NEW ORLEANS — Booked with attempted second-degree murder in a knife attack that almost took a man's life Wednesday, Dan Bright was brought to magistrate court Friday morning with a variety of other suspects Friday.
But Bright’s case was clearly different, sparking shock and dismay as word of his arrest spread, representing a tragedy stretching back decades.
Police arrested Bright after issuing an arrest warrant that accuses him of stabbing a man multiple times during a fight Wednesday afternoon outside of a home in the Lower Ninth Ward. The warrant details how a trail of blood led police the victim lying near-dead in a bathtub in the 1200 block of Delery Street.
The victim “had to be placed on life saving measures” after suffering a number of knife wounds and was “listed in critical condition prior and during the surgery due to the laceration of his left arm, which had struck a major vein,” Detective Nicholas Buckel wrote.
Bright, 50, is a former death row inmate who was released from prison in 2004 after a high-profile exoneration. The case against him unraveled when his legal team obtained an FBI memo that identified another man as the killer, information that was withheld during his trial.
Bright’s appeal was handled by Innocence Project New Orleans, a group that has successfully helped gain exonerations of 33 people since 2001. After Bright’s release following nearly nine years on death row, he was celebrated as a success story.
The foreperson of the jury that convicted Bright and sentenced him to die, Kathleen Hawk Norman, became one of his biggest supporters, and later, a close friend. She became an activist with IPNO, serving a period as chair of its board of directors, before she died suddenly in 2009.
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Bright wrote a candid book about his experiences entitled “The Story of Dan Bright: Crime, Corruption, and Injustice in the Crescent City.” The book included confessions of Bright’s time as a big-time cocaine dealer prior to his wrongful conviction.
But within a few years, Bright was struggling.
In a 2012 interview with Lisa Ling for the Oprah Network, Bright opened up about his difficulties adjusting to freedom. He said he was broke and unemployed, shunned for jobs despite the reversal of his murder conviction.
“Every day is hard for me. It's hard fitting back into society,” Bright said. “Who wants to hire a guy who's been on death row? What wants to take that chance?"
Bright imagined people wondering, “Is he going to snap? He's been on death row. I'm 40-something years old, I don't own nothing.”
Norris Henderson, who spent 27 years at Angola state penitentiary, is an activist for the formerly incarcerated. He said that adjustment to life after prison can be grueling, even after an exoneration.
“I think there's one thing that people don't realize is how traumatic being in prison is,” said Henderson, the founder and director of the organization Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE.
Henderson said there is often a warm homecoming for exonerees, as well as media attention. But the spotlight is quickly replaced by the hardships of reintegrating into society.
“When that real celebrity around you fades away, if there's nothing in place to help you stabilize, this is what you see,” Henderson said. “It's tragic. It's really really sad to hear what has happened to him. And I hope it's a wake-up call for those who are kind of like on the fence about whether here I go, here I stay as opposed to seeking help.”
Jerome Morgan served 20 years for a murder he didn't commit before he was freed three years ago. Still facing challenges, he formed an organization called the “Free-Dem Foundation” to help people like himself and the Dan Brights of the world.
Morgan said even in the cases where the state compensates an exoneree for time spent behind bars, there is almost no help for the psychological trauma of being locked up.
“Those people struggle” Morgan said. “Some of the friends I have now have gotten out before me and after me, but they need help. There should be more organizations to provide that.”
At Bright’s court appearance, an attorney with the public defender’s office, Meghan Garvey, said he is unemployed and his sole income comes from social security disability payments. He spends his time taking care of his elderly parents, Garvey said.
Despite Garvey’s request for a modest bail, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set Bright's set the amount at $400,000.