June 23, 2003. NEW ORLEANS —Tonight Gregory Bright and Earl Truvia, who have been in prison for 27 ½ years for a murder they did not commit, will be released from prison innocent men, the charges against them dismissed.
Greg and Earl were convicted of the second degree murder of Elliot Porter in 1976, after a trial that took less than a day, in which the jury deliberated on their verdict for only 12 minutes. But that jury never heard the whole story. In 2001, Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) accepted the case after extensive screening and investigation revealed that Greg and Earl were not the real killers. That investigation also revealed that the real perpetrators of the murder had originally been pursued by police, but the leads were abandoned in favor of a tip from a woman who became the sole evidence in the case. Neither the police investigation of the alternate suspects, nor the background of that witness was revealed to the defense. The witness testified under a false name, concealing the fact that she was a hallucinating paranoid schizophrenic and prostitute, who was medicating her mental illness with amphetamines and gave a false “tip” to keep herself out of trouble. Suppression of such evidence of innocence is against the law, and mandated the overturning of the convictions of both men in 2002. The district attorney’s office under the Connick administration fought the reversal, but it was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court in March 2003.
In 2003, Eddie Jordan’s office, true to the newly elected district attorney’s commitment to the fair and impartial administration of justice, reviewed the voluminous record and painstakingly revisited the evidence. On June 23, 2003, the district attorney decided that the case against Mr. Bright and Mr. Truvia should be dismissed, ending a 27 year nightmare for Greg and Earl.
Greg and Earl were represented by Innocence Project New Orleans attorney Emily Bolton and pro bono counsel Dan MacNamara, Stephen Singer and Jason Rogers Williams, with the assistance of IPNO investigator David Park. Law students Sharlayne Jackson (Southern University), Morri Ragland (Tulane Law) and Irish barrister Pieter Levert also worked tirelessly on the case over the last two years.
Said Bolton: “The truth will set you free. Justice is truth in action, and that is what we have seen today from Mr. Jordan, truth in action. Staff at the district attorney’s office have pored over this case for months, and I am sure Mr. Jordan has prayed over it. New Orleans can be proud of electing a district attorney with both courage and a conscience.” But Bolton was also critical of the system that led to the convictions in the first place. “Greg was represented by a public defender office so under-funded and over-burdened that his court appointed lawyer never once interviewed his client in prison, and never even looked at the crime scene. Unless we give more funds to indigent defense these terrible mistakes will keep happening. This state urgently needs a blue ribbon ‘Innocence Commission’ to look at the causes and solutions to the intolerable situation we are in now, where innocent people are being sent to prison for decades for crimes they did not commit.”
Innocent Project New Orleans executive director Robert Hoelscher emphasized his sympathy for the victim’s family in the case. “When I was seven my father was murdered, shot in the back with a twelve gauge shotgun. My mother found him, lying in a pool of blood. I have carried the wounds of that memory in my soul for my entire life. So does the family of the victim in this case I am sure, and now their loss is thrust upon them once again. My heart goes out to them today. But we have to follow the truth wherever it leads. Mr. Jordan had to choose whether to waste resources prosecuting two innocent men in a case from 1975 with no evidence at all, or whether to save those resources and prosecute very real killers terrorizing our streets in 2003. He made the right choice.”
Barry Scheck, founder of the original Innocence Project in New York had high praise for Mr. Jordan: "Unlike many of the district attorneys I have dealt with in innocence cases, who stick their heads in the sand when these tragic cases emerge, the New Orleans district attorney is a prosecutor with a conscience; instead of adopting the old fashioned knee-jerk ‘the system is never wrong’ position he took the time to review the facts and make a just decision. It is time for a new generation of leadership among prosecutors to cope with the problems of conviction of the innocent, and today Mr. Jordan has become a leader of that new generation."
LIFE AFTER EXONERATION
Now begins an even greater challenge for the two men - rebuilding their lives in the free world. They will be released with just a garbage bag full of legal papers and the clothes they wore at Angola. Louisiana has no compensation statute for the wrongfully convicted. Greg worked in the prison laundry for many years and was a trustee, even rising to become a butler at the Governor’s mansion, including under former Governor Edwards, himself now incarcerated. Greg sees the irony of this, but says he wouldn’t wish prison on anyone. Earl worked in the prison kitchens and is a master baker. Of his time at Angola, Greg says simply: “It’s been a long, long journey and it ain’t been nothing nice.” The last few months spent on the tiers at Orleans Parish Prison have been an induction into a new world, leaving Greg feeling very old. “The kids in here are like babies, fussing all day and night. These youngsters are so busy imitating rap stars, but they don’t see that after the video gets made and the camera is gone, the rap stars go off somewhere else, but the only place else these kids end up is on the tier. And they got nothing, some of them can’t even write to send a letter home to get some sheets or something. It’s sad though, these people in here are hungry and they feel what I have to say. Sometimes I think I am the first person who has tried to say something to them, about respect for human life.”
Both men are keen to gain employment upon release, as their immediate concern is supporting their families, who have for so long prayed for their return. Greg’s mother, Rosemary, died while he was in prison, the worst day of 27 years of dark days. Earl’s mother, Arthurine, used to ride the bus to the prison with Ms. Rose, and now says, “I have to be mother to both those boys, now they are coming home. This thing broke Miss Rose’s heart and it broke mine.” Gary Truvia, Earl’s brother is jubilant. “We elected Eddie Jordan to be a fair DA to all the people in this city, and that includes poor people from the projects who no-one used to listen to. In 1975 they called this case a typical project murder and didn’t bother to solve it right. You can’t give back someone 27 years of their life already passed, but you can give them the next 27 years.” Michelle Williams, Greg’s sister, was five years old when her brother was sent away, and her father was never around when she was growing up, “but now Gregory will be back to be like a father to my son Darius. Darius can’t wait to have his Uncle Gregory around.”
Greg and Earl have served the same number of years at Angola that Nelson Mandela spent at Robben Island, and share Mandela’s quietly dignified demeanor. Unlike Mandela, however, their life’s mission will just be beginning upon release. Greg and Earl also have a vision, for which Innocence Project New Orleans will be seeking financial and community support. Far from turning their backs on the 5,000 men they are leaving behind, at Angola, Greg and Earl want to help the families of this involuntary community, from the outside. Their vision is the Bright House.
The Bright House will stand by the road to the prison, and will provide a sanctuary for prisoners’ mothers, children, brothers, sisters and friends who make the long, hot journey to Angola from the cities. It will be a place that new prisoners’ families can call in for orientation, a rest stop for the old hands, a refuge after saying goodbye to loved ones once more, a place where prisoners’ children can mingle, and an overnight shelter for those who need it. $12,000 will buy the land. $30,000 will build the house. $30,000 a year will keep it staffed and functioning. Interested donors should call 504 522 4766 for more information, or visit www.ip-no.org.
Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), www.ip-no.org, is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 to increase fairness and equality in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. IPNO investigates suspected cases of wrongful conviction and provides legal representation for prisoners with provable cases of actual innocence. IPNO relies on grants and individual donations for its continued operation.
For more information:
Innocence Project New Orleans
504-522-4766 / 504-259-5909 / 504-400- 8985
||Truth in Justice