Leadership

Mercedes Montagnes – Executive Director

Mercedes Montagnes is the Executive Director of The Promise of Justice Initiative. Mercedes jumped into her legal career feet first by litigating prison conditions throughout Louisiana. Her first impact litigation case challenged the alarming heat conditions on Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola. Today, her litigation team is tackling a myriad of issues ranging from medical care to over detention.

In addition to leading the litigation team, Mercedes oversees the projects at PJI. In the last year, this has included exposing corruption and violence in law enforcement in Jefferson Davis Parish, building the Jim Crow Juries Project on behalf of people incarcerated from non-unanimous juries, establishing and building Louisiana Survivors for Reform- a groups of justice minded survivors, and coordinating litigation and policy responses to COVID-19 for those in prisons and jails throughout the state. Mercedes’ work is rooted in the belief that our criminal court system must be reformed in order to keep our communities, both inside and outside prison, safe. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and clerked for Judge Carl Barbier in the Eastern District of Louisiana and Chief Judge Roger Gregory on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Zain Tewalthomas – Director of Operations

Zain Tewalthomas is the Director of Operations at PJI. Her projects focus on operations, communications, and development. Zain attended the University of Wisconsin- Madison where she received a B.A. in Anthropology and in Women’s Studies. After four years at a firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Zain moved to New Orleans to earn her Masters in Public Administration and a certificate in disaster mitigation from the University of New Orleans. She’s been at the Promise of Justice Initiative since 2013. Zain volunteers much of her free time with LGBTQIA and Reproductive Rights organizations in New Orleans.

Calvin Duncan- Project Director 

Light of Justice Project

Calvin Duncan is the Project Director for the Light of Justice Project and a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow. Calvin’s project focuses on reducing the procedural barriers prisoners face in securing justice for their cases.  Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted, completed paralegal training at Northwest Missouri Community College from 1992-1993 and worked as a paralegal (Inmate counsel substitute) for 21 years; nineteen years were spent working with men on Death Row. He assisted in winning the freedom of several individuals who were wrongfully convicted of crimes and sentenced to lengthy sentences. He is currently enrolled in the Tulane Paralegal Degree Bachelors program, teaches GED classes, works in the community to foster prisoner reentry and consults at Tulane University’s Law Clinic.

Ben Cohen – Of Counsel

Ben Cohen helped create the Capital Appeals Project (CAP) in 2001 and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) in 2012. Ben has worked with CAP and PJI to secure the exoneration of two clients, outright reversals for death-sentenced clients in six cases, and sentencing phase relief in others. Ben has been involved in four cases before the United States Supreme Court, including the landmark decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana, foreclosing the expansion of the death penalty to non-homicide offenses. He is Counsel of Record in Ramos v. Louisiana. Ben’s work has been repeatedly identified in the “Petitions to Watch” section of SCOTUSBLOG, and he has written law review articles addressing the death penalty, original intent, and race. Ben’s work has been cited by justices of the United States Supreme Court. Ben graduated from the University of Michigan School of Law in 1996, and worked for Judge Edwin Cameron, subsequently appointed as Justice on the South African Constitutional Court. Ben’s work in South Africa focused primarily on discrimination based upon HIV/AIDS status. 

Jamila Johnson – Managing Attorney

Unanimous Jury Project

Jamila Johnson is the Managing Attorney for the Unanimous Jury Project. She focuses her work on helping people heal after a 138-year-old Jim Crow era law eroded the dignity and fairness of Louisiana’s criminal justice system. She does so using litigation, policy, and public education. Before joining Promise of Justice Initiative, Jamila led the Louisiana criminal justice reform team at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The team worked on issues such as harsh and extreme sentencing, access to counsel for people living in poverty, and prison conditions. Jamila served on the steering committee for the Unanimous Jury Coalition as it ran the campaign to amend the Louisiana Constitution to require unanimous juries. Additionally, Jamila has been in leadership for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives since 2017 when Louisiana passed its historic Justice Reinvestment Package. Jamila has a law degree from the University of Washington School of Law and spent a decade at the Pacific Northwest law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, where she was a constitutional litigator and firm partner.

Nishi Kumar – Director of Civil Litigation

Nishi Kumar is the Director of Civil Litigation at PJI. She litigates around various criminal justice issues affecting currently and formerly incarcerated people throughout Louisiana. She graduated from NYU Law School in 2015, where she was a Hays Civil Liberty fellow, a Notes Editor on the NYU Law Review, and co-chair of the South Asian Law Students Association. After graduation, Nishi clerked for Judge Paul Watford on the Ninth Circuit and Judge Jesse Furman on the Southern District of New York. Prior to law school, Nishi was a middle school math teacher at New Orleans College Prep.

Michael Cahoon – Co-Lead Organizer and Policy Advocate

Michael Cahoon is a Co-Lead Organizer and Policy Advocate working on PJI’s LA Repeal Project and East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Project. Before coming to PJI in 2018, Michael was a lead organizer with SEIU Local 509, a 20,000 member union of social workers, human service providers, and educators, where he also served as president for an independent union of SEIU organizers and support staff. Before organizing, he worked in policy research and development for New Jersey After 3, a nonprofit providing after school programming, evaluation, and policy consultation. He has a BA in English and Social Science from Bennington College in Vermont.

Katie Hunter-Lowrey – Co-Lead Organizer, Crime Survivor Organizer, and Policy Advocate

Katie Hunter-Lowrey is a Co-Lead Organizer, Crime Survivor Organizer and Policy Advocate for The Promise of Justice Initiative. She is a founder of the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling collective and a long time organizer of Nola to Angola, an annual bike ride fundraiser to keep families connected across the barriers of incarceration. She serves as a Board Member for the community land trust Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. Katie earned her BA in International Studies from the University of New Orleans with a concentration in Peace & Justice.