Zurik: Court rules against Attorney General in fight over exonerated inmate compensation

Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 12:01 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - For Malcolm Alexander, a decades-long battle might finally be coming to an end.

“Actually, tears came to my eyes. I felt that it’s finally all over with,” Alexander said.

Alexander spent 38 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was released in 2018, after his 1979 rape conviction was overturned because of ineffective counsel, and DNA later proved he wasn’t responsible for the crime.

About a year and a half after his release, with little money and most of his working years behind him, Innocence Project New Orleans filed a petition on Alexander’s behalf. The petition asked the state of Louisiana to grant Alexander some of the money set aside in the Innocence Compensation Fund. The fund allows people who were wrongly convicted to receive $40,000 a year for up to 10 years.

State law says to be eligible for the money, a person’s conviction needs to be reversed or vacated, and clear and convincing scientific or non-scientific evidence has to exist that proves factual innocence. Despite the DNA evidence, Alexander hasn’t received any compensation nearly five years after his release.

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office has fought against giving Alexander compensation, but that likely will soon change.

“Oh, man, a burden had been lifted. I mean, the truth. I mean, like, I’m free. I’m truly freed. It’s like the nightmares have stopped,” Alexander said.

In late June, a Fifth Circuit Court panel ruled against Landry, writing that Alexander had proven his factual innocence in the case. Alexander isn’t the only exonerated inmate who has waited years for compensation.

Since taking office in 2016, Landry has filed oppositions in nearly 85 percent of cases where exonerated inmates filed for compensation. Fox 8 compared the National Registry of Exonerations to court records and found Landy opposed 11 of 13 requests for compensation since taking office.

Landry’s predecessor Buddy Caldwell filed oppositions in nine of 27 cases, or just 33 percent of the time.

Landry’s legal moves haven’t been successful in court. In the 11 cases he’s opposed so far, courts have ruled against him eight times. The other three cases are pending. Tulane Emeritus Law Professor Joel Friedman says the filings only slow down the process for exonerees to get compensation and cost taxpayers money.

“The Landry administration, they are not only challenging most of these requests for compensation … but in doing so, they’re losing most of the cases, which suggests that they probably could have figured out in advance … that the guy was innocent,” Friedman said.

Fox 8 first reported Landry was fighting the majority of exoneree compensation cases in May 2023. After two reports aired, the AG’s spokesperson sent us an email, saying our stories presented false information to viewers and asking for an on-air correction.

In response, Fox 8 asked for an on-camera interview with Landry or someone from his office to clarify anything they felt was incorrect. The spokesperson scheduled an interview with former Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who now runs the criminal division of the attorney general’s office. However, before the interview, the AG’s office canceled.

Fox 8 asked to reschedule and requested documentation to support the office’s claims of false information. However, the office hasn’t responded to our last three emails.

“So, why are they wasting time and money and being so callous for those wrongly convicted defendants, who in fact were not only wrongly convicted because of some legal error, but were also factually innocent? Why are you doing this?” Friedman asked.

For Malcolm Alexander, all that matters is that his fight could finally be over. The 63-year-old works full-time at the Jefferson Parish Water Department to make ends meet. He previously told Fox 8 he might have to work until he’s 75 or 80 years old. Now, he thinks he’ll be able to retire around 70.

Alexander said the payments will also help him strengthen his relationships with his family.

“I would love the idea of taking my wife, my son, my grandson, my great-grandson and actually having an evening on me,” he said.

He also has plans to take his wife on vacation, his first vacation ever.

“I have never been on vacation,” Alexander said. “And that’s one of the things that I’d love to be able to do, to actually take my wife on a true vacation.”

In the email from Landry’s office challenging the numbers in our original reporting, the office claimed it didn’t challenge compensation for three individuals whom Fox 8 referenced. However, Fox 8 obtained copies of oppositions filed in court by Landry’s office in two of those cases. In the third case, while the Attorney General’s office did agree to the exoneree’s factual innocence, it still opposed paying the exoneree a lump sum payment of $80,000 for loss-of-life opportunities.

Our reporting also only used petitions for compensation that were filed by people recognized as exonerees by the National Registry of Exonerations. That list doesn’t include every person who had a conviction overturned, but only those whose convictions were overturned after new evidence of innocence was presented.

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