Along with University of San Francisco Law Professor Lara Bazelon, Lieff Cabraser partner Robert J. Nelson represents Yutico Briley, who was convicted in 2013 of armed robbery, stealing $102 at gunpoint. Yutico was 19 years old at the time, and received a sentence of 60 years without the possibility of parole, so this sentence effectively amounted to a life sentence. From the moment of his arrest, Mr. Briley professed his innocence. He had an alibi, that he was in a hotel room across town during the time of the robbery. But his lawyers bungled the request for the video camera evidence from the hotel, and it was never recovered. Nor did they interview the person Yutico was with at the time of the robbery. Nor did trial counsel analyze his cell phone records that would have revealed his location. The white victim’s description did not match Yutico: the victim said the assailant was a dark skinned African American, thin build, and 5 ft. 10 inches. Briley is light complected, 5 ft. 8, and stocky, 185 pounds with a size 36 inch waist, and had facial hair. So basically the primary match was that Yutico was an African American male and wore a hoody. And no alibi defense was presented at trial.
The State’s case was weak, consisting of a cross-racial (white victim, black suspect) show-up identification. A show-up identification is different from a line-up identification because in a show-up there is only one suspect to choose from, and during this show-up Yutico was shackled at the police station. Show-up identifications are notoriously unreliable, and are supposed to be used by police only in exigent circumstances, usually moments after a crime has been committed, not a day later as was the case here. Yutico’s trial lasted all of one afternoon, and was bungled in many other ways by these lawyers, all detailed in our very lengthy petition for post conviction relief.
Below is from a letter that the newly elected progressive District Attorney wrote to the judge overseeing Yutico’s case (this judge is not the sentencing judge, who has since retired):
“After extensive review, it appears that Mr. Briley’s case was a wrongful armed robbery conviction based on a show-up identification by a single white witness who subsequently expressed uncertainty as to the accuracy of his identification. We believe his case demonstrates multiple failures of the criminal legal system that have been far too common in the typically brief trials of young Black men in Orleans Parish. It is an injustice that needs to be rectified as promptly as possible.”
An extraordinary hearing was held March 18, where the judge, also newly elected, agreed with the DA that Mr. Briley should be freed, after having served more than 7 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The transcript from that momentous hearing has now been released.
The transcript reveals that the judge was particularly critical of the fact that Mr. Briley’s lawyers accepted monies from him to do an investigation but never did any work, including not getting the video footage from the hotel where Mr. Briley was at the time of the robbery. She was especially moved by the fact that Mr. Briley “over 14 times brought up to his lawyers in the first two weeks after he was arrested, please get the footage, please get the footage, it will clear me, and they never got the footage. They just wanted the money.”
She then focused on the DA’s own misconduct, and criticized the office for not doing a serious investigation before charging someone with a crime that could result in a 60 year sentence: “I do want to reiterate because I think it is so important to signal how differently we hope prosecutions can proceed in New Orleans; that the State was in possession of transcripts of all those calls to his lawyer and could have very easily subpoenaed or called the hotel and just asked [for the footage]. It would have taken maybe 30 seconds to a minute to do that, and proceeding with basic indifference as to whether they were prosecuting the wrong person, when it would have been a routine matter to check, was unacceptable then, and it is definitely unacceptable now in this administration.”
She concluded: “The criminal legal system unquestionably failed Mr. Briley. It also failed the victim of this crime, and it failed the City of New Orleans.”
Co-counsel USF Law Professor Lara Bazelon commented, “Mr. Briley’s case is not an anomaly. Yutico has said to me that his case is a product of a justice system that is rooted in racism, that sees black men as subhuman, to be swept off the streets and dumped into prisons that are converted slave plantations. When Yutico was first sent to prison at the age of 19, he was sent out to work in the fields every day, picking crops with the other able-bodied prisoners, nearly all of whom were black. The guards who oversaw them sat on horseback with guns, forming a line. And if one prisoner tried to cross the line they fired a shot in the air, one warning shot, and then the next shot they fired into your body. And sometimes they just fired their weapons in the air for fun. Mr. Briley said he’s heard those shots so many times that he’s permanently shell shocked just from the noise and the fear. Every day I was out there, Mr. Briley told me, I would think about running the gun line before I let these people break me. Just get it over with.”
Professor Bazelon continued: “Mr. Briley was convicted in 2013 but it might as well have been 1813. Except for Ms. Boudreaux (a New Orleans public defender who handled the case for a brief time and wrote a note to new counsel about how they have to follow up with the alibi witness) no one who touched this case, not the Judge, the prosecutors, the trial lawyers, saw my client as a human being. No one saw him for who he was, a teenager who survived cancer that required open-heart surgery, who lived through a lifetime of deprivation that included being routinely hungry and neglected, and still managed to be in the gifted and talented program in high school, a star athlete, a warm and generous person with lots of friends. No one ever bothered to find out any of this information even if it was only to beg for mercy at sentencing.” She said that being innocent of a crime is like a fire in the brain, “And that fire has burned inside of my client’s brain for eight years. It is a fire that has been with us for generations. It is a fire that has been with us for centuries. That fire is here today, in the courtroom. We brought this fire to you, Your Honor, to ask you, with the extraordinary power that you have, to put it out, this fire, this time, for this man, Yutico Briley, Jr.”
Judge Angel Harris was elected to the bench in November 2020 and was formerly a NOLA public defender. She began her remarks as follows: “I have read through the petition, and I have to say that I was utterly appalled by what I read and what I saw.” She continued: “But I also have to say that it actually wasn’t a surprise to me because I’ve seen it happen over and over again. This was a textbook example of the failings of our criminal court system. We can start with the show-up and how inappropriate that was. We can talk about ineffective assistance of counsel and how counsel failed Mr. Briley. And I’m just glad that today we have a chance to right the wrong that has been done.” She went on: “Mr. Briley, there are a lot of people here to support you. And I know that this will be an uphill battle for you, and I just want you to stay strong and stay encouraged and to not allow this to provide you with a bitterness for a system that has in fact failed you. We are all acknowledging that this has happened to you, and I just hope that you are able to press on and work through this and have a productive future.” She concluded: “This is the first day and the first step in moving beyond the experience that you’ve had in the criminal court system. And I too apologize on behalf of the City of New Orleans. And, you know, I really hope, and I appreciate the fact that the DA’s office has begun this civil rights unit so that we can really start mending our communities, because that is why I ran for judge, because I thought that it’s very important for the entire community. And we can’t continue to harm entire communities and ruin lives.”
Yutico is now free, his conviction overturned, and starting his life anew. “Interestingly, when Lara and I met with the former DA and his chief assistants last summer, they advised us that they had carefully reviewed the file and that Mr. Briley had received all the process he was due,” noted Robert Nelson. “Likely the judge (now retired) who sentenced Yutico to 60 years in 2013 would have said the same. What a difference a new prosecutor and new judge made for this young man, and hopefully for NOLA going forward.”
The law students at USF Law School who worked on the case with Professor Bazelon and Lieff Cabraser have started a gofundme page to assist Yutico. He has a difficult but also promising road ahead of him. Below is the link to that page if you are inclined to make a financial contribution to help Yutico make a new start.
Go Fund Me for Yutico Briley, Jr.
Exoneration Report from U. Mich. Law