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Among the Exonerated 

Last week for the first time, Greg Bright and Earl Truvia held nieces, nephews and cell phones. The pair served 27 years, possibly the longest wrongful sentence in American history.

This past Tuesday morning, Michelle Williams, 34, stood outside the Orleans Parish central lockup. She's Greg's baby sister, she says, gesturing over at the lanky man in prison denims.

Everyone here introduces themselves the same way, as niece, nephew, brother or sister to either Greg -- Gregory Bright -- or to Earl -- Earl Truvia. The pair spent nearly three decades in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola before walking out the door today, free men.

"These two men were arrested in 1975. They were innocent then and they're innocent now," proclaims attorney Emily Bolton, who led their legal team at Innocence Project New Orleans. From New York, national Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck declares Truvia and Bright to be among the exonerated.

Before their release, the two spent more than 27 years in prison, which may be a national record. "This is a very good candidate for the longest wrongful incarceration in American history," says Rob Warden, who heads up the Chicago-based Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In November 1975, Bright and Truvia were charged with the murder of Elliot "Al" Porter, who had been shot in the B.W. Cooper housing project. The case relied on no physical evidence, only the testimony of a police tipster, Sheila Marie Caston. Still, the July 1976 trial took less than a day, with a jury that deliberated for only 12 minutes. Bright and Truvia were sentenced to life without parole.

Last year, Orleans Parish Judge Charles Elloie ruled that the prosecutors had withheld evidence about Caston's eight different aliases, seven different dates of birth, and her diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from auditory delusions. That evidence "was reasonably likely to have produced a different result in the trial," wrote Elloie in a decision upheld in March by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The trial was scheduled to begin last week. But last Monday, District Attorney Eddie Jordan announced that his office would not re-try the case. In a prepared statement, Jordan's deputy of trials Robert White noted that Caston's testimony had conflicted with autopsy results and other facts. Jordan emphasized that prosecutors knew that the witness had been in a mental hospital, but failed to inform the defense. "The way this case was handled by the former District Attorney's office is inexcusable," he wrote.

Former District Attorney Harry Connick has consistently denied any wrongdoing. So has Henry Julien, who helped to prosecute the case in 1976. "No evidence was hidden from the defense," Julien says. "When people choose to say that something happened 27 years ago when they weren't there, I think I have a responsibility to say they're misinformed."

For today, Truvia and Bright are putting the legal arguments aside. Truvia, for the first time, is using a cell phone, with some help from his youngest brother, Gary, 38, who is showing him which buttons to press. A few steps away stands Robin Robertson, the girl Earl was dating when he was arrested. "We never experienced life, never had that chance," says Robertson as they walk off to her car. His mother, Arthurine Truvia, waves goodbye to them and dances a few steps. "I feel so, so good," she says. The families are now heading to the lake, where they'll eat Popeye's chicken and catch up.

Bright watches quietly. His mother, Rosemary Williams, had one son -- him. It was tough on her when he was arrested, he says, and devastating to him when she died in 1985 and he wasn't allowed to attend the funeral. But she's never left him in spirit. "She's telling me to enjoy this," he says, "and I am going to enjoy every inch of it."

Some pieces of the past, however, will be hard to shake. The next day, Bright wakes up at 5 a.m. -- rise-and-shine time in prison. People keep telling him he should sue, but he's not thinking about that right now. "No amount of money can pay for the amount of time I done spent," he says. "I just need some time to, basically, be quiet, to reflect on all this."

Truvia also wakes up early. By lunchtime, he is back at Popeye's, re-ordering his favorite -- chicken and a chocolate milk. After one day, he says, he's realizing that he has to re-learn how to meet "everyday people," people who aren't prison guards or inmates. It's like a different language, he says.

His brother Gary drives him to the Social Security office, where an Avon lady recognizes him from the TV news, tells him she has some cologne for him, and then asks a favor. "She told me she had a son in prison, told me she'd like me to write him and give him some words of encouragement," Truvia reports. Encouragement will come easy. "My heart's full of that," he says.

click to enlarge Gregory Bright, his 11-year-old nephew Darrius - Bright, 5-year-old Reonna Crouch, and her uncle, - Earl Truvia, celebrate moments after Bright and - Truvia's release. - SEAN SMUDA
  • Sean Smuda
  • Gregory Bright, his 11-year-old nephew Darrius Bright, 5-year-old Reonna Crouch, and her uncle, Earl Truvia, celebrate moments after Bright and Truvia's release.
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