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A man spent 29 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. The survivor just helped free him

<i>Chris Granger/The Advocate via AP</i><br/>Patrick Brown
Chris Granger/The Advocate via AP
Patrick Brown

By Rebekah Riess and Lauren Mascarenhas, CNN

After spending 29 years in prison for the rape of his stepdaughter, a New Orleans man is free thanks to the help of the local district attorney’s office and testimony from the victim herself, who has insisted for 20 years that he is not the man who raped her.

Patrick Brown was convicted of raping his 6-year-old stepdaughter in 1994 after pleading not guilty in a trial in which the victim did not testify — instead, adults testified “to what they believed she had said,” according to a release from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Since 2002, the stepdaughter had repeatedly asked the DA’s office under former administrations to review the case and prosecute the actual perpetrator, the release said.

The office’s civil rights division opened an investigation into the victim’s case, found that the evidence corroborated her account and asked the court to rectify the case, according to the release.

“The attorneys in the Civil Rights Division in Orleans Parish are the only prosecutors I have ever worked with in Louisiana who truly take the admonition to ‘do Justice’ seriously — as evidenced by the fact that they listened to the victim in this case the first time she reached out, instead of ignoring her like their predecessors did for more than 20 years,” Kelly Orians told CNN. Orians directs the University of Virginia School of Law’s Decarceration and Community Reentry Clinic, which represented Brown at Monday’s hearing.

“Although the right decision was reached on Monday, and there is reason to celebrate, it will never make up for the pain, loss, and trauma that Mr. Brown, his step-daughter, and their family have endured over the last three decades,” she added.

Civil Rights Division Chief Emily Maw said she is “hopeful that this will bring some closure to the victim and that she, and Mr. Brown, can move forward in healing.”

“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,” Maw said.

Brown was released from prison Monday, immediately following the decision of the criminal district court, delivered by Judge Calvin Johnson, to vacate his conviction. The victim was present and testified, according to the release and court records.

“The State is actively reviewing the viability (of) charges against the actual perpetrator,” Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams told CNN in a statement. “To say more on that at this time would not be prudent as it could jeopardize the case.”

Williams launched the civil rights division in part to “review cases of wrongful convictions and excessive sentences,” his office’s website reads. The division has intervened in 284 cases since 2021, boasting an estimated $266 million in taxpayer savings on lifetime incarceration, according to the DA’s office.

“Listening to and truly hearing survivors of sexual assault is a top priority in this office,” Williams said in a statement. “It is heart-wrenching to know that this woman was dismissed and ignored, no matter how inconvenient her truth, when all she wanted was for the real offender to be held responsible.”

Orleans Parish has 7.92 more exonerations per capita than the national average — the highest per capita rate among US counties with over 300,000 people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

A 2022 report from the registry says innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than White Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.

An effort to overturn these wrongful convictions across the country has led to the creation of units like the civil rights division in Orleans Parish, dedicated to preventing and remedying false convictions. The National Registry of Exonerations tracked 44 such units across the country with recorded exonerations as of June 2022.

“Being progressive and reckoning with the sins of the past directly affects present-day public safety,” Williams said in a statement. “When someone is wrongfully convicted, not only is it an injustice for the person who has years of their life stolen, but it is an injustice for the victim and the people of New Orleans because the real perpetrator is left in our community to harm others.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the lst name of Kelly Orians, who represented Brown at Monday’s hearing.

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