Aiding the Innocent


Few circumstances in life could be more horrifying than to be imprisoned for a crime one did not commit. But no system is perfect, and it is simply a fact that there are people serving long jail sentences despite their innocence.
Overturning a wrongful conviction is incredibly difficult, for reasons ranging from the challenges of finding exonerating evidence to opposition from stakeholders within the system and, frequently and understandably, crime victims and family members. Persevering in this daunting but incredibly important task is the Innocence Project of New Orleans (IPNO).

Founded in 2001, IPNO is a part of the national Innocence Project network but is totally separate in terms of its structure, funding and mandate. Part of that is that IPNO does not take on death penalty cases, which exist in a separate process in Louisiana.

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“We take cases of people who are typically sentenced to life or near-life in prison,” explained Cat Forrester, IPNO’s Director of Operations and Communications. “They must have at least ten years left on their sentence, and they cannot be serving additional time on an unrelated case.”

In addition, clients must be unable to afford their own attorney. They must have had their conviction challenge denied on direct appeal. They must have been convicted in Louisiana. When IPNO receives information about a potential client that meets these criteria, the organization conducts an initial investigation, the results of which must lead to the most important factor of all: clear evidence that the individual is factually innocent of the crime.

“Typically this would be new evidence, such as documents or other information that the police or district attorney did not turn over at the time of the trial,” Forrester elaborated. “We also take cases where new DNA evidence can solve the case.”

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Underlying all of this is possibly the biggest problem in the criminal justice system: witness misidentification. Recent national data discovered that 63% of wrongful convictions were based on witness testimony that later proved to be inaccurate.

The ultimate prize is to have the client completely exonerated, but sometimes there are intermediate or alternate outcomes. One example would be a situation where the DA feels that s/he can obtain a conviction on a lesser charge, though not the original, more serious accusation.

“Sometimes the DA will offer this as a first step,” said Forrester. “At this point, it is up to the client. Pleading guilty to the lesser crime will result in a reduced sentence and therefore free the client. But they will still have a conviction on their record.”

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While this leaves people with ongoing problems, those obstacles are being reduced. Louisiana now gives convicted felons who have completed their sentence the right to vote, and New Orleans now restricts many employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history.

While IPNO’s objective, as Forrester put it, “is to get people out of jail,” she added that “One of the most important parts of our work is that we don’t just free people and leave them at the bus stop. We provide them with a support team headed by a licensed clinical social worker. They get mental and physical health services. We help secure housing and job opportunities. We even get them a cell phone and pay for it for the first year.”
All of this helps released individuals overcome the substantial challenges of re-entering a society from which they have been absent for many years, sometimes decades. Societal changes are dramatic and increasing in pace, and this bridge support is vital to ensuring a successful transition.

Advocacy is another part of IPNO’s work. “We don’t want to be just a band-aid on the system, we want to make meaningful change,” stated Forrester. Two recent successes in this arena include getting a bill passed to reform the eyewitness identification process, increasing its objectivity; and increasing the compensation for exonerated individuals.

This topic cannot be discussed without addressing the racial component. Of the 40 convictions IPNO has been able to get overturned, 38 of the individuals were Black. “Systemic racism and inequities enter every part of our work,” Forrester said flatly. “Even when white people get caught in the system, it stems from the inequities built into the system.”

Crime is currently the hottest issue in the New Orleans area, and working to free people from prison does not necessarily endear IPNO to the public at large. However, every innocent person in jail represents a guilty person at large. Overturning a wrongful conviction reopens the search for the actual criminal – and in some cases, gets the person who really did commit the crime off the street.



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