Nearly 29 years after his conviction for a crime he did not commit, Patrick Brown walked out of a New Orleans courtroom a free man on Monday.
Mr Brown, 49, was sentenced to life without parole for the rape of his stepdaughter in 1994. But not only did Mr Brown continually proclaim his innocence over the next two-plus decades, but his stepdaughter did as well — maintaining that Mr Brown was not the man who raped her.
On Monday, the criminal justice system finally took heed. Judge Calvin Johnson delivered the news that the court was vacating Mr Brown’s conviction, decrying a miscarriage of justice that robbed Mr Brown of well more than half of his life so far as “horrific,” according to a report by CNN.
“For us, the government, not to be better at what we do, and how we do it, this [wrongful conviction] is the result,” Mr Johnson said.
The effect Mr Brown’s conviction and ongoing imprisonment had on his stepdaughter, the victim of the rape, was enormous as well. The victim broke down in tears as she told the court at Mr Brown’s hearing how she had spent the last two decades writing more than 100 letters to the district attorney’s office and the court informing them that her stepfather had been wrongfully convicted.
In 2015, the victim went so far as to sign an affidavit identifying another family member as the man who had raped her. Even then, the district attorney’s office did not act.
“Having your voice being silenced is the worst feeling in the world,” the victim told the courtroom.
Things changed, however, with the election of progressive Jason Williams to the DA’s office in Orleans Parish in 2020. Mr Williams, a graduate of Tulane Law School and previosuly a member of the New Orleans city council, established a civil rights division in the office to investigate harms perpetrated by the criminal justice system.
When Mr Brown filed a claim of factual innocence, the civil rights division was ready to investigate — and, upon reviewing the victim’s statement and the available evidence, appealed to have Mr Brown’s conviction thrown out.
When Mr Brown was convicted in 1994, it was largely on the basis of hearsay evidence from adults who claimed that the victim, who was seven years old at the time, had accused Mr Brown of raping her. The victim herself did not testify at the trial.
“This victim has endured not just the deep trauma of child sexual assault, but the trauma of knowing the wrong man has been imprisoned for almost three decades while the man who raped her walked free,” Civil Rights Division Chief Emily Maw said in a statement reported by CNN.
The work of the civil rights division has had its hands full in Orleans Parish, which leads the country in exonerations per capita. The Guardian reported that the division has already intervened in 284 cases since its creation two years ago, vacating convictions 21 cases in additon to Mr Brown’s.
A 2022 study from the National Registry of Exonorations found that Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of major crimes in the United States.