From: The New Orleans Advocate
They could almost be taken for a class of undergraduates, sitting in the dark hush of a university amphitheater, sipping from water bottles and scribbling notes while a lecturer guides them through a PowerPoint presentation.
Except that these students were only taking a quick break from their day jobs. They are the New Orleans Police Department detectives who investigate rapes, murders and robberies.
And on one recent weekday they found themselves taking part in an unprecedented experiment.
Under heavy pressure from the federal government to reform, a police force with an alarming record of putting innocent people behind bars has called in an unlikely pair of teachers — two attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans, a group best known for freeing the wrongfully convicted. Perhaps no other place needs this education like New Orleans.
Louisiana has the second-highest rate of exonerations of people who were wrongly convicted of any state, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. And Orleans Parish has the highest exoneration rate of any major county or parish in the country.
“We are like an airline that has historically had the most crashes,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project. “It would be really weird of us not to want to look at what led to those crashes.”
Nationally, more than 1,900 people have been exonerated since 1989, thanks in part to DNA technology and psychological research on false confessions. In Orleans Parish, 18 people have been freed, along with 11 from Jefferson Parish.
Some of that record is the result of the work of Maw’s group, a local offshoot of the national Innocence Project that has repeatedly secured freedom for inmates by unmasking egregious missteps by police and prosecutors — like a crucial report on a murder case that was mysteriously misplaced for years — as well as innocent slips such as false witness identifications.
Given the often adversarial role the Innocence Project has taken against prosecutors and police, it was probably no surprise that a class run by the group’s attorneys began with assurances that they were only there to help the assembled cops.
“They are here to make your job better,” said Chris Goodly, the commander of the NOPD Training Academy.
Maw and a colleague then walked through the whole litany of mistakes that can lead to a wrongful conviction. To illustrate a point about the unreliability of witness identification, they played a quick, shaky video of a dodgy-looking man setting a bomb. Minutes later, the detectives were asked to pick the bomber out of a lineup.
The results weren’t good, even for this group of seasoned investigators. Only three of 39 got the answer right.
But then Maw, in her characteristically excited English accent, explained what went wrong. The “bomber” was not in the lineup at all. The correct answer was none of the above.
It’s a well-established fact in psychological research on lineups that the power of inadvertent suggestion will foil nearly everyone who runs through a similar exercise.
In fact, thanks to its post-2012 court-ordered reforms, the NOPD requires detectives to instruct witnesses that the perpetrator of a crime might not be in a lineup. One of the detectives who got the answer right was quick to remind her colleagues about that. In the new NOPD, detectives also must videotape formal interviews.
At the same time, the Innocence Project instructors were at pains to avoid laying all blame for poor police work at the feet of overworked officers.
The room grumbled in agreement as Maw told the detectives that wrongful convictions are more likely to come from overstretched prosecutors and cops than from malicious ones.
The NOPD has lost hundreds of officers over the past five years, leading to skyrocketing caseloads for those who remain. Homicide detectives now handle roughly twice the nationally recommended number of cases.
An hour into the class, phones across the room lit up with an announcement. Just across the street from police headquarters, another man had been shot to death.
With nearly half the homicide squad out of service for the training, one detective made the obvious joke: Who was left to handle this one?
The NOPD’s partnership with the Innocence Project follows a string of developments in old cases that showed just how fallible police work can be.
Reginald Adams was freed from prison in 2014 after the district attorney acknowledged that two former homicide detectives had lied on the stand in order to convict him of killing a cop’s wife in New Orleans East in 1979. He has since sued the district attorney and the city over his decades behind bars.
In September, U.S District Judge Sarah Vance ruled in favor of John Floyd, a convicted double murderer who claimed that a homicide detective had liquored him up at a French Quarter tavern before extracting a confession from him in 1980.
And Jerome Morgan has long maintained that police pressured two witnesses to identify him as the killer of a 16-year-old boy at a 1993 birthday party in Gentilly. His conviction was vacated in 2014, and the district attorney has dropped an effort to bring him to trial again.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that (the NOPD) would have been the first one to invite an Innocence Project in,” said Richard Leo, a professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert on false confessions. “They’ve had, as you know, a long history of racism and corruption and misconduct and shady things.”
Indeed, a previous attempt at detente between the Innocence Project and law enforcement fizzled. In 2014, the group announced a partnership with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office based on the notion that everyone in the system wanted to free the truly innocent. The partnership collapsed a year later, having sprung a single convict.
But Maw insisted that current detectives have no reason to feel offended by revelations of wrongful Orleans Parish convictions from decades ago. Also, many sprang from errors by prosecutors, not police.
Over two hours of the training, no detectives raised objections to Maw’s points.
“We have been really impressed with how interested and open the detectives have been,” she said. “They want to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. That is the healthiest approach any organization can have.”
The Police Department’s collaboration with the Innocence Project is still in its infancy. But it already has won praise from the federal monitors overseeing a 2012 consent decree mandating NOPD reforms that was prompted in part by notorious cases of police misconduct in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.
The monitors don’t often dish out praise for police academy classes, but in their most recent report to a federal judge they spoke of the wrongful conviction training in glowing terms. “The topic was important, the instruction was impressive, and the exercises were instructive,” they wrote.
Maw said that in eight sessions, roughly 200 detectives have already taken the three-hour course, and she hopes to train more in the future.
As with many of the initiatives under the federal consent decree, the question of whether the training will improve the Police Department’s record in the long run remains unanswered.
The average exonerated person in Louisiana has spent 20 years in prison before being freed, according to the National Registry on Exonerations, so the answer may lie decades in the future.
Mike Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, is doubtful training will help avoid wrongful convictions.
“It’s an ethical issue. It’s not really a professional one,” he said. “We remain confident that we’re ethical and we do the best job possible.”
But James Trainum, a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who took part in the U.S. Justice Department’s review of the NOPD in 2010, said he wishes he had had the benefit of such training before he investigated his first homicide in 1994.
Trainum has written a book about that case, in which he extracted a false confession from a woman accused of murder. The woman was eventually freed because a homeless shelter’s sign-in logs proved she could not have committed the crime.
When Trainum went back and watched the videotape of his interview, he realized that he had inadvertently fed the woman details of the killing.
“Those are some lucky detectives to be getting that training,” he said. “They’re being taught how to avoid the mistakes that we’ve learned through experience.”