October 26, 2011 5:45 PM
Willkie Farr Duo Helps Exonerate Louisiana Man After 30 Years in Prison
Posted by Victor Li
When Henry James entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola nearly 30 years ago to serve a sentence of life without parole after being convicted of raping a next-door neighbor at knifepoint, it appeared that he would only leave the infamous prison when he died.
On October 21, though, the 50-year-old James walked out of the prison a free man thanks to the efforts of Innocence Project attorneys and a two-lawyer pro bono team from Willkie Farr & Gallagher. Upon his release, James had spent more time behind bars than any of the other 11 wrongfully convicted Louisiana prisoners to be exonerated using DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
James's case is among the more difficult ones the Innocence Project has tackled, says Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney for the organization. The Innocence Project—which has now won the release of 274 wrongfully convicted inmates since 1989—nearly closed James's case file because the original crime-scene evidence could not be located—something that happens in roughly one out of every four cases the organization investigates.
This time, according to Potkin, the group wasn't ready to let that happen. "We felt so strongly that he was innocent," she says.
Since taking the case on in 2005, the Innocence Project had found what it deemed enough evidence—including initial serology reports that excluded James as a suspect, multiple alibi witnesses, and a statement from the victim acknowledging that she did not know her attacker—to support filing a motion requesting that Louisiana authorities reopen the case. One problem: The organization lacked the staff and resources necessary to pursue the case on its own.
Enter Thomas Golden, a New York–based Willkie Farr litigation partner, and Jeanna Composti, a litigation associate in the firm's New York office who had worked with the Innocence Project as a Cornell Law School student. Golden and Composti contacted the group after attending a presentation on the power of DNA evidence given by project cofounder Peter Neufeld at the firm's New York office.
"I was really struck by the fact that innocent people get convicted all the time," says Golden. "Jurors misunderstand the importance of eyewitness identifications, scientific methods are not always followed. If there's evidence out there that would exonerate a defendant and identify the actual perpetrator, then we as lawyers ought to pursue every avenue to make sure that evidence gets tested."
His view hardened after Potkin asked him to look into James's case in 2009. "I really thought that the basic facts regarding his conviction did not add up," Golden says. "Jeanna and I traveled down to Angola and met with him and it solidified my view that he was innocent."
In November 2009, the Wilkie Farr lawyers and Potkin successfully petitioned a Louisiana state court to order a postconviction DNA test for James. The victory appeared to be hollow, though, when the attorneys were told that the original crime scene evidence couldn't be located. Even with the help of crime lab personnel and the Jefferson Parish District Attorney's office, James's lawyers couldn't retrieve what they needed to prove their client's innocence. It was at that point, Potkin says, that the Innocence Project began to seriously consider abandoning the case.
Then in May 2010, James and his lawyers caught a break. A crime lab worker named Milton Dureau turned up a slide that contained DNA evidence collected at the scene of the 1981 rape. "He had [James's] case number ingrained in his head," says Potkin, "So when he was looking for evidence on another case, he came across an unknown slide and recognized the number [as Mr. James's case number]." Finally, James's lawyers had something to work with.
After an initial round of DNA tests proved inconclusive, the Willkie Farr lawyers arranged and paid for a more sophisticated Y-STR DNA test to be conducted. Such tests are useful in identifying male DNA in samples that contain genetic material from both men and women. The results of that test definitively cleared James of committing the rape.
When word spread of James's pending release, the inmates in Angola gave him a rousing ovation, Potkin says. Those inmates and prisoners elsewhere who claim they have been wrongfully convicted may soon have more to cheer as a result of Willkie Farr's efforts. The firm, Golden says, is already working with the Innocence Project on behalf of another Angola inmate, and "recently filed several petitions for postconviction DNA tests for prisoners in Alabama before the statute of limitations expired."Make a comment