The Innocence Project in New Orleans (IPNO) works to free innocent people who have been wrongfully sentenced to life or multiple decades in prison. They take cases of the “factually innocent,” which means, people who can be exonerated given new strides in DNA technology or the surfacing of other new evidence. What they often find, too, is that a great deal of exculpating evidence was discovered already, and kept silent.
This problem is not unique to Louisiana. A criminal trial is not supposed to be adversarial in the same sense as a civil trial. The government is supposed to be searching for truth, supposed to be punishing wrongdoers and seeking to uphold justice. The jury is supposed to consider, long and hard, before sending a person to spend a portion of their lives (or the rest of their life) in a metal cage. They are supposed to be convinced, beyond a resonable doubt, that this person did what the prosecution, the state, has argued. A criminal trial, for the state, is not necessarily about winning. At least it’s not supposed to be. So you’d think when a clear piece of exculpatory evidence lands in the laps of those accusing the accused, they’d do something, other than conceal it.
Apparently, not always, as IPNO has discovered. While in New Orleans for a BU sponsored alternative spring break, I worked with IPNO on a research project pertaining to this type of misconduct. Past volunteers had compiled a list of some 300+ criminal cases in which attorney misconduct became an issue. Not just any criminal cases either, heinous criminal charges of child rape and murder warranting sentences of life in prison or death. Of these cases, only about three resulted in sanctions, amounting to varying degrees of a slap on the wrist, for the attorneys found in violation of the ethical rules.
Four students from BU, myself included, split into two teams to take to the Bayou in our rental cars combing the courthouses of southern Louisiana for information regarding these 300 cases of alleged misconduct. IPNO seeks to induce policy changes regarding attorney misconduct with the help of this empirical data.
My partner and I trekked across highways raised 20 feet above the swamps, putting our flashbacks of Deliverance aside, to visit the courthouses in Houma, Thibodeaux, Alexandria, Opelousas, St. Martinville, New Iberia, Franklin, and Lake Charles, Louisiana. We spent over 23 hours in the car covering roughly 1,185 miles of highway over the course of four days. (That’s not counting traffic or getting lost time and miles!) My partner and I recovered data from 31 cases, a very successful week from IPNO’s point of view.
Just two years ago, as a 1L, I went on the same spring break trip to New Orleans. I had a very different experience, working alongside attorneys with the Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI) fighting to keep displaced residents from being evicted out of their formaldehyde laced FEMA trailers. And while this year’s trip, nearly five years after Katrina, did not focus exclusively on Katrina-related relief, it was amazing to see how the city, and it’s problems, have changed. There are more people, more children on bicycles, more color and more life. But, there are still empty lots, water marks, abandoned homes and hospitals and redevelopment disparity along racial lines. IPNO and LJI are two among many understaffed, underfunded organizations working to make New Orleans whole again and remedy a long list of problems. IPNO’s work highlights the issues that existed long before the storm that play a role in further complicating the restoration process.