A Louisiana man who served 29 years for a crime he did not commit has been released from prison after it was revealed in court that the victim had told the prosecutors in New Orleans for over two decades that the man was innocent, but she was repeatedly ignored.
Patrick Brown, 49, was sentenced to life without parole in December 1994 after he was accused of raping his six-year-old stepdaughter.
But for over 20 years, the victim had told authorities that her stepfather was innocent and implicated another family member, who had bragged about it around the time of the crime, according to filings and prosecutors notes from the time.
Brown, who appeared in court on Monday morning wept into the arms of his attorney as the decision to vacate his conviction was delivered by the presiding judge, Calvin Johnson.
“For the state to do something as horrific as this is just wrong,” Judge Johnson said, adding: “For us, the government, not to be better at what we do, and how we do it, this [the wrongful conviction] is the result.”
Over 29 years since the original trial, the victim appeared in the same courtroom and sobbed as she spoke of how, since May 2002 when she was 14 years old, she had made repeated attempts to tell the court and the district attorney’s office that her stepfather had been wrongfully accused.
She said: “I’ve written over 100 letters … mailed them to the DA’s office. I’ve shown up unannounced to talk to someone and been turned around.”
She spoke of her mental health struggles in the decades after the rape, adding: “Having your voice being silenced is the worst feeling in the world.”
Although prosecutors attempted to get the victim – then seven years old – to testify at trial, she was unable to do so after her nose began to bleed when asked by prosecutors if she knew the consequences of lying to court, according to filings. The case had rested on hearsay evidence of other adults and medical evidence that was described by prosecutors on Monday as “probative but not conclusive”.
Patrick Brown stands outside the court clutching the court document that tossed this conviction for aggravated rape. Brown served over 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Photograph: Oliver Laughland/The Guardian.
Specifically, the victim had tested positive for a gonorrheal infection shortly after the offense. Brown was not tested for active infection, instead for antibodies, while the other alleged perpetrator was only tested for active infection.
The victim had signed an affidavit in 2015 that named another family member as the man who had raped her.
The Guardian understands that the DA’s office is now reviewing whether any charges could be brought against the man. In court, the victim said the man had continued to harass her online in recent years and attempted to solicit photographs of her infant child.
The case was eventually reviewed last year by the Orleans parish district attorney’s civil rights division, created by the city’s reformist district attorney, Jason Williams, to examine past harms in the criminal legal system. Brown had filed a claim of factual innocence under a new law as a pro se application, meaning he had no legal representation.
All his previous appeals had been opposed by previous district attorney’s offices and thrown out in court.
Speaking in court on Monday, Emily Maw, the head of the civil right division said: “For the last 21 years, through all the challenges the state has defended against, all the times courts have denied, they have done so despite the fact that the victim in this case has been telling them the wrong man is in prison.”
Maw added: “The position of the state is to no longer ignore the victim in this case … who has been trying to correct the injustice.”
Before proceedings began, Brown had appeared in an orange jumpsuit after he was transferred from the Louisiana state penitentiary earlier in the morning. His attorney Kelly Orians applied to the court to allow him to wear civilian clothing before the proceedings began.
He emerged from court, wearing a navy shirt and a new pair of jeans, clutching the signed order that vacated his conviction. Asked by the Guardian how he felt holding the document he replied: “This is not winning the lottery, this is an act of Jesus Christ.”
Orleans parish, the county which covers most of New Orleans, has the highest per-capita rate of wrongful convictions in the United States. The jurisdiction has seen a line of so-called “tough on crime” prosecutors over the decades, associated with sustained allegations of racial bias and systemic misconduct.
The civil rights division has so far intervened in 284 cases since its creation in 2021 with 22 cases, like Brown’s, having convictions being vacated with no further prosecutions sought.
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