NEW ORLEANS - A local man has been released after serving 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
Nathan Brown was convicted of an attempted rape outside his Metairie apartment building in 1997, but recent DNA testing of the victim's dress exonerated him.
“Just glad to be free, I just thank God for it, and I just want to move on with my life," said Brown.
Brown’s lawyers say his case is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Innocence Project New Orleans is working with dozens of other Louisiana inmates who say they were wrongfully convicted. Thousands more are waiting for help.
The Innocence Project is a non-profit, pro-bono law office aimed at freeing innocent prisoners like Brown. Since it began in New York in 1992, local, independent offices have popped up all over the country, including one in New Orleans. It works closely with the original office in New York.
The New Orleans program gets calls and letters into its offices in Mid-City every day. And for every man it has freed, there are hundreds more waiting for the same services
In fact, the local office has 4,000 applications for help on file right now. It estimates about 10 percent of those warrant further investigation.
But the office doesn’t have the resources to match that need.
“To say there is a waiting list would be an understatement,” said staff attorney Kristin Wenstrom.
New Orleans has one of the busiest, and most successful, programs in the country, said Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck
“We come to Louisiana because that's where the innocent people are locked up,” said Barry Scheck.
Since it was established in 2001, the Innocence Project New Orleans has helped free or exonerate 19 people in Louisiana, plus five in Mississippi. The vast majority were convicted in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes.
“I think it shows that we over incarcerate,” said Wenstrom.
“You have a lot of problems here in the state of Louisiana, adequately funding defense lawyers,” said Scheck.
And freeing an innocent prisoner is a massive undertaking, often taking years to investigate. And what investigators have found is that innocent men like James could have been free from the outset with reforms to the criminal justice system.
More than 70 percent of post-conviction DNA exonerations nationwide involved an eyewitness wrongfully identifying an alleged perpetrator, said Scheck. Law enforcement can use scientifically proven best practices for eyewitness identification to cut down on wrongful convictions, he added.
False confessions are another issue, which can be remedied by video taping confessions and adequate officer training, said Scheck.
“Improving the police practices so we get it right from the very beginning, so that we're arresting the right person and we aren't rushing to arrest someone,” added Wenstrom.
A fair prosecutors office that reviews the work of police departments, and adequate funding for DNA testing and investigations, are also essential.
The Innocence Project New Orleans is currently working on more than 30 Louisiana cases.
The program is funded by grants and donations.
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