Elvis Brooks spent forty-two years in a Louisiana prison — nearly two-thirds of his life — for a murder he always insisted he did not commit. Arrested in 1977 at the age of nineteen, Brooks was charged with robbery and murder. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. At trial, three white witnesses identified Brooks, an African American, as one of the armed robbers. Brooks presented twelve alibi witnesses who swore under oath that Brooks was elsewhere at the time of the offense.
Brooks was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
In mid-October, 2019, flanked by lawyers from the New Orleans Innocence Project, Brooks was finally back in a Louisiana court for a hearing about newly discovered evidence. It turns out the prosecution at trial did not turn over to evidence to the defense that could have helped prove his innocence. There were previously undisclosed fingerprints — not Brooks’ — on two beer cans held by the actual robbers. There were previously undisclosed records which showed neither of the two black victims identified Brooks just one-half hour before the white witnesses claimed they knew it was him. There was social science data showing that cross-racial identifications are notoriously unreliable.
Instead of a hearing, however, things took an unexpected turn. The prosecution made Brooks an offer. Plead guilty to manslaughter and three armed-robbery counts, and you’ll be free.
Brooks took the deal. As Brooks explained, he didn’t want to take the plea, but he wasn’t “getting any younger.” A judge accepted his guilty plea and re-sentenced Brooks to what essentially was time served.
After four decades behind bars, Brooks finally went home. It was bittersweet. He left prison not as an innocent man, but as a convicted felon.
What is gut-wrenching about the case is that the prosecution, even after all these years, refused to acknowledge that Brooks’ guilt was even possibly at issue.
This exact scenario plays itself out in courtrooms around the country. Defendants found guilty at trial but who— years later — are able to present strong cases of innocence may be offered plea deals by prosecutors. The deals are tantalizing “get out of jail” cards with a cost: defendants must…