What is IPNO?

Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) is a nonprofit law office that represents innocent prisoners serving life sentences in Louisiana and Mississippi, and assists them with their transition into the free world upon their release. IPNO uses its cases to explain how wrongful convictions happen and what we can all do to prevent them. IPNO works with legislators, judges, lawyers, law enforcement and policymakers to protect the innocent within the criminal justice system.

IPNO takes the hardest cases—cases that others are not equipped to. We devote the majority of our time and resources to freeing poor people who will otherwise die in prison for crimes they did not commit.

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How did IPNO get started?

IPNO was founded in 2001 through a two year fellowship awarded to Emily Bolton by the National Association of Public Interest Law (now Equal Justice Works). From that initial $72,000 investment IPNO has grown to be the second largest free-standing (not a law school clinic) innocence project in the country.

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How do you know your clients are actually innocent?

IPNO handles two kinds of cases: first, cases where a DNA test can prove a prisoner’s innocence or confirm their guilt. In those cases, IPNO does not know if the person is guilty or innocent until DNA tests prove it. IPNO merely seeks testing that could resolve the question of whether the person has been wrongly convicted. It is IPNO’s position that, in as many cases as possible in which people have been convicted and DNA testing was not done or could not have been done before the trial, DNA testing should be done now. The second category of cases that IPNO takes are cases where there is no evidence that could be DNA tested and so more investigation is needed to determine whether or not the prisoner seeking help might be innocent. In these cases, IPNO performs extensive and thorough investigations into the case, often spending many years, before determining whether there is sufficient new evidence of innocence that the jury did not hear that the case should be taken back to court. If, during this process, we ever encounter any additional convincing evidence of guilt, we reject the case.

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How do you decide which cases to take?

IPNO only takes cases either in which a DNA test will prove guilt or innocence or in which we believe we can prove innocence through more traditional evidence and have a good chance of winning the case in court. All requests for help are screened and categorized and cases which appear to have merit are subjected to rigorous additional screening and investigation. Before IPNO goes to court on anyone’s behalf, the case must be approved by an independent panel of lawyers, called the Case Review Panel. They determine whether the case meets our criteria and whether the case is a good use of IPNO’s resources.  

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Is IPNO affiliated with a law school or legal clinic?

No. IPNO is one of the largest free-standing innocence projects in the country, meaning it is not financially supported by, or located within, a law school. We do, however, work closely with interns from local law schools as well as schools around the country.

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How is IPNO funded?

IPNO is primarily funded by private foundations (including the Bar Foundations in both states in which it operates). IPNO also receives funding from the Department of Justice National Institute of Justice, the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Louisiana Public Defender Board and individual donations. IPNO also receives funds from special events and affiliate programs (found here).

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What are some of the causes of wrongful conviction?

We have found that the leading causes of wrongful convictions in Louisiana and Mississippi are similar to the causes nationally: they are are bad lawyering, inaccurate eyewitness identifications, deliberately false witness testimony, false confessions, faulty forensic science and informant/snitch testimony. For more information on the causes of wrongful conviction, click here.

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What is the relationship between IPNO and other organizations doing similar work?

IPNO is a private nonprofit organization dependent on individual donations to IPNO specifically. IPNO is a founding member (along with several longtime partners including the New York based Innocence Project) of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of independent organizations working to overturn wrongful convictions and improve the criminal justice system.

We are all independent organizations and while we share information to help better our work and fix our broken system, we do not share funding.

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How can I get IPNO to consider my loved-one’s case?

IPNO receives thousands of case review requests every year but, due to our limited resources, we are only able to take a few. In order to see if your loved-one's case meets IPNO’s criteria, click here. If the case meets all of IPNO’s criteria, please follow the instructions here.

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How do you prove someone is innocent?

Some cases move quicker than others. In a simple case, it can take as little as a year between IPNO beginning investigation on the case and the prisoner’s exoneration. However, most cases take many, many years—even those that can be resolved by a simple DNA test. Simply getting enough information to file a case in court can take more than five years.

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How much does a DNA test cost?

The cost is over $1,000 for a single DNA test and many of our cases involve multiple rounds of testing on several different items of evidence. When IPNO pays for testing at private labs, the average total cost of testing in cases is $8,500. When testing is done by government labs, as it is in some of our cases, there is generally no cost to us.

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What happens to someone after they are exonerated and released?

In Louisiana and Mississippi, recently-passed laws allow a limited amount of compensation for someone who has proven their innocence and been released from prison as a result. In Louisiana the cap is $250,000 no matter how many years you spent in prison. In Mississippi, it is $500,0000. In both states, it generally takes at least a year—often many years— after being exonerated to successfully file for and receive compensation. In the meantime, exonerees have to find a way to get around, find work and a place to live, get medical attention and generally adapt to life outside prison. It is a struggle for most exonerees who find they are in need of signficantly more professional and financial resources than they currently receive. In an attempt to address this gap in the provision of services and assistance, since 2007, IPNO has proudly supported and partnered with Resurrection After Exoneration  (RAE), the first exoneree-run holistic re-entry program for exonerated prisoners in the country. RAE is a nonprofit run by exoneree, John Thompson, that provides housing, job training, financial planning skills, computer skills, discounted medical care, counseling, mentoring and other services to exonerees.  

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Can someone sue for being wrongly convicted?

It is a common myth that prisoners who are exonerated can sue the state for millions of dollars. The vast majority of exonerated prisoners will never be able to sue anyone for what happened to them because of laws shielding prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system, from lawsuits. The majority of exonerees are therefore dependent on whatever compensation the state provides.

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How many innocent people are there in prison?

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 2% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 40,000 innocent people are in prison in the United States in 2011).

Louisiana has a prison population of more than 39,000. If just 2% of Louisiana’s prisoners are innocent that would mean 780 people are wrongfully incarcerated. Mississippi has a current prison population of over 21,000. At 2% that would mean 420 people are in Mississippi prisons for crimes they did not commit.

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Does IPNO take death penalty cases?   

IPNO does not take death penalty cases because a death sentenced inmate has a right to counsel during post conviction appeals. A post conviction appeal is the part of the process where new evidence of innocence that the jury did not hear can be considered and is the stage in the process which IPNO most often uses to prove innocence. It is also the stage of an appeal where all prisoners, except those sentenced to death, lose their right to a state-appointed lawyer. Therefore prisoners sentenced to anything less than death in Louisiana and Mississsippi have no right to a state-funded lawyer at exactly the point where they could prove their innocence. It is for this reason that IPNO restricts itself to non-capital cases.

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How can I help IPNO?

IPNO relies heavily on the contributions of donors and volunteers, including pro bono legal counsel and interns.

  • Click here if you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation to IPNO.
  • If you are a lawyer and you or your law firm is interested in volunteering as pro-bono co-counsel, contact Emily Maw at emilym@ip-no.org.
  • If you are an undergraduate or law student interested in working with IPNO as an intern, click here for position descriptions and application instructions.
  • We get numerous offers from people to volunteer, but unfortunately due to the size of our office and the nature of our work we have a very limited capacity to take advantage of many of these offers. If you feel you bring a particularly useful skill to IPNO, e-mail Jene' O'Keefe Trigg at jeneot@ip-no.org.

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