After man spends 17 years in prison, judge vacates conviction

GRETNA, La. (AP) — After spending 17 years in prison for an attempted rape he did not commit, Nathan Brown is now a free man.
"It's really a relief mentally, physically, to be free from serving time for a crime that you did not commit," Brown said Wednesday as he held his 1-year-old grandson, Kenard Southern, for the first time. "It was hard. It wasn't no easy task being in prison for 17 years for something you had no knowledge of."
NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reports (http://bit.ly/Tyiw3p ) state District Judge Ray Steib on Wednesday vacated Brown's 1997 conviction and 25-year sentence after attorneys from Innocence Project presented DNA evidence that exonerated the 40-year-old father.
Brown was convicted of attacking a woman as she returned home to her Metairie apartment on Aug. 7, 1997. The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office did not oppose Brown's application for post-conviction relief.
Relatives, including his daughter and uncle, crowded around to hug and cheer Brown as he arrived at The Innocence Project of New Orleans' office following his release from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
"What happened to Nate Brown is absolutely horrific," said Vanessa Potkin, senior attorney for The Innocence Project of New York.
One moment, Brown was playing with his two young daughters. The next, authorities asked him to step outside in relation to a disturbance and, "he never came home for the next 17 years."
"A lot went wrong in this case," Potkin said. "A crime happened, and there was a rush to judgment. No one stopped and scrutinized on any side. People just didn't hear his screams that he was innocent."
Still, Brown kept up his spirits.
Celene Brady, 24, Brown's eldest daughter, visited him for the first time when she was 18 years old. He was never downtrodden while she was there. "He was always real talkative," she said.
Brown made contact with the Innocence Project of New York in April 2013. The organization, along with its local branch, The Innocence Project of New Orleans, reached out to the Jefferson Parish district attorney's office, which worked with the group, said Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck.
Prosecutors raised no objections to the DNA testing on the victim's dress, which had been entered into evidence with the Jefferson Parish clerk of court and preserved. Analysts recovered a clean sample of saliva and "touch DNA" — DNA from sweat and skin left where the attacker ripped the dress.
Analysts created a profile of the attacker that definitively excluded Brown as the perpetrator, Potkin said. The DNA, instead, implicated another man, who had been living in the area at the time of the assault.
Innocence Project representatives declined to name the man, but said he is currently incarcerated in Mississippi. It was not clear whether Jefferson Parish authorities intend to prosecute the suspect in the case.
Brown said he's not angry with the victim.
"She was attacked. It was a terrible thing that happened to her," he said. "She was a victim, and I harbor no hard feelings to her. I wish her well."
The Innocence Project in New Orleans plans to help Brown in filing the necessary motions to seek compensation from the state.
Brown wants to work to better the justice system and prevent the errors that led to his conviction and incarceration. But first, Brown said he was off to get some of his first "real food" in 17 years: BBQ ribs.

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