By Travers Mackel | WDSU | January 15, 2021
A former client of both the newly installed Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams and a member of Williams’ leadership team entered a plea agreement Thursday that prompted a local watchdog group leader to allege a conflict of interest.
Dan Bright had faced an attempted murder charge from a 2019 stabbing in the Lower 9th Ward. He pleaded guilty on Thursday to a reduced charge of simple battery, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to time he’d already served and released from jail. Williams said the victim signed an affidavit saying Bright was not the person who stabbed him.
Years earlier, Bright was a client of Emily Maw, then a lawyer with Innocence Project New Orleans, an organization she later directed for over a decade. Maw helped prove he was wrongfully convicted in 2005 when Innocence Project New Orleans presented evidence pointing to another perpetrator, freeing him from prison after serving nine years for a crime he did not commit.
Maw is now the leader of the civil rights division at the DA’s office and is charged with scrutinizing problematic convictions or excessive sentences obtained by Williams’ predecessors.
Bright faced legal troubles after he got out of prison, in 2012, and Williams briefly represented him in a battery case.
Additionally, Bright’s attorney at Thursday’s hearing when Bright accepted the plea was Christopher Murrell, who was a member of Williams’ transition team.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said the office should have recused itself from the case because Williams and Maw previously represented Bright and because Murrell represented him in the case in question.
“There’s not one conflict – there are potentially three conflicts of interest,” Goyeneche said.
Williams tells WDSU neither he nor Maw represented Bright in the case that resolved Thursday, so he had no obligation to recuse the office.
“There’s no conflict of interest on if a DA or ADA represented someone on a case from years ago,” Williams said.
Williams also said the negotiations were “already ongoing” before he was sworn in as the new DA. Court records show Thursday’s court date had been scheduled prior to Williams taking office.
“This was absolutely the right thing to do – there was an affidavit from the victim saying, ‘I know who Dan Bright is and he is not the person who committed this crime,” Williams said.
Goyeneche then pointed to Williams’ remarks at his inauguration, “that he was going to end the practice of coercing innocent people to plea to crimes they didn’t commit.”
Bright was released Thursday night.