It’s Tom and Jerry sharing kibble. Muhammad Ali taking tea with Joe Frazier.
A pair of seemingly natural rivals on Thursday announced a unique partnership with a serious aim: freeing the wrongly convicted without the usual costly, drawn-out court battles.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and leaders of the Innocence Project-New Orleans heralded a new “Conviction Integrity Project” in which lawyers and investigators from each agency will join forces to review questionable convictions from the past.
City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney and longtime Innocence Project board member, said he will press to secure city funding to cover the $650,000 projected budget for a program the founders hope will be up and running by early next year.
IPNO Director Emily Maw said the Innocence Project will seek foundation funding to support its end of a project that Maw and Williams both said would be the first of its kind in the nation.
District attorneys across the country, from Brooklyn, New York, to Dallas to Jefferson Parish, have created in-house conviction-review teams. But it appears that none has invited advocates for convicted inmates to work side by side with prosecutors, Williams said.
The project is not about searching for legal technicalities, they said, but finding cases in which prosecutors hid evidence or defense attorneys fell flat or witnesses just fingered the wrong person.
“This collaboration, frankly, is revolutionary,” Williams said. “We have an opportunity to get those people who are factually innocent out of jail. There are tons of cases for us to look at. That’s something we don’t have a shortage of.”
The plan, which Cannizzaro previewed Aug. 19 during his annual speech on the state of the criminal justice system, calls for a pair of paid attorneys and two investigators from his office to work with two IPNO lawyers and an investigator culling full time through a list of potentially bad convictions.
Maw credited Cannizzaro and First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin with proposing the idea.
Calling it an issue of fundamental fairness for convicts, Cannizzaro said his office has been exploring the concept for nearly a year.
He admitted that the plan caught a spark after the two sides sat down May 2 to discuss the case of Reginald Adams, who had spent 34 years behind bars based on an error-filled confession he gave in the 1979 murder of Cathy Ulfers, the wife of a New Orleans police officer who later was convicted of killing his second wife.
Just 10 days after IPNO lawyers presented their case, revealing a previously unseen police report that was tucked in another case file involving Adams, Cannizzaro agreed to drop the conviction and the indictment, setting Adams free on May 12.
Cannizzaro said it wasn’t the only case where his office has agreed with IPNO, which has helped secure freedom for numerous prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi over two decades.
More often, though, the two sides have fought, as in the case of Jerome Morgan, who in January was granted a new trial after two witnesses to a 1993 killing said they lied when they testified against him. Cannizzaro said his office continues to fight that decision by Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny, in a battle that is headed for the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Maw said the two parties are likely to disagree more often than not but that the new arrangement should help avoid instant conflict and perhaps reach agreement on some cases “before anybody locks into a litigation posture.”
Under the plan, Cannizzaro’s office will have greater access to IPNO’s files early on, while IPNO will have better access to records through the DA’s Office. The funding plan also provides for clerical staff.
Maw said wrongful convictions in New Orleans often are the result of a criminal justice system that has been strained and underfunded for years, with a Public Defenders Office that only after Hurricane Katrina went from a part-time to a full-time staff.
“That causes wrongful convictions just as much” as prosecutorial misconduct, Maw said. “There are many cases where it’s no one’s fault.”
Still, Cannizzaro acknowledged that, in some cases, prosecutors have engaged in shady, illegal tactics to secure convictions at all costs. While the DA said he has preached to his prosecutors the importance of turning over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys, some of those same attorneys have long criticized his office for, among other things, keeping some key evidence secret until just before a trial and for refusing to institute a policy of “open-file discovery,” in which prosecutors lay bare their case.
Cannizzaro has said such a policy would endanger witnesses.
The new partnership seems to mark a shift for a district attorney who walked into office in 2008 in defense mode, facing a $14 million court judgment in the case of John Thompson, who was freed in 2003 after spending 18 months in prison. At the 11th hour, as Thompson awaited execution, an investigator had discovered evidence withheld by prosecutors.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that money judgment in a 5-4 decision that dismayed defense advocates. The slim majority found the DA’s Office couldn’t be held liable for failing to train prosecutors to turn over so-called “Brady” material and that Thompson didn’t prove a pattern of such misconduct.
Since then, several cases have challenged the notion that a historic pattern of prosecutorial misdeeds in Orleans Parish can’t be found.
Cannizzaro’s office was back in front of the Supreme Court in 2011, trying to defend a failure to turn over a police officer’s notes in the case of Juan Smith. This time, several justices chided the office for failing to acknowledge mistakes under former District Attorney Harry Connick, who led the office for 30 years in a tenure that has come under fire from IPNO and others.
The high court overturned Smith’s 1996 conviction in a quintuple murder on an 8-1 vote, with only Justice Clarence Thomas siding with the office.
Cannizzaro, who is up for re-election this fall in a race against defense attorney Lionel “Lon” Burns, declined to say whether he has evolved in his approach to such cases during his first six-year term in office.
But he counted himself “very excited and very proud to be a part of this” new initiative.
He said the new team would also review “some of the cold cases,” which could lead to guilty people being sent away to prison.
“This is about doing it right. It’s not only about doing it right today. It’s about doing it right back then,” Cannizzaro said.
He said it marked another step in restoring trust among a community embittered over a long-dysfunctional criminal justice system.
Maw and Williams portrayed it as a public safety issue and a measure that may save taxpayers from costly legal battles.
Ultimately, though, it’s about setting innocent people free sooner, Maw said.
“The goal of the project will be to find the universe of cases where the wrong people have been convicted of a crime,” she said. “To an innocent person in prison, every day seems like a lifetime.”