The reality of what happens when someone is wrongfully convicted took center stage in Lafayette Tuesday night.
The Innocence Project New Orleans works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing in an effort to reform the criminal justice system.
Political science major Sophia Baker was working on a group project for her Crime and Pop course when they found out about a Louisiana man who had been recently exonerated after 38 years in prison. A classmate encouraged Baker to reach out to him via Facebook.
"I was like ‘should I message him on Facebook, like this is kinda weird, you know, what is he gonna say,’ and she was like ‘no, I think you should do this, I think this is a really great opportunity.’ So, I did and we talked on the phone and then I got in touch with the Innocence Project New Orleans and they helped us arrange this talk tonight," explained Sophomore Political Science major, Sophia Baker.
According to Innocence Project, the overburdened and under funded criminal justice synonym in Louisiana has wrongfully convicted 55 people since 1990. Compare that to the entire nation of Canada which has wrongfully convicted under 30 people since 1986.
Malcolm Alexander was wrongfully convicted of rape 38 years ago, but he always argued for his innocence and tried to find evidence to exonerate him
"The hard part is being separated from your family. Then after really considering that, what was truly taken away from me was the chance for me to decide what I wanted out of life. Regardless of whether it would’ve been, how you say, a lawyer or riding on the back of a garbage truck," explained Alexander.
DNA evidence is what led to his freedom.
"One of the things we can learn from Malcom’s case is he had a trial that lasted less than half a day, it was a few hours. There was barely any questioning of witnesses, there was barely any test of the state’s case. And, one witness who initially thought it was him but wasn’t sure, was enough to send him away for the rest of his life," explained Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw.
Maw says the criminal justice system in Louisiana isn’t any better from 38 years ago. She says that the state doesn’t require very strong evidence to convict a person. Maw says other problems are false confessions, a lack of public defendants, racially-driven laws written during the Reconstruction Period, and more. Maw says a major reason why Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world is the sentences are disproportionately harsher and longer for lesser crimes.
While behind bars Malcolm was in love but decided to let that love go because he never thought he would be a free man again.
"She was there for me for a few years until I decided to let her go. I wanted her to go live her life. But, since my return to society, we have gotten married," said Alexander.
A bill to change Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict law passed through the State Senate recently. If passed through the House, Louisiana could join 48 other states that require a unanimous jury verdict to find someone guilty.