa, was in the audience as attorneys on both sides made their cases to the justices. Boren’s attorney was joined by Emily Maw, an attorney for IPNO, which filed a brief with the court.
The Louisiana Press Association, of which The Advocate is a member, is also arguing for the court to allow Boren to access the case file.
Maw said that future denials on similar grounds would “devastate our ability to screen and review cases for potential wrongful convictions.”
Of the 48 people in Louisiana who have been exonerated since 1990, at least 43 exonerations were based on public records, according to IPNO. Those numbers include nine former death row inmates. Of the 15 cases where DNA has proven a convict’s innocence, all were based on public records.
If IPNO’s request for the case file had been denied in Johnson’s case, Maw said, “Anthony Johnson could have died in prison.”
Donald Richard, a St. Landry Parish assistant district attorney, said he was presented with an “ethical problem” when he received a letter from Bergeron’s lawyer.
“Do I treat somebody represented by a lawyer … differently from somebody who’s incarcerated?” he asked the justices. “Are you going to say A is represented by a lawyer, (so) he gets greater rights than B, who is this poor, uneducated person at Angola who barely knows how to read?”
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Richard said Boren could have obtained the file if he had followed through on the state records law’s requirement that an inmate provide a reason for a public-records request.
Nevertheless, several justices seemed skeptical of the DA’s Office during questioning.
“Has this been a longstanding practice of your office?” asked Justice Greg Guidry. “It seems like throughout the state, attorneys are being given the records without limitation, and it seems to me like it might be a unique situation.”
Justice John Weimer said that because the state Constitution protects citizens’ right to request public records, the court had to apply exceptions “in the most limited fashion.”
“If there’s two ways to read this statute, we have to read it in the way that the records are available,” he said.
On Thursday, his 44th birthday, Robert Jones won his freedom and cleared his name.