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 challenged the alarming heat conditions on Death Row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola. Her litigation team recently tried a federal class action suit against the prison, shedding light on the unconstitutional medical care received by those incarcerated at the prison, as well as the lack of accommodations provided to those with disabilities.
Mercedes also leads many projects at PJI. In the last year, this has included publishing a report on the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and it’s high death rate, being a founding member of the Unanimous Jury Coalition/#YesOn2 Campaign which successfully led efforts to abolish the use of non-unanimous juries throughout Louisiana, and overturning the convictions of 17 people in New Iberia Parish who were convicted on evidence from corrupt deputies. Mercedes believes deeply that our criminal court system is failing to provide safety to our communities both inside and outside prison. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and had the opportunity to clerk for Judge Carl Barbier in the Easter 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.