Errors, negligence and deliberate misconduct by prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers are the most pervasive cause of wrongful convictions in Louisiana. Bad lawyering caused, at least in part, 77% of the convictions of Louisiana and Mississippi exonerees.
Many of IPNO’s clients were represented either by incompetent and unprofessional lawyers or by overworked and under-resourced public defenders. In many cases, the lawyers represented a client at trial without investigating the State’s case or preparing a defense. Often defense lawyers have failed in the most basic of investigation tasks—interviewing alibi witnesses. The behavior of some has verged on criminally reckless, such as the public defender who arrived in court drunk in 1995 to represent Dan Bright, a man who was facing the death penalty for first degree murder. Unsurprisingly, his drunk lawyer failed to save his client from the death penalty in spite of the fact that Dan was completely innocent. Dan was exonerated in 2004 after spending nine years in prison (including four on death row).
Real life stories such as Dan’s serve as a reminder that well-funded and properly-trained defense lawyers are one of the best protections against wrongful convictions.
On the other side, prosecutors also cause wrongful convictions by a variety of misconduct. They too often—either deliberately or inadvertently—withhold key evidence from the defense, they pursue charges in cases where evidence is flimsy or objective evidence suggests the defendant is not guilty and they inject inadmissible and irrelevant evidence into trials. Blatant and deliberate prosecutorial misconduct nearly killed John Thompson. John sat on Louisiana’s death row for 14 years before investigators found microfilm containing the results of blood type tests that excluded him as being the perpetrator of one of the two crimes he was convicted of. John had been convicted of armed robbery before his murder conviction and prosecutors successfully used that conviction against him at the penalty phase of his capital murder trial to get a death sentence. The blood typing excluded John as the perpetrator of the armed robbery and so, when the reports were discovered (a few weeks from John’s scheduled execution), that conviction was vacated, the armed robbery case dismissed and his death sentence reduced to a life sentence. Prosecutors had hidden that evidence since before his trial. They had also hidden police reports on the murder case that contained eyewitness accounts describing a perpetrator who physically could not have been John Thompson, as well as information regarding financial rewards that the main witness expected to get for testifying against John. His murder conviction was later reversed and, at a new trial in 2003, a jury heard all the evidence that prosecutors had hidden at the first trial and took only 35 minutes to acquit him.
The following Louisiana and Mississippi exonerees were convicted, at least in part, by bad lawyering:
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