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Pro Bono Heroes: Alston team wins freedom for man convicted under Jim Crow law

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(Reuters) - Twenty-six minutes. That’s how long it took a Louisiana jury in 1985 to convict Trent Wells of forcible rape and burglary, despite scant evidence tying him to the crime.

The 19-year-old Black man was sentenced to 50 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

The jury split 10-2, but at that time in Louisiana, jurors in felony cases didn’t have to be unanimous -- the result of a holdover Jim Crow law designed to ram through convictions and avoid mistrials.

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The landscape changed in 2020 when the U.S. Supreme Court (better late than never?) ruled that such non-unanimous convictions for serious offenses were unconstitutional.

Alston & Bird partner Daniella Main saw a new opening for Wells, who had exhausted his other appeals.

Partnering with The Promise of Justice Initiative, Main and her team won Wells’ release after more than 36 years behind bars. For their efforts, she and Alston associates Nathan Lee and Laura Hunt are Legal Action’s Pro Bono Heroes for November.

“We jumped on the opportunity to help,” Main said, getting to work on a petition for post-conviction relief soon after the high court in April 2020 held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial “requires a unanimous verdict” to support a conviction in state court.

A commercial litigator, Main had recently wrapped up a five-year pro bono fight representing a New York man convicted of manslaughter and was ready for a new project. After Hunt attended a presentation by The Promise of Justice about the Jim Crow jury cases, she reached out to Main about signing on.

Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed such non-unanimous convictions. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, noted that courts in both states “frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor” in originally promulgating the laws.

But the high court, in a ruling that included three separate concurrences and one dissent, left open whether its decision in Ramos v. Louisiana applied retroactively.

Under state law, Wells and about 1,500 other Louisiana inmates who were convicted by non-unanimous juries had one year from the decision to petition for a new trial or other post-conviction relief. Alternately, they could hope that the high court in a pending case, Edwards v. Vannoy, would decide that the Ramos decision was retroactive and their convictions would be overturned.

“We all agreed we were a little nervous putting all our eggs in that basket, so we started work right away,” Main said, using the reasoning from Ramos to argue that Wells’ conviction was unconstitutional.

Drafting the relief application was a formidable task. “There wasn’t a repository we could go to for trial materials,” Main said, and many records were lost in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Main connected with Wells’ sister, who sent the team hundreds of pages of court records that she had kept, and the Alston lawyers began writing lengthy applications.

That preparation proved to be key. In February 2021, Main said, “We learned we had one week to apply for post-conviction relief if we wanted Mr. Wells’ case to be in the first batch considered” by the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams.

In deciding whether to agree or oppose requests to vacate non-unanimous convictions, the DA’s office started with the cases of people who, like Wells, were convicted in Criminal District Court Section G, Main said. “After the first review, the DA’s office planned to go through each of the other sections before coming back to Section G, so timing was imperative.”

A spokesman from the DA’s office declined comment on Wells' case.

“Luckily, we had already made the strategic decision to begin work,” Main said, which allowed the team to meet the DA’s tight deadline.

In arguing that the conviction should be vacated, they focused on irregularities in Wells’ original trial in addition to the split verdict.

From voir dire to verdict, the entire proceedings took just half a day. There were no witnesses, DNA or physical evidence tying Wells to the crime other than three fingerprints, which Main called “unreliable.” A rape kit was never processed and had subsequently been lost, she said.

Wells has always maintained his innocence.

On Feb. 26, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court vacated Wells’ conviction and released him on $1,000 bail.

Early action on his application proved to be crucial. Twelve weeks later, the Supreme Court on May 17, 2021, ruled that its Ramos decision “does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing for the 6-3 majority noted that “conducting scores of retrials years after the crimes occurred would require significant state resources” and that the evidence needed to do so might have “become stale or is no longer available.”

The ruling complicated proceedings for the hundreds of other inmates who were convicted by non-unanimous juries but hadn’t yet succeeded in winning post-conviction relief.

Promise of Justice Deputy Director Jamila Johnson told me via email that several hundred cases are pending in Louisiana state appellate courts right now. One circuit has found Ramos is retroactive while another has determined it is not – a split that would seem ripe for review by the state’s highest court.

“To date, the Louisiana Supreme Court has not taken cases, even though this issue impacts about 1,500 men and women in Louisiana’s prisons and their families,” she said. “Each day our office is flooded with questions about why the court hasn’t acted.”

Wells is one of the lucky ones, at least relatively speaking. The DA’s office agreed not to re-prosecute in exchange for Wells pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. On November 10, the court officially disposed of his case.

Still, Main said she is acutely aware of how little the relief they won compares “in the grand scheme of things to what he lost” by spending more than 36 years behind bars.

In any other state, she said, a 10-2 verdict would have resulted in a mistrial, and Wells “would have walked out the door. Instead, he walked into prison.”

At least thanks to her help, he has walked out a free man now.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com

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