NEW ORLEANS – Non-profit and private sector leaders announced today that their joint commitment to the rule of law allowed them to work together on an initiative that ultimately led to the exoneration of 18 people convicted of drug crimes based solely on discredited testimony by narcotics officers who were convicted in 2017 of federal civil rights violations.
The initiative – known as the St. Mary Project – brought together traditional adversaries in the criminal justice system for the greater good of the community. 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Due worked with Jones Walker LLP – a corporate law firm in New Orleans – and the nonprofit groups the Promise of Justice Initiative and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center to facilitate the identification and disclosure of records of criminal defendants potentially impacted by the highly publicized misconduct of the Narcotics Unit of the Iberia Parish Sheriff.
More than 500 individual cases dating back to 2008 were reviewed by criminal defense attorneys from PJI, MacArthur, and Jones Walker to determine whether the convictions in those cases had been obtained improperly based on manufactured evidence. In March of this year, those attorneys moved to vacate the convictions of 19 individuals.
After reviewing these cases in light of the exonerating evidence obtained by the criminal defense attorneys, District Attorney Due agreed that his office would not contest vacating the convictions in 17 of those cases. Of the two remaining motions, one was granted by a District Court judge following oral argument, and the other is currently awaiting resolution.
According to Mark A. Cunningham, a partner at Jones Walker and former Louisiana State Bar President, “District Attorney Due deserves much of the credit for the success of the St. Mary Project. He recognized the serious impact on the community and, rather than create roadblocks to justice, proactively worked with our team of criminal defense attorneys by assigning staff to collect and share his own files and by looking at each case we presented with an open mind.”
“We are proud of the work that we have done for the citizens of Iberia Parish, but there are still many injustices throughout Louisiana where no one has been called to account,” said PJI’s Executive Director Mercedes Montagnes. “We hope that this initiative will serve as a baseline for what is possible when attorneys work together to achieve what is right.”
“Whether we work in government, nonprofit, or for profit sectors, we all share a common interest in liberty, freedom, and safety. This project shows that it is possible for adversaries in the criminal justice system to work with each other collaboratively for the common good.” said Jim Craig, the Director of the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans.
“We must hold accountable anyone who abuses his authority and help those who have been the victimized and wrongly accused. Many of our clients have been claiming their innocence for years,” said PJI attorney Nishi Kumar. “It was immensely satisfying to finally be able to vindicate them.”
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The Promise of Justice Initiative is a private, non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform and abolition of the death penalty on behalf of indigent defendants and prisoners who seek fair and equal treatment under the law.
THE RODERICK & SOLANGE MACARTHUR JUSTICE CENTER is one of the premier civil rights law firms in the United States with offices in Chicago, Illinois (based at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic); Oxford, Mississippi (based at the University of Mississippi School of Law); St. Louis, Missouri; New Orleans, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. The MacArthur Justice Center was founded in 1985 by J. Roderick MacArthur and his daughter Dr. Solange MacArthur with the mission to advocate for human rights and social justice through litigation. For more information, see www.macarthurjustice.org
Jones Walker LLP (www.joneswalker.com) is among the 120 largest law firms in the United States serving local, regional, national, and international business interests with offices in Alabama, Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, and Texas. The firm is committed to providing a comprehensive range of legal services to major multinational, public and private corporations, Fortune® 500 companies, money center banks, worldwide insurers, and emerging companies doing business in the United States and abroad. Jones Walker attorneys are routinely called upon to provide pro bono representation to nonprofit organizations, international NGOs, and individuals in lawsuits raising novel legal issues and fundamental constitutional rights. The law firm is particularly focused on systemic litigation involving the administration of criminal justice.