The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 42-year inmate’s choice: Exoneration fight or ‘deal with the devil’ for freedom

Elvis Brooks stays close to home in Alexandria, La., where he moved after more than four decades of incarceration for what he and his lawyers say was a wrongful conviction. (William Widmer/for The Washington Post)
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ALEXANDRIA, La. — An emergency broadcast alert blares from Elvis Brooks’s cellphone, warning him that a tornado has been spotted in the area. “Seek shelter now,” the electronic voice urges.

Brooks shrugs off the threat, though his small, narrow house, a rental on Alexandria’s west side, seems no match for dangerous weather. The thing is, he’s been through much worse.

In October, he left the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after serving 42 years of a life sentence for murder. He’d maintained his innocence from the start, and his departure should have been a joyous moment. Lawyers working on his case had discovered fingerprint evidence previously concealed by prosecutors that pointed to a wrongful conviction.

Yet Brooks, now 62, didn’t walk out of Angola an innocent man. To secure his freedom, he had to “make a deal with the devil.” Rather than languish even longer as he tried to clear his name, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, forfeiting his right to sue, in exchange for immediate release.

“I cried at night in Angola,” confesses Brooks, sitting on his couch next to a pillow with “Blessed” stitched on its front. “I ain’t never thought I was going to get out. So I took the deal. It ain’t right, but that’s the way of the world. It’s a crooked world like that.”

Across the country, the number of exonerations has risen sharply since 2000, especially for homicide cases. The increase is partly attributed to a shift in attitude among some local prosecutors, who have created specialized divisions to review questionable convictions. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner freed 12 wrongfully imprisoned people in his first two years in office. In Baltimore, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the state’s attorney’s office pursued a decades-old case that last November resulted in the exoneration of three men. Each was a teenager when he went to prison.

Other prosecutors still push back, however, even when evidence overwhelmingly supports exoneration. According to Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at Hofstra University, money is the most common reason. Wrongful convictions, especially those involving prosecutorial misconduct, often lead to multimillion-dollar lawsuits. If a prosecutor can persuade the incarcerated person to plead guilty in exchange for freedom, the risk of a costly settlement goes away.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro made the offer to Brooks just before a court hearing on whether his conviction should be set aside. Brooks agonized over what to do.

If he pleaded to manslaughter and three counts of armed robbery — admitting to something he denied as vehemently as ever — the district attorney’s office would not be held accountable and he could not seek any compensation for his 42 years behind bars. If he rejected the offer, the consequences were implicit: Prosecutors would fight him at every turn.

Cannizzaro declined an interview request, saying in a statement that Brooks’s case had been reexamined and his guilt confirmed. He defended his prosecutors, called the conviction “properly attained” and explained that Brooks was released only because he appeared to be “rehabilitated and will not go out to re-offend.”

“If he and his attorneys truly believed in his innocence, they could have pursued post-conviction claims,” the prosecutor added. “Notably, they did not.”

His office has secured five such plea deals in the past eight years. He has issued similar statements after each.

***

Brooks hobbles to a closet in his house, relying on a leg brace and cane to steady himself. He drags out a box with dozens of belts he made in Angola. Working on them — crouched over a sewing machine, moving needle through hard leather — was the only time he felt truly at peace in the maximum-security facility. It allowed him to forget all that he’d missed while incarcerated: his son’s childhood, his grandchildren’s births, his parents’ deaths and so much more.

He has struggled to find such moments of peace since his release. His neighborhood in Alexandria, an economically depressed city more than 200 miles northwest of New Orleans, is littered with “dope houses,” he says. About a month after he moved in, a man was shot to death at a nearby intersection.

What scares him, he admits, is the chance that he could get caught in any of the “nonsense,” again be wrongfully accused and be sent back to prison. So he stays to himself and rarely leaves the house. The blinds remain drawn, the wood-paneled walls bare. The rooms are sparsely furnished. This place is all he can afford. Were it not for his guilty plea, he would have been entitled to compensation the state provides anyone who has been wrongly imprisoned — $250,000 in his case, plus up to $80,000 for “loss of life opportunities.”

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a firefighter or a truck driver,” Brooks says. “And when I made enough money, I wanted to buy my whole family a house. That was my vision as a little kid. But things didn’t work out.”

Just before closing time on July 1, 1977, two people robbed the Welcome Inn bar in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, shooting and killing a customer. Nearly three weeks later, police arrested Brooks. He lived nearby in a shotgun house with his parents and six of his 11 siblings. He was a 19-year-old high school dropout who sometimes stole cars for joyriding. “But we didn’t go around trying to hurt anyone,” he insists.

No physical evidence tied Brooks to the crime, and a dozen people testified that he was at a family party at the time of the shooting. The state’s entire case, the Innocence Project New Orleans argued last year, relied on three white witnesses from the dimly lit bar who gave conflicting descriptions of the robbers.

The trial lasted a single day. The jury found Brooks guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life, a relief of sorts given that he’d faced the death penalty. Yet jurors were never told that fingerprints taken from the robbers’ beer cans didn’t match Brooks’s fingerprints. Or that police believed the same men had robbed several people less than an hour earlier, with each victim ruling Brooks out as a suspect.

Prosecutors never shared the exculpatory evidence with the defense, as required by a 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland. Over the years, the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office has been accused of repeated Brady violations and sued multiple times. One case ended in a $14 million judgment, though the Supreme Court later overturned the sum in a 5-to-4 decision. Another involved a man wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer’s wife. The courts awarded Reginald Adams $1.25 million after it was revealed that police and prosecutors falsified testimony, coerced a confession and suppressed evidence.

Three new cases have been filed since 2018, and Brooks represented a potential fourth.

But the week before a hearing on his request that his conviction be vacated, Charell Arnold of the Innocence Project New Orleans received a call. Cannizzaro’s office said it had “very exciting news” and detailed the plea deal. The attorney drove to Angola the next day.

She believed they would ultimately prevail, Arnold told Brooks, but it would take time. The last person who rejected a similar offer spent an additional five-plus years behind bars before he won his release. In the stale room where they were meeting, sitting at a small folding table, Brooks suddenly shut down. Arnold remembers him putting his head on the table, his hand over a tattered Manila envelope. It contained all the legal documents he had amassed during the years of trying to prove his innocence.

Cannizzaro’s office later characterized the deal as an act of “mercy.” Arnold was enraged.

“There is nothing merciful about asking someone to plead guilty to a crime the evidence clearly shows they didn’t commit,” she shot back. “It’s coercive, and to call it anything else is laughable.”

***

No group keeps a national tally of the plea deals that have thwarted wrongful-conviction cases, but Philadelphia’s district attorney says they are not uncommon. Krasner has no use for them, describing them as “unethical and immoral, if not despicable” and symptomatic of some prosecutors’ lack of accountability.

“They do not do what they were sworn to do, which is seek justice all the time,” he said recently.

Still, the legal code of ethics gives prosecutors wide latitude in such cases, notes Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel with the New York-based Innocence Project. Their actions can have devastating ramifications.

Chris Conover served 18 years for a double murder before being exonerated through DNA evidence and released from prison. When Baltimore County prosecutors sought to retry him, he agreed to plead guilty to armed robbery, saying he didn’t want to put his family through another trial.

In 2015, after battling depression and financial troubles that Morrison is convinced were brought on by that plea, Conover committed suicide.

“It’s a crass financial calculation on the part of district attorneys,” she said. “They don’t want to get sued or pay a judgment, so they are going to leverage their power to prevent any future lawsuits. It’s the proverbial offer you can’t refuse.”

Despite Orleans Parish’s prosecutorial history, which a federal appellate court once labeled “storied, shameful,” the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board has sanctioned only one prosecutor for failing to disclose evidence. He received a three-month deferred suspension; the teenager exonerated in the case had spent three years on death row.

Several dozen district attorney’s offices across the country now have conviction integrity units to root out convictions tainted by misconduct. They have accounted for 390 exonerations to date. New Orleans’s unit lasted only a year.

One of the few cases it considered was that of Donald Degruy, who was serving 66 years for armed robbery. Yet even after another man confessed to the crime in 2012, providing evidence of his own guilt, Cannizzaro didn’t reopen the investigation or file a motion to vacate the conviction. Instead, he offered a plea deal.

Degruy, like Brooks, said yes. And more than three years later, he is struggling with his decision. He has a wife and young daughter in Lafayette, but he can’t support them because he can’t find a job. The only thing potential employers see is his guilty plea, he said. He has tried, futilely, to explain what happened to him.

“People don’t want to hear that. They say, ‘If you were innocent, why did you plead guilty?’ It’s like it’s not over. I’m still sentenced,” Degruy said.

Brooks is fortunate in one respect. He moved to Alexandria in part because he could work as a dishwasher at the seafood restaurant a brother co-owns. He remains angry over the choice he was forced to make last fall but is trying to push that out of his mind. He needs to make the most of the time he has left. He wants to reconnect with his eight surviving siblings, who are spread out across the South. He hopes to find a woman with whom to share life and love.

He remains leery of the world to which he has returned. The technology is “too fast,” he says, the teenagers “too crazy.” The thought of taking a driver’s test unnerves him.

But the hardest part is over. He survived 42 years in Angola for a crime he didn’t commit, Brooks says. Now that he’s one of the “free people,” as inmates call anyone on the outside, there’s only one thing he needs to focus on. “Just living.”

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