Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2021, $300,000)
This grant seeks $300,000 over two years to implement the Orleans Parish Conviction Accuracy and Integrity Project: Orleans Parish Justice Project between the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s (OPDA) office and Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) to root out and undo wrongful convictions in Orleans Parish. Organizations such as IPNO have generally needed to litigate to get records or testing that could help prove a person’s innocence and then litigate for years for the ability to present exculpatory evidence to a court. But all that changed in January 2021, when a new district attorney, Jason Williams, was sworn in. Williams was elected on a platform that included promising to completely change the office’s approach to handling claims of past injustice and wrongful conviction. His first public appointment was to hire the former director of IPNO to build and run a Civil Rights Division (CRD) and to undo past (and prevent future) harms caused by the State, and to build a culture of integrity within the office. This joint effort will review the product of traditional New Orleans Police Department investigations and OPDA prosecutions. While some cases will involve re-analysis or comparison of forensic evidence, the majority of convictions we review will involve ascertaining the veracity or reliability of traditional evidence. The partnership will work as follows: for applicants that IPNO has identified as potential wrongful conviction cases, they will request the necessary waivers from the applicants so that OPDA/CRD can consult with IPNO, share information, perform mutual file review, and perform joint investigation and interviews where possible. Where applicants or referrals lie only with OPDA/CRD, we will conduct an initial investigation and, if a case is determined to be potentially meritorious, will refer the incarcerated individual to IPNO for potential representation during the review process. The project staff at each office will do the bulk of the work on identifying, reviewing and investigating cases but will be supported by existing investigators, supervisors, and administrative/executive staff. OPDA’s Victim/Witness Division will provide support on victim and witness outreach efforts. This will be the first time a truly collaborative effort is undertaken by the two offices. With the new DA’s demonstrated commitment to addressing past wrongful convictions, our offices have the opportunity be a national model for a robust collaboration to address injustices. This two-year grant will fund an attorney at OPDA and an attorney at IPNO, along with project related expenses.