This week in innocence

Meet Nathan Brown, freed after 17 years of imprisonment in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.

Jefferson Parish District Court Judge Ray Steib vacated Brown’s 1997 conviction and his 25-year sentence after attorneys from The Innocence Project presented DNA evidence that exonerated him.

“It’s really a relief mentally, physically, to be free from serving time for a crime that you did not commit,” Brown said Wednesday afternoon as he held his 1-year-old grandson, Kenard Southern, for the first time.  “It was hard. It wasn’t no easy task being in prison for 17 years for something you had no knowledge of.” . . .

“What happened to Nate Brown is absolutely horrific,” said Vanessa Potkin, senior attorney for The Innocence Project of New York. One moment, Brown was playing with his two young daughters. The next, authorities asked him to step outside in relation to a disturbance and, “he never came home for the next 17 years.” . . .

Brown was convicted of assaulting a woman in the courtyard of a Metairie apartment complex on Apollo Street on Aug. 7, 1997, based on an identification made by the victim. The woman fought off her shirtless attacker, but not before he bit her near her right shoulder and ripped her green dress, said Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project.

A security guard directed Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators to Brown’s apartment within the complex where the attack occurred. Brown said on Wednesday that he and the guard didn’t see eye-to-eye because he occasionally broke complex rules, including swimming after hours. Brown’s was also one a handful of African-American families in the complex, Scheck said.

Deputies knocked on Brown’s door and had him participate in what Scheck called a one-on-one show-up, an “inherently suggestive” identification procedure where a potential suspect is shown to the victim shortly after a crime is committed.

The woman told deputies Brown was her attacker. She testified as much during the trial, three months later.

Brown also didn’t meet his attorney until three days before his trial. Upon his release, Brown was also incredibly gracious to the woman who misidentified him.

“She was attacked. It was a terrible thing that happened to her . . . She was a victim, and I harbor no hard feelings to her.  I wish her well. I wish she could find comfort in knowing that the guy that really committed this crime will be brought to justice.”

Brown will now file for compensation under Louisiana’s Innocence Compensation Fund. But it isn’t a given that he’ll be paid. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for the wrongly convicted to be compensated for the years the state took from them. 

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | July 1