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Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: mperlstein@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mikeperlstein

NEW ORLEANS -- Innocence Project New Orleans has freed more than two dozen wrongfully convicted inmates since 2001, often by exposing blatant prosecutorial misconduct.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney's office has a long history of fighting innocence claims tooth-and-nail, frequently leading to lengthy and costly appeals.

Now these traditional courtroom adversaries are entering into a first-in-the nation partnership to identify innocent people in prison and reverse their wrongful convictions.

The two offices sat side-by-side Thursday to announce they are teaming up to form a 'Conviction Integrity Unit,' the first such joint venture in the country.

'Normally, we would be on opposite sides of the courtroom, advocating for our positions. But hopefully, as a result of this project, we are going to be brought together,' District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said at the joint press conference.

Many other district attorneys have formed in-house teams to review questionable convictions. But Cannizzaro said this is the first time a prosecutor has proposed a formal partnership with defense attorneys who specialize in wrongful conviction appeals.

Cannizzaro said the proposal is a win-win for this office. He said the venture will save taxpayer money and resources spent on appeals, as well as boost public confidence in the criminal justice system. And while it is designed to free innocent convicts, he said the program also could also help solve newly opened cold cases by finding the real criminals in cases that unravel with exoneration.

Emily Maw, director of IPNO, gave credit to Cannizzaro for suggesting the partnership, calling him 'courageous.'

'This will, as I said previously, not only save time and resources but it will correct injustices much quicker. And to an innocent person in prison, every day is a lifetime,' Maw said.

The next step is to finding funding for the project, estimated at $650,000 for a staff of eight people: two investigators and two attorneys from each side.

Councilman Jason Williams said he will try to find the money during the upcoming city budget hearings.

'I'm going to do everything I can to make sure this project is fully funded and can address as many needs as it can in this pilot program,' Williams said.

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