In June of last year, assistant district attorney Bidish Sarma sat before a pile of paperwork, more than 1,500 disorganized pages tall, rummaging for answers.
It was a second-degree murder case file dating back to 1993, which had been in the possession of the New Orleans district attorney’s office for almost three decades. Its secrets had gone untold until now.
As he parsed the pages – old trial transcripts, police reports, witness interviews – he came across a series of handwritten notes that sent a wave of energy through his body and pushed his pulse rate skywards.
The name Kuantay Reeder had not been mentioned in public discourse since July 1995. Then, buried in the back of the Times-Picayune, a short article recorded that the 21-year-old had been found guilty of murdering a man named Mark Broxton outside a corner store. The last sentence noted that the prosecution had largely relied on the testimony of a single eyewitness.
Reeder had been held at the Louisiana state penitentiary, known as Angola prison, ever since. He had been sentenced to life “at hard labor”, forced to work while incarcerated, without the possibility of parole. He had, he said, maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested. He was now 49 years old.
He kept three treasured possessions inside: a handwritten letter he received from his daughter at the beginning of his sentence, a skull cap worn by his baby grandson and a faded Polaroid photograph of his mother Shirley, a postal worker who raised him alone. He kept them under his pillow, and held them at night “in time of darkness, when I think about dying in prison”, he said.
Realistically, there was little legal hope left.
But as Sarma read through the handwritten interview notes, he began to realize that Reeder’s conviction may have been based on severely flawed evidence, suppressed from public knowledge for almost 30 years.
He called his boss, the chief of the Orleans parish civil rights division, Emily Maw.
“Holy shit, look what I found,” he told her. “How is it possible that this has been sat on for so long?”
That both Sarma and Maw, former non-profit defense attorneys, even had access to these documents was a small political miracle in itself – one that started with the 2020 election of New Orleans’s new district attorney, a progressive firebrand named Jason Williams.
Few insiders gave Williams much of a chance. He had already lost in a landslide for the same job back in 2008, and only had two endorsements from elected officials this time around. He also ran for election under a federal indictment for alleged tax fraud (that he maintains is politically motivated), which many viewed as the end of his political career.
It was momentum that thrust him to a comfortable victory. A swell of protests had swept the country after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, enabling a well-organized grassroots campaign to defy convention. Williams became one of a number of recently elected progressive DAs in major American cities – including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Los Angeles – swept to office amid a national reckoning on racial justice and increased public understanding over the powerful role local DAs play in shaping the US criminal justice system.
The result shook the political establishment of New Orleans and made Williams something of an exception among prosecutors in the US south: an outspoken Black reformer operating in the center of America’s mass incarceration crisis.
“When a legal system condemns, incarcerates and executes people because it prioritizes convictions over justice,” Williams said in a speech as he was sworn into office, “then why would members of the public believe that doing the right thing will ever keep them safe?”
In 2012, one out of every 14 Black men from New Orleans was incarcerated. While the number has fallen substantially since then, Louisiana remains America’s most incarcerated state, with the New Orleans metro area sending more people to prison than any other location.
The root causes lay in this state’s racist past, but extend also to the practices of Williams’s predecessors who have for decades responded to soaring crime rates with a perceived culture of win-at-all-costs prosecutions – seeking the toughest punishments possible, sometimes bending and breaking the rules to secure convictions in a system that often targets speed over due process.
At the core of Williams’s election was a pledge to change this.
Among his first acts as DA was the creation of a new civil rights division run by Maw, a Brit and the former head of New Orleans’s Innocence Project. Its purpose: to unabashedly confront the ills of the past.
Although operating in a politically antagonistic climate exacerbated further by a new crime surge, the division has intervened in more than 150 old cases, leading to immediate release from prison in 128 instances since its creation. It has done so through a range of detailed investigations leading to resentencings, new plea deals and exonerations, making it perhaps the most active conviction review program anywhere in the US.
For the past six months the Guardian has been given extensive access to the division, nestled in a corner on the fourth floor of the DA’s office, a brutalist building where ugly, yellow light fills rows of symmetrical office cubicles, for a series of print and audio reports documenting their work and cases they have re-examined.
Some, like Reeder’s, have received no media coverage until now.
Mark Broxton was killed on a warm spring evening in the neighborhood of Algiers on 13 April 1993. A gunman shot four times as Broxton used a payphone outside a grocery shop called Julian’s Food Store.
It was about 6.50pm.
These facts have never been contested.
But it took the district attorney’s office two trials to convict Kuantay Reeder, an indication that the case was far from clearcut. The killing was one of 395 murders in New Orleans that year, the second highest annual total in the city’s recorded history.
The state’s central witness was a 46-year-old man named Earl Price, who said he had watched the shooting from across the street.
Price told the court in both trials the gunman had been facing him but was standing dozens of feet away across traffic when he opened fire. Price then walked into the food store, according to trial transcripts, and saw the gunman fleeing, later dumping a jacket into a dumpster as he ran away.
Critically, the court was told by police and Price himself, that he had, without hesitation, picked out and signed Reeder’s photograph from a lineup presented to him by police a full three months after the shooting.
A second eyewitness named Norma Varist, who initially implicated Reeder, refused to testify in court and was jailed for contempt, in front of the jury, because of her refusal at the second trial. But hearsay evidence related to her identification was admitted without contest.
Price recounted an elaborate story about watching the 21-year-old father of three die. Broxton, he said, had walked into Julian’s after being shot four times, picked up a can of Coke and walked towards the counter to pay, but then collapsed into Price’s arms.
A forensic pathologist who also testified described this version of events as highly unlikely given the extent of Broxton’s fatal gunshot wounds. The store’s cashier (who could not be located for the second trial after the DA’s office failed to disclose he was being prosecuted in a separate case) also disputed the account and said the doors had been locked after Broxton entered his store, meaning it was unlikely Price could have followed him in.
But Price stuck with his story.
“I’m not going to change my testimony, regardless of how much you road hog me here,” Price said, according to court transcripts, as the defense poked holes in his account at the second trial. “I’m gonna be in here with the same thing I seen. And I’m going to say it over and over again, until I’m dead.”
Reeder recalled watching Price testify that day.
“It was like he was tearing me apart,” he said, as tears welled in the corners of his eyes. “I had been trying to stand up and keep myself together, but it felt like he was taking a piece of me, and throwing it in the corner. Another piece, throwing it this way. Another that way. By the end I was bare bones. I was no longer me. I was no longer a whole person.”
Three defense witnesses testified that Reeder had been playing basketball at a nearby housing project when the shooting occurred, and had eaten a meal with his mother after.
But the prosecution was unflinching in its assessment, citing Price’s testimony as key evidence.
“Kuantau [Kuantay] Reeder is an intentional murderer,” said the lead prosecutor, Michael Daniels, in closing, according to a transcript. (For the past 30 years, Reeder’s name has incorrectly been spelled “Kuantau Reeder” in all legal documents.)
The jury deliberated for less than two hours.
Reeder recalled feeling little for himself as the verdict was read. “I was already dehumanized,” he said. “The pain I was feeling was for my mother who sat behind me. My daughter. My wife.”
He remained unaware for three decades that he had been convicted by an 11-1 non-unanimous jury. Louisiana has allowed such decisions because of a Jim Crow-era law designed to dampen the power of Black jurors; non-unanimous decisions have disproportionately disadvantaged Black defendants ever since. In 2020 the US supreme court ruled the law unconstitutional.
Reeder was taken to Angola prison, the sprawling maximum-security facility built on the grounds of a former plantation. And for his first 11 years inside, he was made to work out on the fields, tilling soil on the same land once toiled by enslaved people.
“No man, no animal, should ever have to work like that,” he said.
Jason Williams’s first day as district attorney started with an office littered with mess. Poorly labeled boxes were piled in his personal office and strewn across the grand jury room. Inside were case files, some left in wax-sealed seafood boxes to protect them from regular roof leaks.
“That lack of order and lack of systems really speaks to how this place has operated for a very long time,” Williams said one recent afternoon as he gazed out of his window on to the city’s old jail building, a decaying concrete mass that towers over the horizon. “It speaks to how the wrong person gets arrested and gets prosecuted and convicted.”
Over the past few decades New Orleans has become infamous for so-called “Brady violations” – named after the landmark 1963 supreme court decision Brady v Maryland, which established that prosecutors were constitutionally required to turn over all favorable evidence that might exonerate a defendant before trial.
The city has been scarred by a series of high-profile Brady cases, many under the tenure of New Orleans’s longest serving DA, Harry Connick Sr, who was elected in 1973 and, winning five successive elections, held office for 30 years.
It was the exoneration of John Thompson, a Black man who spent 14 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted of murder and armed robbery, which brought the chronic issue to national attention.
Just weeks before he was due to be executed, investigators uncovered a lab report showing the perpetrator’s blood type did not match Thompson’s. It was later revealed that one of the prosecutors involved had confessed on his deathbed to deliberately hiding the evidence from Thompson’s defense.
Years after his release, when Thompson lost a $14m compensation claim in a now notorious 5-4 supreme court ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that the case “demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady’s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans parish”. She noted that the DA’s office training manual at the time contained just four sentences on Brady.
A later report by the Innocence Project found that during Connick’s tenure, evidence had been withheld in a quarter of all death penalty convictions, nine of 36 cases. Four of those led to exonerations.
In a rare interview at his home, Connick, now 96, sat at his desk, smoking cigarettes as he spoke.
“Do you know how many cases in 30 years that we prosecuted out there?” he said defiantly. “Thousands and thousands and thousands. Was there a mistake made in some? Yes. But that doesn’t represent what that office stands for.”
He pointed to a hand-painted dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, that hung above his mantle.
“It is a moral violation, a sin, to charge someone with something they didn’t commit or to charge someone when there wasn’t sufficient evidence,” he said. “That was the message I sent to my lawyers.”
Asked his views on Ginsburg’s famous dissent, he replied, unflinchingly: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is full of shit.”
Kuantay Reeder had grown up in a tough neighborhood, the Fischer Projects in Algiers, and was no stranger to the harsh realities of life there. But the violence he witnessed in prison continued to shock him. From the time he said he was beaten by the police officers who initially questioned him back in 1993 to when he saw men crushed and cut in prison fights, and when he himself was involved in brawls during spates of torrid violence.
After 11 years of grinding field work, Reeder said, he was granted “trustee” status, earning greater prison freedoms and finding solace working in the gardens and learning about tropical plants – pansies, copper plants, birds of paradise.
His wife, Vanessa Scott, had returned to him after a few years apart. She came to visit once a month, a five-hour round trip from New Orleans. They would sit in the visitation room together for a few hours, holding hands.
“To know that you have somebody love you that much that they’re willing to stay by your side through something like this … You can never shun that. Never wash that off. It’s on you for life,” he said.
But even as his mind eased on occasion, he still thought about his case. How he believed his name had been bandied around the projects, and how police had initially essentially pursued hearsay and gossip as a means to investigate. Reeder had known Broxton as a child, he had always said, but had not seen him in years. And no motive had ever been clearly corroborated at trial.
In addition, there had been another suspect police investigated, who was later named in court in connection with the crime, nicknamed “Bird”.
The alternate suspect matched the physical description given by Price closer than Reeder. And he had, according to his ex-partner during a police interview, threatened Broxton from inside prison over a romantic dispute. He had later called her minutes after the shooting to say Broxton had been killed, according to testimony. She had earlier told police Bird had told her how many times he had been shot and where on his body the shots had landed.
Reeder had made Brady claims throughout the post-conviction process, after his case was taken up by the veteran defense attorney Sheila Myers at the Tulane criminal justice clinic. She had been given access to a few hundred pages of documents under public records requests, and later uncovered that Earl Price, the sole testifying eyewitness, had a federal conviction for lying on a firearms application that had not been disclosed at trial.
She argued in court that this further undermined his reliability as a witness and fought Reeder’s case doggedly for over a decade.
But successive state and federal courts had denied the applications for retrial, finding that the conviction was not substantial given the rest of Price’s extensive criminal record had been known at the time. The applications were consistently opposed by the Orleans DA’s office.
In a quarter of all cases the civil rights division has re-examined, the DA’s file is lost or missing, according to internal figures shared with the Guardian. In the vast majority of cases from before Hurricane Katrina, evidence held at the city’s courthouse has been destroyed either by flooding from the hurricane or by court order.
Maw had always expected to be re-examining unresolved Brady claims as part of the new civil rights division’s work. But she was shocked to see such disarray among the records.
“If someone is saying my conviction is unfair because I think the state didn’t turn over all the evidence, there is no way for us to go back and analyze whether that suspicion is true if we can’t see what was in the state’s file,” she said. “You can’t analyze whether there may be state misconduct if the records aren’t there.”
As of March, the civil rights division had received 204 claims of wrongful conviction from currently incarcerated people. The vast majority, 179, came from those without current legal representation – adding further obstacles to re-examination.
In order to pull files from the Connick era, the civil rights division has relied on the assistance of a small records office in a windowless, rectangular office space on the third floor of the DA’s building.
Here, hundreds of small drawers contain tens of thousands of index cards. Each card a criminal case, documenting a record on microfilm. The drawers of microfilm, too, were damaged by humidity following Katrina, leaving many stinking of vinegar as they slowly decay.
Until midway through last year, the division relied on a now defunct Konica Minolta MD 6000 microfilm machine (spare parts had to be ordered from eBay). Each page was scanned individually by volunteers. Eventually, following a donation, a modern machine was purchased.
But the DA’s file on Reeder had been preserved. It was over 900 pages, not the few hundred received by his lawyers in previous requests. And Sarma now had it in his hands.
In a trial report, written after the first hung jury, prosecutors appeared to acknowledge inconsistencies in the lone eyewitness testimony. “Each time [Earl] Price tells his story, it changes,” prosecutors noted in the report. In a memo before the first trial, in which prosecutors considered lowering the charges, they wrote of their “star witness”: “We do not believe we stand a chance of getting a conviction on Price’s testimony.”
But in there, nestled away even further, were the handwritten notes discovered by Sarma that almost took his breath away.
They revealed, in perfectly formed handwriting, that Price had on two separate occasions insisted that he had identified another number in the lineup during pre-trial interviews.
The number corresponded to the alternate suspect, Bird.
Police had placed photographs of the alternate suspect (No 5) and Reeder (No 6) next to each other in the six-person photo lineup presented to Price. The handwritten notes revealed it was Bird’s number Price twice insisted he had identified.
In interview notes written on 19 October 1993, Price told investigators he had signed photograph No 5. (See note here.)
In a follow-up interview with prosecutors on 27 December 1993, the notes are even more forceful, conveying Price was “adamant” he had signed off on photograph No 5. A small diagram of the lineup is included in the notes, which suggest Price said at least four times during the interview he did not sign the photograph with Reeder’s number. (See note here.)
One line reads: “Price says he picked #5 that would be [Bird],” listing the suspect’s full name.
(The photographic lineup presented at trial and shown to the jury, has been lost.)
None of this information had been disclosed. Instead, it laid buried in a file for almost 30 years as Reeder fought to prove his conviction was unjust.
Unreliable eyewitness identifications have contributed to 69% of wrongful convictions overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. (There was no DNA evidence in the Broxton case.)
The handwritten notes could have critically undermined the prosecution’s case. They were potentially a major claim under Brady.
It took six months for the civil rights division to reinvestigate the case. The work kept Sarma, a softly spoken, mild-mannered man, awake at night. “I had a pretty clear idea of where things were going to go,” he recalled. “But every day it takes to get there feels like a weight on your shoulders. That you need to correct something that is clearly an injustice.”
They discovered that Price had died in August 2020, leaving many questions unanswered. Why had he insisted, on two occasions, he identified another photograph? Why had he changed this account at trial? And why was this potentially vital inconsistency never disclosed to the defense?
A fragment of an answer, Sarma thought, perhaps lay in the notes, indicating that Price’s signature may have made its way on to Reeder’s photograph due to administrative error by a distracted detective. The notes reveal Price had told prosecutors that “detective was typing while statement”, and then told them again he expected “his name will be under #5”.
Sarma spoke to the old prosecutors, who largely defended their handling of the case.
In an interview with the Guardian, Michael Daniels, the lead prosecutor, was dismissive of the civil rights division’s work. He said he could not recall specifics of his pre-trial interview with Price on 27 December 1993 but stated that because Price’s signature was ultimately found on the back of Reeder’s photograph, “the lineup spoke for itself”. He said he could not recall what he was specifically referring to in his first trial report, which stated: “Each time Price tells his story, it changes.”
“His [Price’s] signature was behind Mr Reeder, and the jury could have seen it with their own eyes,” Daniels said, pointing out he checked the original lineup after his interview with Price.
Asked whether this clear discrepancy in the state’s central witness’s recollection should have been disclosed to Reeder’s defense he said: “You know, 20 years later, I can’t tell you that I don’t see some validity to that argument … I’m not gonna say that that’s 100% black and white. It is grey in my mind.” He added it was not a decision he made on his own, and that other prosecutors at the time had agreed they did not need to disclose.
The division spoke to Reeder’s original trial lawyer, now a city judge, who confirmed that if he had been aware of Price’s critical inconsistencies on photo ID, they would have played a “central role” in cross-examination.
Sarma also confirmed that the alternate suspect had been released from prison the day before the shooting.
In an interview with the Guardian, Bird, who has never been charged in relation to the crime, was presented with the allegations made against him during the police investigation and sworn to in court. He denied any involvement in the incident. “I had nothing to do with that, nothing at all,” he said, adding Broxton was a friend of his.
The suspect was also interviewed by the civil rights division as part of their reinvestigation.
Mary Green had attempted to forget about the case from the day of the guilty verdict. Broxton was her oldest son. A handsome, fresh-faced 21-year-old, denied the opportunity to fulfill his promise as a father because of a senseless crime.
Although he had fallen on hard times before the shooting, she had always prayed he would find his way. He left behind two daughters and another yet to be born.
Green worked as a city bus driver when her son was killed, and was driving a route nearby when the shots rang out.
She believed that law enforcement had faithfully attempted to catch her son’s killer, but nearly three decades later she received a phone call from the DA’s office that changed everything.
“I had never expected to go through it again because I didn’t want to relive something I had put behind me,” Green said, her voice faint.
But as the new facts were divulged to her, she felt a creeping sense of devastation, that the justice system had failed her and her son as well.
“I felt that if he [Reeder] was innocent of these charges then it was so unfair for him to have served the time that he did,” she said.
A question lingered in her mind over the original prosecution.
“Was it just easier for you to prosecute Mr Reeder?” she recalled. “Or was it just to satisfy me, knowing that I wanted to have someone to pay for the crime? Did they just do it for my sake?”
Part of reckoning with past harms in the criminal legal system requires engaging with victims’ families. News of the investigation was hard to comprehend. But the Broxton family threw their support behind the work.
On completion of the investigation, the division was certain: they would argue Reeder’s sentence should be vacated under Brady.
But it would be left for a judge to decide.
During its first year in operation, and despite the hundreds of cases on its docket, the Orleans parish civil rights division has operated with just two full-time attorneys and two investigators. But despite its small size, the work has made waves, often drawing outspoken criticism from the city’s old political establishment.
In May last year, the division moved to vacate the conviction of a man named Kaliegh Smith in another case involving significant Brady claims. It was revealed that prosecutors under Williams’s predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro, had secretly paid the central eyewitness implicating Smith in a 2007 murder.
In the Smith case, Cannizzaro issued a written statement accusing the new administration of being “deceitful to the public” without, according to local reports, specifically addressing the nature of the Brady violation.
It would not be the last time the former DA publicly criticized the work of the division.
“It’s a very bizarre paradigm,” said Maw. “We are still in a race, not against Cannizzaro himself, but what his office stood for. And it’s not voluntary, it’s because a very powerful political establishment still owns a lot of the discussion.”
Throughout his investigation into the Reeder case, Sarma worried about how the public might perceive the work.
“I have felt at times like people are going to question our credibility to be doing this kind of work. So I think there is a heightened burden on us to dot every I and cross every T. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, we have to be thorough,” he said. “What we want to accomplish is resolving cases that have been unfairly tried, but we also want to build trust in the community that we’re doing this appropriately.”
Perhaps looming larger over Williams’s tenure, and the future of the civil rights division, is the DA’s federal tax fraud indictment. Williams, who has pleaded not guilty, has long argued the 11-count indictment accusing him of inflating business expenses and avoiding $200,000 in tax over five years was politically motivated. He points to alleged threats his office received from a Cannizzaro operative after reports he would run for DA.
“The idea that talking about race the way I talked about it, talking about being smart on crime and criminal justice reform the way I talked about it, long before the campaign even started, put a target on my back,” Williams said. “But I think it also helped me win this seat, because people saw the results of speaking out.”
Cannizzaro has forcefully denied any involvement. A trial date is now set for July, and if convicted, Williams faces suspension from office.
On a gray, humid morning in December last year, Reeder appeared in the same courtroom where he was sentenced in 1995. The wooden public benches were almost empty and Reeder was appearing from Angola prison on a Zoom link.
Members of Broxton’s family, including his mother, Mary Green, were present too. Reeder’s voice boomed into the cavernous open room as Judge Rhonda Goode-Douglas asked him to confirm his presence.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, the words echoing off the walls.
Myers and Sarma detailed the case before the judge. Myers described it as a “frightening example of prosecutorial misconduct” under the Connick era, before Sarma invited Green to address the court.
Her soft voice bounced around the room. She spoke directly to Reeder, as he looked intently down the camera.
“I’m speechless,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell you. Just how sorry I am that you had to … that you served this time. I just pray that life out here would … just … be a better life.”
“Ms Mary, I’m sorry Mark is gone,” Reeder said.
As Green continued to apologize, Goode-Dougles intervened, telling her not to blame herself.
Later, she addressed both Reeder and the Broxton family. “It is this court’s sincerest apologies that this happened to both of you all: Mr Reeder, being wrongfully convicted and serving several years of your life in prison for a crime that you did not commit; and to the family of Mr Broxton … we could never bring back your loved one. And, unfortunately, the criminal justice system failed you during that time period. It is my hope that you are all able to make peace.”
The judge tossed the conviction under Brady.
The DA’s office dropped the charges. There was no way to ensure a fair retrial.
Reeder’s three-decade period of incarceration ended by a court session lasting minutes.
Sarma addressed the Broxton family directly.
“We failed you,” he said. “We have an obligation to seek the truth, which is really hard to do. But we also have an obligation to tell the truth, which is much easier to do. And it’s something that we did not do in this case for nearly 25 years.
“We have come clean today.”
He turned to Reeder.
“I would also like to apologize to you, Mr Reeder, on behalf of the state of Louisiana. I know it’s been 28 years long, and today you’ll get to go home a free man not facing these charges any more.”
The court adjourned as sobs dissipated into the open air. Reeder became one of six exonerations the Orleans parish civil rights division secured within its first 12 months.
Later that afternoon, Reeder walked out the gates of Angola prison, clutching two small bags with his possessions. Vanessa Scott, his wife, sat inside her car waiting for him.
“Come on king,” she called to him as he walked towards her in the drizzle. They hugged each other in a way that had not been possible since they were teenagers.
“It was shocking … hugging her on the other side, knowing we were about to start our life again together,” he said.
As they drove back home, along the winding country highway, they stopped at a church on the roadside, he recalled. The doors were locked, so Reeder bent down on the steps in the open air and prayed.
“It felt like I was immortalized or something,” he said, sitting in New Orleans a few weeks later, giving his first ever interview to a journalist. “You know that whole feeling in your body changes when you know you’re free. I felt everything come off me.
“I’m too overjoyed to be angry. I’m too overjoyed at being free.”