Shortly after midnight on August 7, 1997, a 40-year-old white woman called police in Metairie, Louisiana to report she had been attacked as she returned to her apartment complex. The woman told police that she parked her car outside the complex because the parking lot was full, and walked in carrying her high heels. She said she saw a man rush toward her out of the corner of her eye and then she was tackled from behind.
According to her account, the attacker tried to pry her legs open and during the struggle, the attacker bit her on the neck and ripped open the front of her dress. She said she fought off the attacker by beating him with her shoes. The man fled with her purse into a parking lot adjacent to the complex’s main parking lot. Moments later, her attacker, who was shirtless and wearing plain black shorts, rode off on a bike.
The police contacted security officers at the apartment complex and a security guard directed officers to the apartment of 23-year-old Nathan Brown, who is black. The guard believed Brown had been questioned in a prior Peeping Tom incident. Less than 30 minutes after the victim reported the attack, Brown’s mother answered the door and summoned Brown from a bedroom where he was rocking his two-year-old daughter to sleep as two nephews slept on the floor.
At an officer’s request, Brown came out to the parking lot. Before doing so, Brown changed out of his pajamas and into a pair of black short with distinctive white stripes on the front. Standing shirtless, Brown was viewed by the victim who was in a police car. The woman could not identify him, but asked if she could get closer. The woman then walked close to Brown and said, “That’s him. That’s him. I’m positive that’s him!”
The woman told police that her attacker had very strong body odor and because Brown smelled like soap, she believed he had quickly showered to conceal his involvement in the attack.
Brown, who had no criminal record, was arrested and charged with attempted aggravated rape. He went on trial in Jefferson Parish Judicial District Court on November 19, 1997. He was represented by attorney Frank J. Larre, whom he met for the first time two days earlier.
The prosecution was based entirely on the victim’s identification of Brown. She testified that she saw lettering on her attacker’s bare chest that looked like an “L and L, and an E.”
Prosecutors presented evidence that Brown had the name “MICHELLE” tattooed on his chest. A police officer testified, however, that the victim did not mention the letters until after she had viewed Brown in the parking lot.
The victim’s torn dress was presented to corroborate the victim’s claim of a struggle. The victim’s purse and the bicycle that she said the attacker used to escape were never found. The victim admitted that she did not tell police that her attacker’s shorts had white stripes or that her attacker had facial hair. Brown had a mustache and goatee and was wearing black shorts with white stripes when she identified him.
Brown presented four alibi witnesses—his two nephews, his mother and her boyfriend—all of whom were in the apartment when police arrived. All testified that Brown had been in the apartment at the time of the attack.
Brown testified and denied that he was the attacker. “I can assure you sir, I was in my house with my family (when) this crime was going down.”
Brown’s lawyer failed to present evidence that Brown was legally blind from birth and would have had extreme difficulty executing the attack in the manner described by the victim. There was no evidence presented that Brown bore no marks from being struck by a shoe.
Although a police officer filed a report saying he put his hand to Brown’s chest to check his heart rate when he first spoke with him in Brown’s apartment less than an hour after the attack, no testimony was given on whether Brown’s heart rate was elevated as might be expected had he attacked the woman in the way she described, then fled on a bicycle and manage to get home and into his pajamas so quickly. Moreover, a lone shoe found at the scene and believed to have been from the attacker was never linked to Brown.
The trial lasted one day. The jury convicted Brown and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In 2002, Brown wrote to the New York-based Innocence Project seeking help. In July 2013, the Innocence Project contacted the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, which agreed not to oppose a motion for DNA testing. A motion was filed in December, 2013 and granted in February 2014.
DNA tests were performed on the dress, which the victim had said was brand new, and in May 2014, the testing identified a male DNA profile that was not Brown’s. The same male DNA profile was found on five separate areas of the dress, including the upper shoulder area where saliva was identified.
The DNA profile was uploaded to the FBI’s DNA database and matched the profile of a convicted felon incarcerated in Mississippi. The suspect was 17 at the time of the attack and lived near the apartment complex.
On June 24, the Innocence Project and the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office filed a joint motion requesting that Brown’s conviction be vacated. On June 25, Jefferson Parish District Court Judge Ray Steib granted the motion. The prosecution dismissed the charge and Brown was released.
In September 2014, a judge ordered the state of Louisiana to pay Brown $330,000 in compensation.
– Maurice Possley