Dan Bright, a former inmate on Louisiana's death row whose murder conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court 15 years ago after a long legal fight, was arrested Thursday by New Orleans police after a stabbing that left a trail of blood on a Lower 9th Ward street.
Police accuse Bright of stabbing a man during a fight in the 1200 block of Delery Street. Officers said the man went into surgery in critical condition on Wednesday with stab wounds to his back, chest, left shoulder and left arm. His current condition was not available.
Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set Bright's bail at $400,000 on a count of attempted second-degree murder Friday over the objection of a public defender, who said her unemployed client would have no hope of paying for his release.
Now Bright will likely remain behind bars at least until the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office decides whether to accept charges — the latest entanglement with the legal system for a man who faced the death penalty for a 1995 slaying until his appellate attorneys unearthed evidence pointing to another man as the killer.
Bright’s co-author on a recent memoir, Justin Nobel, said Friday that he was taken aback by news of the arrest.
Bright’s supporters had long urged him to leave New Orleans and the threats it represented, Nobel said.
As Dan Bright tells it, by the time he was old enough to attend high school, he was already taking 30-kilogram shipments of cocaine at his doo…
“His attorneys felt like he would be in danger — from the cops, from his connections to the city,” Nobel said.
Police said they received a 911 call about 2:20 p.m. Wednesday reporting a stabbing. Responding officers found a 44-year-old man lying in a bathtub, with a pool of blood around him.
A blood trail led outside and across the street to a field where cops found a “visible face print” and a pair of gold teeth embedded in the dirt.
As the wounded man was rushed to the hospital, Detective Nicholas Buckel began his investigation. Buckel said a “concerned citizen” on the street at the time of the stabbing said he heard the victim yelling, “No, Poonie, don’t!”
Although the bystander appeared “visibly shaken” and afraid to talk to police, he told Buckel that “Poonie” was Dan Bright, who he said had been hanging around the area for about eight months. The “concerned citizen” also identified a photograph of Bright but refused to sign his true name to the back of the image.
Buckel went to the hospital that night to speak to the victim after his surgery, he said in a warrant application. The man said Bright “likes to run his mouth, and I said, ‘You’re not going to talk to me like this.’ ”
“Poonie” then struck the man in the face with his fist and they moved outside, the man said. After they began to fight in the field, “Poonie” took out a knife and began to stab him over and over, the man said. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the University Medical Center recovery room.
Less than 36 hours after his release from prison, Steve Perkins sat in front of a class of law students, giving them advice.
Like the witness, the man seemed to be “visibly afraid” to identify “Poonie,” the detective said. But he did eventually let the detective record him naming Bright as Poonie, Buckel said.
After Assistant District Attorney Michael Henn detailed the accusations in the warrant, Orleans Public Defenders staff attorney Meghan Garvey argued for a low bail, citing the victim's reluctance to talk.
“The complaining witness admitted that there was a mutual fight,” she said.
She added that Bright, who she said subsists on Social Security disability benefits, is the sole caretaker for his aging parents.
“Mr. Bright has absolutely no history of failing to appear. All of his (prior) charges are very remote. So there's nothing to suggest that he's a danger to the community, and his parents need him at home,” she said.
But Cantrell said he did consider Bright a danger to the other man and the community at large. He set bail at $400,000 over the objections of Garvey, who called the amount "extraordinary" for attempted murder.
At Friday's hearing, Henn made a brief mention of Bright’s murder conviction and the fact that it was eventually overturned.
But Bright’s legal status was once the subject of volumes of court briefs. In January 1995, he was an admitted big-time cocaine dealer in the Florida public housing complex when cops arrested him in connection with an armed robbery and shooting outside a 9th Ward bar.
Police said a man named Murray Barnes had just scooped up $1,000 in winnings from a Super Bowl betting pool when he was robbed and shot.
Barnes’ cousin, who had been drinking during the game, pinned the killing on Bright. There was no forensic evidence tying Bright to the slaying, but the cousin’s word was enough to convict him of first-degree murder.
After Bright’s sentence was reduced to life, his legal team, including the Innocence Project New Orleans, uncovered evidence that the FBI had received a tip that another man was the real killer. The feds had been tracking Bright because of his drug enterprise.
The tip had never been turned over to Bright’s original trial attorney. Meanwhile, jurors didn't learn that because of the cousin's criminal history, drinking would have been a parole violation, so he had an added incentive to cooperate.
Then-Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan dropped all charges against Bright in 2004 after the state Supreme Court vacated his conviction, stating that it had "no confidence in the verdict."
The state ultimately agreed to pay Bright $251,320 in compensation for his years behind bars on the wrongful conviction, according to the National Registry on Exonerations.
Yet the money couldn’t heal the psychological scars of his years behind bars, according to an interview he gave in 2016, when he published a memoir. Bright said he didn’t have enough money left to buy a pack of cigarettes and still struggled to adapt to life on the outside.
"Your emotions die off” in prison, he said. “You don’t know how to laugh, cry, tell jokes, because your whole mission is to stay strong and survive.”
Nobel said Bright still seemed to be searching for his place in New Orleans when they wrote the book. “How do you re-enter the city after Angola?” Nobel asked.