Murray Barnes left a New Orleans, Louisiana bar after midnight on January 30, 1995. He had just won $1000 in a Super Bowl betting pool. He was with his cousin and his friend, and all three had been drinking for hours. As Barnes walked to his truck, two men approached, shot him three times, and then fled. Barnes ran back into the bar, where he died of internal bleeding shortly afterwards. When police arrived at the scene, Barnes’s cousin, Freddie Thompson, described the shooter as a light-skinned African-American in a hooded sweatshirt. Weeks later, police received an anonymous tip that Dan L. Bright was involved in the crime, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Bright’s mother learned that her son was a suspect when she saw him on America’s Most Wanted. Bright insisted he had nothing to do with the crime, but at his mother’s urging, he turned himself in.
Bright was tried for capital murder. The prosecution argued that he had attempted to rob Barnes of his Super Bowl winnings before shooting him, providing the aggravating factor necessary for a capital conviction. There was no physical evidence linking Bright to the crime, and the only eyewitness, Thompson, testified that he had been drinking heavily earlier that day. Bright, who is left-handed, had a cast on his left arm – a detail that Thompson never mentioned, and a significant impediment to firing a gun. Two witnesses for the defense testified that Bright was with them in another location when the murder was committed. However, the defense attorney – who was later described by the jury foreperson as “bumbling, unprepared, and perhaps drunk” – failed to point out the holes in the prosecution’s arguments. The attorney only met with Bright once before the trial, and in later hearings, it was revealed that his only stated goal was to “earn his fee” by winning a life-imprisonment sentence. He failed even at that; after a one-day trial and less than two hours of deliberation, a jury found Bright guilty and sentenced him to death.
On direct appeal, Bright’s new attorney argued that the prosecution could not prove that the perpetrator had attempted to rob the victim, and that the capital murder charge was therefore unsubstantiated. As a result of this appeal, Bright’s charge was dropped to second-degree murder, and his sentence reduced to life without parole. The court rejected additional arguments made by the defense regarding the questionable testimony of the sole eyewitness and the incompetence of the original defense attorney. Nevertheless, the questions raised during the appeals process convinced the defense to continue to seek post-conviction relief.
The defense suspected that the FBI had been keeping tabs on Bright, because of his prior criminal activity. When attorneys finally succeeded in obtaining Bright’s FBI file, the document was heavily redacted. Most significant was the line, “The source further advised that Daniel Bright, AKA “Poonie” is in jail for a murder committed by -----.” Eventually, a federal district court forced the FBI to release an un-redacted version of this line; the name that had been withheld was “Tracey Davis”. Meanwhile, attorneys had also uncovered information about Freddie Thompson’s criminal history, which the prosecution had suppressed.
Despite this evidence, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court denied Bright’s petition for post-conviction relief on June 10, 2003. On May 24, 2004, however, the Louisiana Supreme Court vacated Bright’s conviction and sentence and remanded the case for a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct in suppressing exculpatory evidence. With mounting evidence of Bright’s innocence, the district attorney dropped all charges, and Bright was released on June 14, 2004.
Kathleen Hawk Norman, the jury foreperson who signed Bright’s death warrant at his trial, was so disillusioned and outraged at the official misconduct that was later revealed that she became an outspoken anti-death penalty activist.
Bright settled a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit for $77,000. The state of Louisiana subsequently agreed to pay $208,000 in compensation.
– Alexandra Gross