Alston & Bird Help Toss Non-Unanimous Louisiana Conviction

By Marco Poggio | December 5, 2021, 8:02 PM EST ·

Trent Wells at work at a hospital in New Orleans. He was sent to prison for 50 years following a non-unanimous jury verdict. He served over 36 years behind bars. (Courtesy of Trent Wells)

The criminal case against Trent Wells, a Black Louisiana man from a poor community, was shaky from the very beginning. After he was arrested and charged with raping a woman and burglary, the main bit of evidence in the prosecutors' hands were three latent fingerprints found on a window frame at the victim's house.

It was 1985 and DNA testing wasn't widely available. There were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, either.

Even the speed with which Wells's trial proceeded, his attorneys said, pointed to a miscarriage of justice. From jury selection to sentencing, it was all done in one day. Deliberations took only 26 minutes.

It was ultimately a non-unanimous guilty verdict — a 10-2 vote — that convicted Wells, who was later sentenced to 50 years in prison with no chance of parole or early release.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared non-unanimous criminal convictions unconstitutional last year in Ramos v. Louisiana , Wells, who had exhausted all of his appeals, saw a path to freedom.

In light of that landmark decision, a team of attorneys with Alston & Bird LLP working jointly with The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans secured Wells' release. A Louisiana trial court vacated his conviction in March and he was released on a $1,000 bail. Last month, Orleans Parish prosecutors decided that they would not re-prosecute Wells, effectively ending his jeopardy.

"I really was under the impression that I would never get out of prison," Wells, who lost his parents, four brothers and a sister while spending over 36 years incarcerated, told Law360.

Wells, who has professed his innocence all along, refused to plead guilty in exchange for a 25-year prison sentence. He ended up spending most of his life locked up — he was arrested at age 18 and is now 56 — at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, a prison known for its history of violence and that hosts the state's death chamber. For 18 straight years, Wells was confined in a one-man cell that was 8 feet wide and 10 feet long for 23 hours a day, he said.

"Knowing that [I] was innocent the whole time," Wells said, "that would really mess with me mentally, more than anything."

Daniella Main, a partner at Alston & Bird who assisted Wells, said he should have never been convicted. First, the evidence was unreliable, she said. Two jurors voted to acquit Wells of all charges, but their vote didn't matter because Louisiana allowed for 10-2 verdicts.

"If he was in almost any other state, he would have walked out the door of the courthouse on that day. He instead walked into a jail cell," Main told Law360.

On April 20, 2020, in the Ramos case, the Supreme Court ruled with a 6-3 majority that non-unanimous jury convictions, which had been permitted in Louisiana and Oregon, violated the right to a fair trial protected by the Sixth Amendment.

In the majority opinion signed by five justices — Justice Clarence Thomas concurred only in judgment and did not join the opinion — Justice Neil Gorsuch said Louisiana's non-unanimous jury system was the product of the Jim Crow era. When the state held a constitutional convention in 1898 to adopt it, the intent was to create a facially race-neutral system to ensure that the vote of Black jurors would be meaningless, the opinion says.

After Ramos was decided, Wells had a choice: waiting until a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision in another case, Edwards v. Vannoy , would determine whether Ramos applied retroactively to cases like his, or ask a state court to vacate his conviction. Many other people who had been convicted by non-unanimous juries faced the same dilemma.

"People were in this weird limbo," Main said. "We were kind of in this really difficult position."

Main and her colleagues consider several factors. One is that the U.S. Supreme Court is usually reluctant to apply its ruling retroactively, she said. Another was that the composition of the high court had changed since Ramos. Justice Amy Coney Barrett had replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, tilting the court toward more conservative views.

On the other hand, a newly elected Orleans Parish District Attorney, Jason Williams, had pledged to work with The Promise of Justice Initiative to revisit convictions based on Jim Crow-era laws, including those relying on non-unanimous verdicts.

Main, working alongside Alston & Bird senior associate Nathan Lee and associate Laura Hunt, decided to try their luck in state court. Putting in hundreds of hours of pro bono work and aided by Wells' sister, who provided hundreds of pages of trial records she had kept inside boxes in her house, the attorneys worked on a post-conviction relief application asking for Wells' conviction to be tossed.

It was filed on Feb. 10 in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. A few weeks later, and unexpectedly soon to the attorneys, the court vacated Wells' conviction.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled with a 6-3 majority that the Ramos decision did not apply retroactively. But by the time that decision came down, Wells had obtained relief in state court.

Next came the push to dismiss the charges against him. Orleans Parish prosecutors could have decided to retry Wells, but on Nov. 10, the district attorney's office offered Wells to refuse to prosecute him on the rape charges, in exchange for him to plead guilty to misdemeanor burglary. Represented by a public defender — the terms of engagement with Alston & Bird had ended with the court's decision to vacate his conviction — Wells took the deal.

The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office did not return a request for comment.

Wells went into prison without knowing how to read or write. He educated himself behind bars. He now works as a janitorial staff at a local hospital, a job he is proud about.

"This job that I got is something I always wanted to do. Working in a hospital, where they help people," Wells said.

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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