The New Orleans district attorney finds himself having to fight a lawsuit filed by two men who won their freedom with help from the district attorney’s office.
The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reports that Kuantay Reeder and Kaliegh Smith had their convictions in separate criminal cases vacated in 2021 with the help of District Attorney Jason Williams’ civil rights division. Both were freed from prison as a result and they are now seeking compensation from the district attorney’s office in separate lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
Faced with the potential liability of his predecessors in the district attorney’s office, Williams has said in court filings that his taxpayer-funded office can’t be held financially responsible for its past actions. He declined to comment to the newspaper on his views about paying damages for past wrongs.
Legal experts said the exonerated men’s lawsuits raise questions that haven’t been extensively explored.
“Once the error is corrected in the criminal case, what does further accountability mean?” asked Jennifer Laurin, a University of Texas School of Law professor who studies constitutional litigation and criminal law reforms.
Reeder and Smith both were convicted in second-degree murder cases. Reeder was incarcerated for roughly 18 years in connection with a 1993 slaying; Smith, roughly 14 years after his arrest in a 2007 killing. Both were freed after Williams’ civil rights division acknowledged that important information had been withheld by prosecutors. Both convictions came well before Williams won election in 2020 as a reformer.
In fighting Smith’s lawsuit, Williams’ attorneys note a recent decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, which challenged the bail systems in criminal courts, the federal judges ruled that Texas judges act not on behalf of their counties, but the state.
Williams has argued that district attorneys also act as arms of the state when they prosecute state laws, and aren’t subject to lawsuits in federal court.
A wrongfully convicted person in Louisiana can also seek restitution through the state by proving themselves factually innocent to a judge. But the person will face a legal fight against the state attorney general’s office. And any award won is capped at $400,000.
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