Nathan Brown was exonerated on June 25th, 2014 after serving nearly 17 years for an attempted rape that he did not commit. Brown was 23 years old when he was convicted, and was eventually exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence which excluded him from the perpetrator’s profile.
In the early-morning hours of August 7th, 1997, a 40-year old white woman was walking through the courtyard of her apartment building when she was attacked from behind and thrown to the ground. The assailant bit the victim’s neck, ripped her dress open and took her purse before she was able to fend him off by striking him with her high heels, which she was carrying. The victim saw her assailant flee on a bike shortly after she reported the incident to a police officer who had been called by neighbors who heard the victim’s screams.
Investigation and Trial
The victim told police that she had been attacked by a black man who was wearing black shorts and no shirt. She also said the man had a very strong body odor. Although the victim believed her attacker lived outside of the apartment complex, a security guard for the complex directed police to Nathan Brown—one of the few black people living in the apartment complex.
Police knocked on Brown’s door just minutes after the crime. He was in his bedroom wearing pajamas, rocking his young daughter to sleep. The officers conducted what is called a one-on-one “show-up,” a highly-suggestive identification procedure in which a single suspect is presented to the eyewitness at either the site of the arrest or near the site of the crime.
Brown was told to get dressed. He changed out of his pajamas into black shorts and was taken outside to the victim who was waiting in a patrol car. Brown had no shirt on. The victim was asked to get out to take a closer look and to smell Brown, at which point she identified him as her assailant. Although Brown did not have strong body odor, but rather smelled of soap, she explained at trial that she believed he must have taken a shower and that meant he was her attacker.
Brown went on trial on November 19, 1997. Brown’s mother retained a private lawyer to represent him. The lawyer, Frank J. Larre, met Brown for the first time on the day his trial was set to start. At trial, the victim claimed that she recalled seeing a tattoo with the letters “LLE” on the assailant’s chest. A police officer testified that the victim did not mention anything about the tattoo until after the show-up, during which Brown was shirtless, exposing his chest tattoo of the name “MICHELLE.” Brown testified in his own defense and told the jury that he was at home caring for his “fussy infant daughter” at the time of the crime. Despite the fact that four relatives who were at home with Brown that night testified as alibi witnesses, Brown was convicted in less than a day. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole for the crime of attempted aggravated rape.
Brown maintained his innocence throughout his 16 years in prison and contacted the Innocence Project to help prove his wrongful conviction. With the consent of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing of a stain on the shoulder of the victim’s dress where she was bitten. The stain tested positive for saliva and yielded a full male DNA profile that excluded Brown. This profile was consistent with male DNA found on three other areas of the dress, including the front where the assailant ripped it open. The profile was entered into the federal DNA database and there was a match to an offender convicted of a felony in Mississippi. The match was a black male who was 17 years old at the time of the crime and living within blocks of the apartment complex where the victim was attacked.
The lack of preparation evident in Brown’s legal defense also contributed to his wrongful conviction. “Mr. Brown’s mother paid for an attorney who it appears did almost nothing to prepare for the trial,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “Unfortunately we have seen that happen far too many times here in Louisiana. Of the 41 people who have been exonerated in Louisiana, more than two-thirds had less than effective defense lawyers.”
Charge: Simple Robbery, Attempted Aggravated Rape
Conviction: Attempted Aggravated Rape
Sentence: 25 years
Incident Date: 08/07/1997
Conviction Date: 11/19/1997
Exoneration Date: 06/25/2014
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Exoneree: African American
Race of Victim: Caucasian
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes