October 26, 2011

DNA testing proves innocence of a Willkie pro bono client who was wrongly convicted of aggravated rape in 1982.

On October 21, the Innocence Project announced that a Louisiana judge, with the consent of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney, vacated the rape conviction and dismissed the charges against Willkie pro bono client Henry James as a result of DNA testing on crime scene evidence proving his innocence. After nearly 30 years of incarceration, Mr. James was released from Angola prison. He served longer than any other person in Louisiana who was later cleared through DNA testing. Willkie, together with the Innocence Project and Innocence Project New Orleans, represented Mr. James.

Mr. James was misidentified by the victim, who chose his photo out of a book of about 80 photos. The record contains no indication that the victim told the police that she had previously met her attacker, much less that he had spent the previous day with her husband. Additionally, the jury never heard that serology testing from the rape kit excluded Mr. James as the perpetrator, and despite three alibi witnesses backing his testimony Mr. James was convicted. Willkie partner Thomas Golden stated, "Misidentification has played a role in 75% of the DNA exoneration, and cross racial identifications, as in this case, have proven especially unreliable. In hind sight, it’s pretty obvious that the victim was influenced by her interactions with Mr. James the day before. The police may have also inadvertently influenced her misidentification. That’s why it’s especially important that the state enact identification reforms, especially those that require identification procedures be performed by an officer who doesn’t know the identity of the suspect."

Founded in 1992, the Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization (affiliated with Cardozo Law School) dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 274 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. It is hoped that the Henry James case will encourage the Louisiana legislature to mandate more accurate state-wide identification procedures.

In an October 27 Am Law Daily article entitled "Willkie Farr Duo Helps Exonerate Louisiana Man After 30 Years in Prison" Mr. Golden stated: "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."

The case was handled by Mr. Golden and associate Jeanna Composti.

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