The work of a Centurion investigator often starts with a knock on the door, which is fitting because that is exactly what years earlier triggered the tragic mistake that we are seeking to correct. Back then, in many places all over the country, police officers pulled up to a home as the sun was still rising and announced their presence and intention by pounding on the door that separated them from the person, usually young and Black, who they came to arrest.
When Centurion investigators come to the same neighborhoods, sometimes many decades later, the legacy of those mornings still lingers. In the ensuing years, there have been more knocks on more doors with more people hauled away to jail, some never to return home despite having no involvement in the crime in question. With each of these arrests, convictions, and incarcerations, the human fabric of the community becomes more frayed. We stand on the front steps of homes in places like Philadelphia, the Bronx, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago hoping to begin the process of repairing a single stitch.
After careful screening and extensive discussion, a handful of cases each year become active Centurion cases. Upon acceptance, some of these cases end up in my hands. Before I hit the field, I create an investigative blueprint that consists of all of the places and people that we have come across in police and court records and through talking to our client. Centurion investigators go wherever necessary to prove innocence, leaving no stone unturned along the way. The key piece of new evidence that might lead to an exoneration could be located a few blocks from the crime scene or it might be found on the other side of the country.
From an investigative standpoint we differ from other innocence organizations in terms of the type of cases we take on. Our cases generally do not have a DNA component. In the absence of forensic evidence that could exonerate a client, we conduct complete top-to-bottom reinvestigations of cases, talking to existing witnesses, locating possible new witnesses, speaking to victims, and, yes, sometimes to people who we believe were involved in the crime. We are also not held back by geography. Our cases come from all over the country.
An investigator’s work is challenging. A knock on the door can be an unwelcome nuisance. It can also be a reminder of a past trauma. At first glance through the peephole, partially opened door, or pulled-back blinds, I look like a bill collector, salesman, or God forbid, an undercover cop with questions or a search warrant. On more than one occasion, people have called the police on me. I don’t blame them for being rattled. Being asked questions about a 20- or 30-year-old murder must be very unsettling.
As investigators, we can’t compel people to talk with a badge or bluster. Personally, I carry a notebook, some court documents, and oftentimes, now-and-then photos of the inmate whose case carries an awful stench of wrongful conviction. The “then” photo comes in handy because it helps jog memories. And side by side with the generally unrecognizable “now” photo, it illustrates the ravages of prison life and the urgency of our work.
Before I can get anywhere, the door has to open. My least favorite houses are the abandoned ones or the ones with signs that advertise the presence of dogs or warn trespassers to GET OUT. But most houses are plain old houses with non-functioning doorbells. It’s imperative to get past the screen door, even if that feels like a minor invasion of privacy, because screen door knocks are hollow, tinny, and feeble. Coming on too strong is also problematic. A heavy pound on the door will likely cause alarm and avoidance. This task calls for an amiable but decisive thump with the knuckles. Then I step back a few paces to present myself in full view. Standing on the doorstep, knowing what it is I am there to talk about poises me to go on the offensive. But if the person who answers the door has one of those screens that allow them to see out but not me to see in, the power dynamics completely shift.
Just because no one comes to the door doesn’t mean the house is empty. The cars in the driveway or in front of the house and the muffled sounds coming from within generally signal occupancy. One strategy I’ve learned with New Orleans cases, of which there are many, is always to make house calls when a hometown Saints football game is on television. That way, I know someone is home. I can hear the hoots and hollers. On those Sunday afternoons, I could be the pizza delivery guy or the neighbor wanting to talk about how Drew Brees is carving up the opposing defense. Either way, doors open during these communal events–at least at halftime.
Centurion’s investigative team can’t do what we need to do over the phone. Imagine getting a surprise call from a stranger asking questions about a long-ago murder you might know something about. Exactly. No, these conversations have to take place face to face. And the first 30 seconds of the discussion can establish the course of the rest of the relationship. After I briefly explain who I am, what I’m doing, and hand over a business card, I get sized up. If the person isn’t quite ready to invite me inside, we can talk on the front porch. That’s fine. As long as we talk and by doing so start a conversation about the chain of events that put an innocent person in prison and let a guilty one go free.
If that first encounter ends up leading to more, then it and every other will be scrutinized by prosecutors. “How did he identify himself?” they will ask. “What did he say he was doing? Did he offer you anything or pressure you in any way?” Or it is possible that a witness will come down with a case of talker’s remorse and later claim that I somehow misled them about the purpose of my visit. That’s why I make sure to avoid subterfuge or trickery. There’s no deep undercover work in which I pass myself off as a meter reader or delivery man. I get to the point and explain I’m reinvestigating an old criminal case. The words on my business card give away the rest: “Seeking Justice for the Innocent in Prison.”
Maybe the people I talk to saw something. Maybe they know someone who saw something. Maybe they know who committed the crime. Or, in rare cases, maybe they did it themselves. Whatever the case, they know that whatever they tell me comes with the price of getting involved. And once you’re involved in the heavy-handed world of the criminal justice system, even as a bit player, you just don’t know what might happen.
For a Centurion investigator, it is essential that the doors that open for us remain open. In many instances, our witnesses are people who have shown great courage by coming forward to do the right thing. And we need them to be with us for the long haul.
I’ve knocked on hundreds of doors in New Orleans, a city that is a lot more than just beads, beignets, and Bourbon Street. It is also the wrongful conviction capital of the United States, with historically the most exonerations per capita of any city in the country. Not coincidentally, Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates of any state. The more people you lock up, the more likely you are to make mistakes. And those mistakes linger. Louisiana exonerees go home having spent an average of more than 16 years in prison, almost twice the national rate. In the past three-and-a-half years, we have freed two wrongfully convicted lifers from the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola because it sits on land that once was a plantation worked by slaves brought over from the south-central African nation.
Success in our line of work isn’t measured in days, weeks, or even months. Victories come in stages over the course of many interviews and subsequent court filings and hearings. On average, it takes Centurion six years to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person.
Almost always, that journey starts with a knock on the door.