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New Orleans Man Wrongly Incarcerated for 30 Years Exonerated of Rape that New DNA Evidence Proves He Didn’t Commit

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Served More Time than Any Other Person in Louisiana Cleared by DNA

(New Orleans, LA – October 21, 2011) With the consent of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr., a judge late yesterday vacated the rape conviction and dismissed the charges against Henry James as a result of DNA testing on crime scene evidence proving his innocence. James, who has been incarcerated one month shy of 30 years, served longer than any other person in Louisiana who was later cleared through DNA testing. He was released from Angola prison this morning. James is represented by the Innocence Project, Innocence Project New Orleans and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.

“The fact that Mr. James is a free man today is thanks largely to the miraculous discovery of the evidence by Milton Dureau from the Jefferson Parish Crime Laboratory and the Sheriff’s Office’s quick response and review of the case,” said Vanessa Potkin, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Far too often searches for DNA evidence in old cases come up empty handed, which is why the federal government set up the Bloodsworth grant program to help police labs catalogue evidence. New Orleans Parish has already taken advantage of this program, but as this case so clearly demonstrates, jurisdictions everywhere must do a better job of cataloguing evidence to help correct injustice.”  

Henry James lived adjacent to the victim and spent most of the day before the crime helping the victim’s husband repair his car. The victim was aware that James lived nearby and had seen him three or four times before. Later that day, the victim’s husband drove with James to Westwego, where they got into a car accident and the victim’s husband was arrested. At approximately 8 PM that evening, James went to the victim’s home to tell her that her husband had been arrested. At approximately 6 AM on November 23, 1981, the victim was awoken by someone entering her home through the back door. The man entered her bedroom and raped her at knifepoint. The police were at the scene almost immediately after the rape and the victim told the police that she didn’t know her assailant but gave a brief description of her attacker.

The next day, a police officer patrolling the neighborhood spotted James, who roughly fit the description, and informed the detective working on the case. The victim eventually picked James’ photo out of a book containing approximately 75 to 80 photos of black males. The record contains no indication that the victim told the police that she had previously met her attacker, much less that he had spent the previous day with her husband. James was arrested on November 25, 1981, and was placed in a line up where the victim identified him again.
At trial, the prosecution relied on the testimony of the victim who identified James again in court, the detective and a physician who only testified that the victim had had intercourse within a few hours of his examination. The jury did not hear that serology testing from the rape kit excluded James as the perpetrator. (The seminal fluid and sperm recovered indicated that the attacker was a nonsecretor. James is a secretor.)

James testified on his own behalf. He maintained his innocence of the crime and said that he was asleep that morning until his stepfather woke him and then went to work.  Three alibi witnesses backed up his testimony. His stepfather confirmed that he had been asleep at the time of the crime. (James’ mother had passed away, and he lived with his stepfather. James slept in the same bed as his stepfather.) Another witness testified that he saw the defendant walking to work and gave him a ride the rest of the way, and his boss testified that he arrived at work at 6:48 AM. However, James’ lawyer failed to inform the jury about the serological testing that excluded James as a suspect. The jury convicted James of aggravated rape, and he was sentenced on May 7, 1982 to life without parole.

“Tragically Mr. James has spent the best years of his life behind bars because of mistaken identification,” said Paul Killebrew, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans. “Although we have since developed police identification procedures that help prevent misidentification, Louisiana has so far refused to enact these best practices.  Hopefully, Mr. James’ case will serve as a wakeup call for the state legislature to mandate more accurate identification procedures statewide.”

After exhausting his appeals, James reached out to the Innocence Project, which sought to do DNA testing of the evidence recovered in the rape kit. Although officials at the Jefferson Parish Crime Laboratory were cooperative, the initial search for the evidence proved fruitless. The legal team eventually filed a motion on James’ behalf seeking testing on the evidence, but another search on February 18, 2010 also proved fruitless. On May 3, 2010, Milton Dureau, who worked for the lab, was looking for evidence in a different case when he stumbled upon a slide from James’ case. Fortunately, he remembered the case number from his earlier search. The evidence was sent to a lab, which did STR DNA testing on the slide. The testing, which was completed on September 26, 2011, excluded James as the perpetrator in the rape.

“Misidentification has played a role in 75% of the DNA exoneration, and cross racial identifications, as in this case, have proven especially unreliable,” said Thomas Golden, Partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. “In hind sight, it’s pretty obvious that the victim was influenced by her interactions with Mr. James the day before. The police may have also inadvertently influenced her misidentification. That’s why it’s especially important that the state enact identification reforms, especially those that require identification procedures be performed by an officer who doesn’t know the identity of the suspect.” 

Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, added, “Many people helped make this exoneration possible. We are especially grateful to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norman and District Attorney Paul Connick and his colleagues Steve Wimberly, Terry Boudreaux, Vince Lamia and Andrea Long who have been incredibly cooperative from the start, and to many incredible professionals at the lab who not only helped find the evidence but also advocated for Mr. James’s release as soon at the DNA evidence excluded him as the perpetrator.”

Download the court order exonerating James.


The legal team includes Potkin, Killebrew, Golden, Scheck and Associate Jeanna Composti of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.