On January 20, prosecutors in a 2004 double murder case in Louisiana moved to dismiss all charges against our pro bono client, Darrill Henry, who had been convicted for the crimes in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Henry, who has always maintained his innocence, served nearly 16 years behind bars for the 2004 murders of an 89-year-old woman and her 67-year-old daughter in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. His exoneration came about as the result of seven years of post-conviction relief efforts by Paul, Weiss and co-counsel at the Innocence Project, and nearly three years after a Louisiana state judge overturned the murder conviction against him and ordered a new trial based on new exculpatory DNA evidence our team had surfaced.
In 2015, Paul, Weiss and the Innocence Project took over the case and began working to overturn his conviction. These efforts included, among others, a cert petition to the Supreme Court, an application and hearing for post-conviction relief, a successful motion for DNA testing on several items of evidence recovered from the crime scene, two trips to the Louisiana state Supreme Court, Mr. Henry’s humanitarian release on bail, and the ultimately successful motion to suppress the identification evidence.
The state’s capital murder case was weak. It rested on the unreliable testimony of witnesses shown suggestive photo arrays that all but guaranteed that Mr. Henry would be misidentified as the perpetrator. No other evidence implicated him in the crime, and other evidence showed that he was miles away from the scene at the time. After unsuccessfully appealing all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, our team filed a petition that his conviction should be overturned, citing multiple grounds, including unreliable witness identification practices and a bar on expert testimony on eyewitness identifications that could have helped exonerate Mr. Henry. Ultimately, a breakthrough came when the team provided new exculpatory DNA evidence, which had been found under the fingernails of one of the victims— evidence that definitively excluded Mr. Henry.
In light of the new evidence, in March 2020, Orleans Parish District Judge Dennis Waldron, who had overseen the original criminal trial, overturned Mr. Henry’s conviction and ordered a new trial. Judge Waldron noted that the DNA evidence in Mr. Henry’s case was “clear and convincing evidence that he is indeed factually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted,” adding that “[i]n all the years that I have served and all of the decisions that I’ve made, I’ve never been as confident in a decision.”
Afterwards, with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office expected to appeal, we filed a motion seeking his immediate release. Over the district attorney’s opposition, the trial court granted the application and set bail. In May 2020, after overcoming appeals by the district attorney to the state’s highest court attempting to block his release, Mr. Henry was finally released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary—also known as Angola Prison—and reunited with his family while he awaited the district attorney’s appeal of the trial court’s grant of a new trial.
At the time of the state’s motion to withdraw all charges and dismiss the case, the case had been set for a hearing before Orleans Criminal District Court Judge Angel Harris on our motion to suppress the identification evidence in the case that had resulted from the unreliable eyewitness procedures, which was the sole basis of the state’s remaining case against Mr. Henry. At the hearing on January 20, Judge Harris said “this [case] will forever impact how I view cases going forward,” highlighting the important issue Paul, Weiss and co-counsel raised in the briefs related to the fallibility of eyewitness identifications. She further noted the need for courts to be educated on the issue.