A New Orleans man who has long maintained he was wrongly convicted of murder experienced freedom for the first time in 42 years after a virtual deal with the devil won him his liberty, if not true justice.
Elvis Brooks, now 62, walked out of Louisiana’s infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed “Angola,” on Wednesday after agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser offense in the case that sent him to prison almost a half-century ago.
Brooks’ attorney, Charell Arnold of Innocence Project New Orleans, tells The Root that after spending more than four decades—the whole of his adulthood—in prison, Brooks just wanted the fastest road home.
Despite having uncovered evidence that prosecutors withheld information that Brooks’ fingerprints didn’t match those found at the scene, as well as other irregularities, Arnold says fighting the state to win his case on the merits could have taken years.
“He is innocent and he has maintained his innocence all these years, but he decided this was best for him and his family at this time,” Arnold says of Brooks. “This was an incredibly difficult decision and one that was entirely up to him. [...] Mr. Brooks is already 62 years old and has spent his entire adult life in prison. The opportunity to get out was paramount to him.”
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And, so, on Tuesday, Brooks pleaded guilty to manslaughter and three counts of armed robbery in the fatal 1977 robbery of a local bar in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
In return, the state agreed that the 42 years Brooks spent behind bars amounted to “time served,” and he was released on Wednesday.
Following his release, Brooks told NOLA.com that his decades spent in prison were painful.
“Yeah, it hurt. I didn’t do it. All these years on a mistaken identity, or whatever,” he said. “I just think they just picked me up and wanted to get rid of me. I wasn’t doing nothing like that on the street. ... I think they just wanted to get rid of me.”
And prosecutors still maintain they got their man, telling WDSU that they decided to show Brooks “mercy,” given his age and the length of time he was in prison:
“He’s 62 years old and still has an opportunity for a life,” [Assistant District Attorney Donna] Andrieu said.
[District Attorney Leon] Cannizzaro defended the original trial and conviction, saying Brooks “committed a murder and multiple armed robberies in 1977, and his conviction and sentence we properly attained and affirmed through the course of several appeals.”
The D.A. added that after reviewing the case 42 years later, his prosecutors “remained convinced this office did nothing then or now to deprive this defendant of a fair trial.”
Arnold and her IPNO team disagree, saying that issues of race and prosecutorial misconduct led to Brooks’ wrongful conviction.
Brooks was weeks shy of his 20th birthday in July 1977 when cops grabbed him up off the street, accusing him of killing a man while committing an armed robbery at a local bar in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Brooks, one of 12 children, lived with his parents and siblings in the Lower Ninth, and had just recently started a job as a dishwasher at the famed Brennan’s restaurant in the city’s French Quarter, Arnold says.
Police arrested Brooks, a black man, based on three white eyewitnesses picking out his photo from an array. It’s the kind of cross-racial identification that Arnold says has been proven time and again to be problematic, if not outright erroneous.
According to Innocence Project New Orleans data, of 57 exonerations in Louisiana, 29—more than half—have involved mistaken-eyewitness IDs.
In fact, says Arnold, during pre-trial hearings in Brooks’ case, within months of the crime, one of the eyewitnesses couldn’t be certain if Brooks was indeed the man he had identified in the photo.
“The only thing tying him to this crime was the fact that he lived in the general neighborhood,” Arnold says of Brooks. “He was an African-American man who lived in that general neighborhood, ID’d in a photo lineup by several white eyewitnesses who didn’t know him and only viewed the perpetrator in a dimly lit bar and after they had been drinking.”
Brooks proclaimed his innocence. A dozen people provided him with an alibi for the time when the crime was committed. Despite being a family of modest means, Brooks’ father employed a private attorney to represent his son, working off the legal bill by laboring for the man, Arnold says.
Prosecutors at the time offered no physical evidence as proof, just the photo ID of the three witnesses, including the one that proved to be shaky, Arnold says.
Despite this, a jury took less than a day to convict Brooks of first-degree murder and three counts of armed robbery.
He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Brooks was just 20 years old.
In 2002, after 25 years behind bars and numerous failed appeals, Brooks wrote the Innocence Project New Orleans, detailing his plight. But, as Arnold explains, with the wealth of letters for help the organization receives, his letter sat unanswered for years.
Until 2016, when Arnold got the case.
It was while combing through old prosecutorial files in the case that IPNO investigators found two notes handwritten by the original assistant district attorney, Arnold explains.
One note indicated “3 partial prints taken but not Brooks” and the other read, “no prints from register drawer.”
However, Arnold says prosecutors never revealed the existence of the fingerprints or the testing, evidence she says could have led to a different result for Brooks.
The IPNO was scheduled to square off against the state in court this week on Brooks’ behalf when prosecutors offered up the deal.
Now, 42 years later, Brooks has finally won his freedom—though not without a cost. As part of the deal, Arnold says, he can’t file for compensation for wrongful conviction from the state.
And despite 42 years of prison labor, “earning” pennies on the dollar, Brooks has no savings to speak of, she says.
Thus, says Arnold, IPNO has set up two online fundraisers on Brooks’ behalf, one for people interested in giving a cash donation, the other, on Amazon, for those who may prefer gifting Brooks with items from a wishlist.
Brooks is the 36th client IPNO has successfully gotten released, Arnold says, adding that the scary thing is there are likely so many others deserving of freedom.
“Louisiana is one of the incarceration capitals of the world and a hotbed for wrongful convictions,” says Arnold. “That said, there are likely many wrongful convictions and people serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, and we may never know.”