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Innocence Project New Orleans partners with JusticeText to litigate wrongful conviction cases

Innocence Project New Orleans

About Innocence Project New Orleans

JusticeText’s newest partner, the Innocence Project New Orleans (”IPNO”), frees innocent people sentenced to life in prison and those serving unjust sentences across Louisiana and Mississippi, supporting their clients to live well and fully in the world after their release. They also work to expose and address the root causes of mass incarceration - systemic racism and inequity - by sharing their clients’ stories in court, the legislature, the community and the media.

Wrongful convictions, unjust sentences

Posted January 30, 2023

We are proud to announce our latest partnership with IPNO, whose 20-person staff fights wrongful convictions in Louisiana, a state with one of the highest per-capita incarceration rates. Their home base in New Orleans earned a reputation as the “wrongful conviction capital of the U.S.” Recently in New Orleans, officer misconduct led to three men being imprisoned for decades before finally having their convictions vacated.

Richard Davis, Legal Director of IPNO, shared his frustration that inequitable policies and practices continue to impact residents of New Orleans. He lamented that cases are often treated as either an individual feel-good story, because of the release, or an individual tragedy, because of decades of wrongful imprisonment, rather than looking directly at the systemic failures that allowed this to happen in the first place.

"We’ll find a corrupt prosecutor in one case, but no one goes back and checks for other cases he prosecuted. We’ll find a particular type of evidence that isn’t disclosed but no one will do the work to find the other cases like that."

Inequities in the justice system not only impact who is imprisoned, but also the length of individual sentences. Tana Ganeva in The Appeal investigated how one set of tough-on-crime era policies, known as “habitual offender” laws, can lead to excessive sentences. However, thanks to a July 2020 ruling in state Supreme Court, individuals in Louisiana can now challenge sentences post-conviction for ineffective counsel.

IPNO has since used that precedent to free individuals from egregious sentences, including a Louisiana father named Fate Winslow who earned a life sentence for selling $20 of cannabis to an undercover officer. Thanks to the dedicated support of IPNO, in December 2020, Fate Winslow’s sentence was reduced to time served after 12 years in prison.

By sharing stories like Fate’s, IPNO hopes to bring enough awareness to address the underlying systemic injustices in a nation with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and one which does not penalize all its citizens equally. The Urban Institute observed in real-time in the 1990s, that decades of tough-on-crime policies disproportionately impacted young Black men, who were incarcerated at 7-10x the rate of their white male peers. This racial disparity continues today as Black citizens are still incarcerated at 5x the rate of white citizens (Sentencing Project).

Richard shared that this inequity holds true in his work - of the 43 exonerees that IPNO has freed or exonerated, 41 are Black, 1 is Latino, and 1 is White

"At its root, the criminal legal system is a system which victimizes Black people."

Long efforts with unique evidence

The bar is high to overturn wrongful convictions or reduce unjust sentences. At the Innocence Project New Orleans, individual cases last 5-6 years on average. While some of this time is spent gathering evidence and building the case, Richard shared that cases are often extended by technical barriers, in some instances lasting as long as 13 years.

"It has nothing to do with whether a person is guilty or innocent or what rights were violated. It’s about the different procedural rules that have been put in place to keep people out of court and stop that case from coming back."

Working diligently to overcome those procedural hurdles is a dedicated team of attorneys, investigators, social workers, and case managers. The case team pores through evidence like witness statements and court proceedings that are anywhere from 10 to 40 years old and live in cassette tapes, on VCR tapes, and in other unique formats. In one case, the team had to track down the court proceedings recorded with an Edison ediphone onto a vinyl record. Interns at IPNO had to manually go through those records to identify any potentially critical evidence for their case.

Many of these recordings have never been transcribed and the nuances can be critical to identifying issues with the prior conviction. For example, a case have many jail recordings with snippets that have been taken out of context and reveal a more complete story when read a different way.

Richard and team are partnering with JusticeText to make it easier to pull out those critical moments from historical evidence. By digitizing analog recordings and uploading them to the JusticeText platform, Richard and team are able to more effectively pinpoint the critical moments in a wide variety of evidence and get to the authentic truth missed in the original conviction.

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“I think it’s going to make it a lot faster to deal with these recordings. Today, we have to manually create our transcripts or sometimes use a very low quality transcript from the past that just has “inaudible” written all over it. With a JusticeText transcript, we are able to navigate to particular points and drill down. We’re just generally excited about the searchability across all this volume of evidence."

Richard Davis headshot

Richard Davis

Legal Director, Innocence Project New Orleans

Is JusticeText Right For You?

If you are an attorney looking to make sense of high volumes of audiovisual discovery, there are many ways in which you can utilize JusticeText to streamline your pre-trial preparation process. Reach out today to learn about how you can get started with JusticeText.