Monday, March 10, 2008

Documentary Play Features the Voices of Innocence

Wrongly convicted tell of prison's toll

Monday, March 10, 2008

Katy Reckdahl-The Times-Picayune New Orleans, LA

The four men combined served more than 61 years of prison time for murder convictions that were later tossed. Yet they somehow have faith in the U.S. justice system.

"Ain't nothing wrong with the system," said Gregory Bright, who served more than 27 years of a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Instead, he faulted overly ambitious and shortsighted individuals within the system, who he said sometimes use it to advance their own careers or to push forward easy but unjust convictions.

On Sunday, Bright and three other "exonerated" inmates recounted their experiences at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in the premiere of "Voices of the Innocent," a documentary play written by the men with NOCCA teacher Lara Naughton. Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, introduced the work by saying that their voices are especially important in Louisiana, which has a high rate of inmates whose convictions have been tossed out.

Since 1991, Maw and other defense attorneys have helped to free 25 Louisiana inmates, including 7 sentenced to death and 17 sentenced to life without parole. Some of those former prisoners have formed a group called "Resurrection After Exoneration," to ease the transition from prison to "the outside."

But freedom didn't come without scars.

"I'm just starting to be able to show emotions to my daughter," said Ryan Matthews, sentenced to death as a teenager for the shooting death of a popular Bridge City convenience-store grocer, despite DNA evidence that matched neither Matthews nor his co-defendant Travis Hayes. Like the others, Matthews, who is now in college, said he has had trouble finding a job, since no one wants to hire someone who's served time for murder, even if the conviction was mistaken.

Lasting effects

Prison keeps its hold, even years later, said Dan Bright, who's now a counselor for the city's at-risk youth but still rises daily at the crack of dawn -- wake-up time at the Angola penitentiary. After his arrest in 1995, Bright's mother was left to raise his twin girls, who were only 4 months old when he was arrested. They now see him as a brother, not a father, he said.

After his release, Bright, who is no relation to Gregory Bright, said he compulsively walked in front of surveillance cameras and kept every receipt for every purchase he made. "I never wanted to be anywhere that I couldn't document," he said.

In 1996, he was sentenced to death for a Lower 9th Ward bar murder. But that conviction was tossed out in 2004 after the courts questioned the state's lone eyewitness and pre-trial FBI reports indicating that Bright was innocent.

Sometimes John Thompson still calls his living room "the day room," a prison term, he said. But his time left other, deeper wounds, said Thompson, who endured 18 years on death row and seven different execution dates before an investigator found hidden blood evidence that led to a 2003 retrial and a not-guilty verdict.

"When you're in prison, you put on a suit of armor on, a suit of protection," Thompson said. Sometimes, he still catches himself reacting to someone from that self-protective stance, he said.

Feeling doomed

Three of the men -- Dan Bright, Ryan Matthews, and John Thompson -- dealt drugs as young men, thinking sometimes that prison time would be inevitable.

Thompson remembered walking onto death row the first time, in shackles. "I felt like I was walking into hell," he said. Thompson was escorted to a cell that held someone else's stuff. "It belonged to a man they'd just executed," he said.

Still, even after experiencing the filth and terror of prison, freedom seemed scary, some said.

"When I first stepped foot on the outside, I had the overwhelming desire to throw up," Gregory Bright said.

Plus, people kept asking, "Are you angry?" he said. "Yes, I was angry, bitter and mad, just to name a few," he said.

In 1976, Bright and co-defendant Earl Truvia were convicted of fatally shooting a teenager. But in 2002, a judge threw out the convictions after an evidentiary hearing raised questions about the credibility of the state's lone eyewitness.

A few years later, Bright said, he ran into that eyewitness in his neighborhood. They hugged, he said.

"I don't share this experience with vengeance in my heart," Bright said. "Because this experience is not about me; it's about the next man. I am a voice of innocence."

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