Two years into his 25-year sentence for attempted aggravated rape, Nathan Brown could tell the man sitting across from him — a jailhouse lawyer named Lawyer Winfield — was not going to help him get out of prison. It was astounding to Brown that he was pinning his hopes on a fellow Louisiana inmate with an eighth-grade education and whose formal legal training was to a prison paralegal course. “But he knew more than I did,” Brown said, reports ProPublica. In 1997, a woman was assaulted in the courtyard of the apartment complex where Brown lived with his mother. The woman, who was white, fended off the attacker with her high-heeled shoe until he fled on a bicycle. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, a security guard suggested they question Brown, one of the few Black tenants. Brown, 23 at the time, was in his pajamas, rocking his baby daughter to sleep. Deputies handcuffed and brought him to the victim. When she couldn’t identify him, the officers allowed her to smell him. She had told them her attacker had a foul body odor. Brown, she would later testify, smelled like soap; he must have showered immediately after, she speculated. He was found guilty.
Winfield and Brown worked on an appeal for months,and the Louisiana 5th Circuit Court of Appeal delivered a rejection just a week later. The denial — a single sentence that didn’t address any of Brown’s claims — bore the names of three judges. How could they return the ruling so quickly? Years later, the suicide note of a high-level court employee disclosed that the judges had decided, in secret, to ignore the petitions of prisoners who could not afford an attorney. Aa group of white judges had decided that the claims of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of inmates — most of them Black — were not worth taking the time to read. Among those petitions was Brown’s claim that a DNA test would have proved his innocence. A staffer said judges had instructed him to ignore the law and dispose of the appeals on his own. The implications were staggering. Over 12 years, the 5th Circuit, responsible for reviewing challenges from trial courts in four parishes, had disregarded at least 5,000 pro se petitions from Louisiana prisoners. The inmates ranged from people convicted of murder to nonviolent offenders sent away for life. Many had limited education and struggled to present their arguments in the language of the courts.