Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Gregory Bright at the Innocence Project New Orleans in February 2011.
I met Gregory Bright in 2007, four years after his exoneration and release from prison. At the age of twenty he’d been convicted of a murder he did not commit. Now he was fifty-two, and he had spent more years behind bars than he had in the free world — a fact he repeated often, as if trying to make sense of it. We met in the former offices of the Innocence Project New Orleans, part of a network of nonprofit legal organizations dedicated to freeing innocent prisoners. With Greg were three other exonerated men, each, like him, only a few years out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. They wanted people to hear about their wrongful convictions, but they needed help telling their stories. As a documentary playwright and writing teacher, I’d volunteered to assist.
For me, hearing about their experiences was a crash course in prosecutorial misconduct, prison violence, and the plantation mentality of Louisiana’s criminal-justice system. As a result of all they’d been through, I expected anger, and it did creep into their accounts, but it was not the driving emotion. Greg, in particular, defied my expectations. He said “forgiveness.” He said “mercy.” He said we should fix the prison system for the next person, innocent or guilty.
Greg has a booming voice, an easy laugh, and deep lines in his face. At six foot four and 180 pounds, he is lean and muscular, but he walks with a shuffle due to constant pain from decades of having been issued ill-fitting shoes, exacerbated by a botched foot surgery while he was in prison.
Greg and I became friends, and over the next few years, using transcripts from our conversations, I turned his story into a one-man stage play about his time in Angola — Never Fight a Shark in Water: The Wrongful Conviction of Gregory Bright. It has been performed both professionally and by Greg himself. The text that follows is adapted in part from that play, along with additional transcripts.
— Lara Naughton
I can say in all honesty I didn’t kill anyone. Didn’t rob anyone. Didn’t rape anyone. I went to prison for something someone said I did.
November 15, 1975, 3 AM on a Saturday morning, two months after my twentieth birthday. When the police came knocking on my door, I was sleeping. I’ve heard that’s how evil comes, in the dark of night. It don’t want to be seen. The banging woke my mom up. She said, “Open that door. No sense in them tearing it down.”
The police asked if Gregory Bright lived there. I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” They had a warrant for my arrest for the murder of Elliot Porter. Elliot Porter was fifteen years old, suffered two gunshot wounds to the head; his body was discovered under a building in the Calliope Projects on Halloween morning. I lived in the Calliope Projects, but I didn’t know Elliot Porter. I’d never even been in a serious fight. The police asked if I owned a weapon. I’d never owned a weapon. To this day I’ve never owned a weapon. The police said they were going to bring me downtown and ask me some questions. My mom said, “Yeah, all right, because my son didn’t kill nobody.”
They pulled me out of my bed and into their madness. Took me twenty-seven and a half years to get home.
I was arrested and charged in violation of Louisiana Revised Statute 14:30.1, second-degree murder. The police brought me over to Orleans Parish Prison on Tier A3. That’s where I learned I had a seventeen-year-old codefendant. Prior to our arrest, we’d had no association with each other. We sat in Orleans Parish Prison eight months, waiting for our trial, living in close proximity with other inmates. Sat on the toilet and showered in full view of each other. All our weaknesses exposed.
The most overpowering thing was the smell. Anyone who’s ever been to Orleans Parish Prison can testify to the stench. It covered me like a blanket. It’s years and years of sweat, of fear. All the corruption and evil that’s been through there, the depression and oppression — it’s the odor of death and brutality, so powerful it’s a presence.
Being an indigent defendant, I had a state lawyer. The lawyer met with me only once before trial. The district attorney’s office tried to get me to accept a plea of five years, but five years seemed like a life sentence to me, especially for something I didn’t do. I was just clinging to the hope that someone would intervene and say, Look, we got the wrong man. Let him out.
During the trial four people testified for the state: the newspaper-delivery boy who’d discovered the body, the victim’s mother, one of the arresting detectives, and finally a woman named Sharon R. [Not her real name.]
Sharon R. testified that she was looking out her third-floor bedroom window at 1:30 AM and saw Elliot and two guys coming down the walk. They seemed to be arguing. They ran out of her view, and she heard two loud noises like gunshots. When Sharon was asked did she know me, she replied, “I know him by seeing him. I never did know his name.” The prosecution didn’t reveal that Sharon was a paid witness, or that she was a paranoid schizophrenic and heroin addict who suffered from hallucinations. All this was withheld by the police department and the DA’s office. They also withheld my eighteen-page police report, which revealed that multiple witnesses had identified two other people as the perpetrators. There was blood at the scene that was never tested.
My lawyer knew none of that. His whole defense was basically: he didn’t do it.
Thirteen minutes of deliberations by a jury. Guilty as charged, based solely on the unsubstantiated and uncorroborated testimony of one witness who didn’t see the actual shooting. Me and my codefendant had our freedom taken away on that. We were sentenced to spend the balance of our natural lives at hard labor in custody of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.
There was a lot of hand-shaking going on among the prosecutors. My mom was in tears.
Seven of us were handcuffed and leg-ironed together in the back of a paddy wagon. It’s nearly three hours from Orleans Parish Prison to Angola, Louisiana, but it seemed like it took us forever, especially the final twenty-mile stretch from the main highway to Angola — these crude twists and turns on a snake road through the wilderness.
Angola is a maximum-security prison with more than five thousand inmates. It’s eighteen thousand acres surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth by the Tunica Hills. It used to be a slave plantation. The name originates from the Africans who were brought there from Angola during the slave trade. It’s still a working plantation. Guys are picking cotton all day for two cents an hour.
I was in a work crew called Line 5. We mostly dug ditches. We tilled the land, pulled the trees down, threw that diesel on it, and burned off both sides of the ditch clear down to the dirt. We were out there in blistering heat or bitter cold and rain. Didn’t matter; we had to work.
The main prison, Camp A, was the old slave camp. It’s something else, to be part of such a long history. That spot is stained with blood. Hundreds of years of brutality. The pain and suffering that land has caused. The violence that exists on them grounds.
The very first morning I went to chow, a guy jumped out of the line and stabbed another guy in the neck. If it had nothing to do with you, you kept walking. There were stretchers on each unit, wooden-handled stretchers of green canvas, donated by the U.S. Army. Someone was always being carried to the prison hospital, disfigured or scarred or dead.
I tried to stay a step ahead. Violent situations weren’t spontaneous. They’d start from something small and escalate. Usually the violence would go down in the early morning, when most people were asleep, so I learned to split the difference: fall asleep but not into a deep sleep. If the slightest movement occurred out of the ordinary, I don’t care how quiet or how subtle, I was on it. When you sat on a bed, the frame expanded, and when you got up, it came back. Screech. Each bed made its own sound, like a fingerprint. I never opened my eyes, but I knew who was up.
I steeled my mind, like in a war. I was on the front line, had to keep moving. Guys had knives, hatchets, batteries stuffed in socks. They sharpened anything to a point: Shank from a toothbrush. Shank from scrap metal off a bed. Shank from a cold-drink can. Guys took human waste and battery acid, let that stuff cook in a milk carton for a week, and threw it on you while you were passing in the hallway.
I never had a weapon. I had access to weapons, but if me and a guy were arguing, I was going to find a peaceful way to resolve that. I didn’t have a beef with anyone in prison. My beef was with the people who were holding me there.
One day I received a letter from home. I kept looking at the letter, but I didn’t know how to read.
I didn’t want to hear whatever was in that letter come off someone else’s lips, but I had to find out what it said. Pop was an older inmate, kept a Bible in his hand. So I said, “Look, Pop, I’ll give you some cigarettes, and when I get mail, you explain to me what’s going on.”
But to my surprise — I mean, it really floored me — Pop couldn’t read either. To see a group of people caught in a situation like that with no education was really sad, because the illiteracy rate in that prison was almost complete. If I asked a guy how to spell dog, he was going to say, “C‑a‑t.” I needed to know more than that.
I sat for years with my coffee, cigarettes, and books, learning to read. I had to convince myself that the word t-h-e was the same wherever I saw it. It didn’t mean no more or less in a comic book, in the Bible, or in a law book. And if I added other letters, then I could make a different word. It was that simple, but it felt like the most amazing discovery.
I got an old Watchtower magazine. Pages were missing. The back was torn. I underlined words I didn’t know. I got a dictionary that was cut off at the letter p, and I kept on like that. In addition to figuring out how to survive in prison, I had to do extra studying to learn new words, then extra, extra studying to start to make sense of the law. Sometimes, out of frustration, I’d throw a book aside. In my calmer moments I realized I couldn’t take shortcuts. It was like my mom told me: “Circumstances can dictate to you, or you can dictate to circumstances.” If it had ended there, I would have said that for me, learning to read was the good that came out of prison.
I had stopped going to school in sixth grade so I could care for my stepfather, who took ill with rheumatoid arthritis. My mother had been working at General Diaper Service for twenty-nine years, and quitting wasn’t an option for her. She couldn’t leave my stepfather home by himself, either, knowing his pain. So she asked me to be with him. I didn’t want to let my mother down. Whatever she asked me — I didn’t care what it was — I wanted to come through for my mom.
The house had that medicine smell of ointments and Bengay from morning to night. I watched my stepfather go from standing up straight, to leaning over, to becoming bedridden.
He’d call, “Greg!” It sent chills through my body. “Greg! Greg!”
“Bring me that blanket in the other room.” So I’d bring him the blanket. “Move my arm. Scratch my leg. You want a cigarette?” That was my reward.
He smoked Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. I’d go in the next room and smoke one. And oftentimes I’d sit and wonder how my life had come to this, where these conditions held me to this particular house. Of course, I had no idea what was in store for me later.
Everybody smoked Camels in Angola. Camels carried more weight than cash money. You could buy drugs with them. You could buy crafts, clothes, jewelry. Man, how much you want for that? Seven packs. How much you want for that? Five packs. Yes, indeed, everything revolved around Camels.
In the field when you caught a break: smoke a hump.
After you ate, on the yard behind the building: smoke a hump.
Right before bed: smoke a hump.
It had nothing to do with enjoyment. The hump was to get you through.
My bunk partner was a guy called Wing Ding. I slept in bed 47. Wing Ding slept in 48. There were four rows of beds, sixteen beds on a row. Bed, bed, bed, bed, all the way down. Blue light and white sheets — looked just like a morgue up in there, holding dead bodies.
Wing Ding used to say, “Yeah, Warden Cain talking about we all gonna die here.”
I’d say, “No, Warden Cain don’t mean me.”
See, this was how the warden slapped the shit out of somebody without putting a hand on him: “Y’all gonna die here.” Louisiana Revised Statute 15:574.4(B) prohibits parole consideration for anyone serving a life sentence. We weren’t going home except in a coffin.
I said, “I’m not going to die in prison.”
Wing Ding had an arm that was deformed; that’s why we called him Wing Ding. He told me he went to prison on a burglary charge but ended up killing two or three people after he got in there, so he got a death sentence. While he was on death row, he killed another guy: caught him with his bad arm through the bars and stabbed him to death.
But when the United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was cruel and unusual punishment — Furman v. Georgia in 1972 — Wing Ding got his sentence commuted to life. The death penalty wasn’t reinstated until 1976. After that, they went on a rampage. It was one execution after another.
Wing Ding was a diabetic. When his sugar was low, he’d refer to an old Indian chief who’d been killed in Angola. Wing Ding would see this guy, or think he was seeing him. He’d say, “Chief sitting over there on the locker with a grin on his face. Uh-oh, here he come.”
I’d be scared to look. I didn’t need to be seeing ghosts. I used to ask Wing Ding all the time, “Man, what you did to the chief?”
My mother and aunties would tell stories of hauntings, but they came nowhere near what I witnessed in Angola. There was a guy in there who’d murdered his wife. My heart couldn’t help but go out to him. He’d start with a long, low moan, like she was taunting him in his sleep. “Uhhhhhhhhhhh.” He’d get louder, “Ahhhhhhhhh,” then kick real hard, wake up, sit on the side of the bed panting. She was coming to him in a dream.
I didn’t have that problem. I didn’t have any victims.
All around me guys were releasing this bad energy, and I was consuming their brutality and grief. When they didn’t hear stories of crimes from me, they wanted me to forgive them. They knew I wasn’t a snitch and that I wouldn’t stand in judgment, and they had to confess to somebody. They’d lied to other people, lied to themselves, even tried to lie to God. But there comes a time when a guy’s ready to take his blame. A man might say to me, “Man, I wish I could blow breath back into that body. . . .”
I would consider myself less than human if I didn’t feel compassion for someone like that. I never turned anyone away. I always listened, gave advice, offered some hope. It was healing for me, too, because the advice I gave other men was the advice I needed. The only way I could get counseling was by helping others with their problems. I’d tell them, “There are things you need to come to terms with. You’re the key to your own change.”
I always say justice has to be laced with mercy. I mean, if the victims knew the daily pain and suffering that prisoners go through, I think they would find closure rather quickly. Because there’s truly pain and suffering. Locking up someone forever isn’t the solution. A life sentence is a death sentence. No possibility of parole means no hope. Every second of every hour, of every day, of every month, of every year is a death.
Guys were charging five cartons of Camels to assist with a legal case. I didn’t have five cartons. I didn’t even have paper. I had to write on the back of paper bags. A guy threw a typewriter away because the letters kept getting stuck. I said, “Man, I’ll unstick those letters!” I got that old Brother typewriter and started pecking with one finger.
I studied the Southern Reporter, which contains the criminal cases of everyone who’s been convicted in the state of Louisiana: what a man was convicted of, what he filed, what his claim was, what the state’s position was, and the judgment. I was very thankful to have that type of information.
Reading the law books, I thought about each man’s life. Often I was reading about guys who were in the dorm with me. I thought: What went through the mind of the perpetrator? What went through the mind of the victim?
Once I caught on, the law came easily, because I hungered. I hungered. I couldn’t rely on the man on my left. I couldn’t rely on the man on my right. I had to rely upon what God had given me: the mind to use, the vision to see, hands to work, feet to stand me up when the rest of me didn’t think I could stand. Every available minute I was steady working on my freedom, trying to give that life sentence back.
The first postconviction application I filed, they got me and my codefendant down in federal court and went through our case like a turkey through the corn. I was devastated.
I sought executive clemency under four governors: denied, denied, denied, denied.
Year after year, for more than twenty years, that was the word I heard most:
Petitioner files a motion for production of documents. Hereby denied.
Petitioner files postconviction application. Hereby denied.
Petitioner files a motion for authorization to file petition for writ of habeas corpus. Denied.
Nothing, in no way, at no time, compares to the pain when my mom died while I was in prison. It was the Christmas holiday, eight or nine years in. I had my legal materials, coffee, and cigarettes and was working on my case when the chaplain came into the dormitory. Whenever the chaplain came in, everybody got quiet. He was like the reaper: he always brought bad news. When the chaplain called my name, I had a bad taste in my mouth. I was sweating. The chaplain asked me did I know Rosemary Williams. I said, “Yeah, Rosemary Williams is my mother.” He said, “I’m sorry to inform you . . .”
No. No. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t ever going to talk to my mother again, never hold a phone conversation or lay my head on her chest. The chaplain asked did I want to pray, but a prayer wouldn’t bring back my mother.
Guys were telling me, “I’m sorry, bro. Man, keep your head up.” I was hearing words without seeing faces. I didn’t look at any of those inmates as family or friends. Everything I was hearing sounded unclean, sounded dirty.
I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. Maybe I was never meant to get out. Maybe I was meant to watch life pass me by. Maybe prison was my final resting place.
I walked back toward the shower area, cut all the showers on, and jumped in with my clothes still on. I needed purifying. I needed to be clean. I needed to be born again in every aspect of my life. I cried and cried until I ran out of tears. I was just so mad and tired and tired of being mad. I wanted to see my mother. I didn’t care if I died in prison. I didn’t care if I hurt someone. I wasn’t going to make it.
A day went by. I hadn’t gotten myself together. A week went by. A month, two months, three months. Every night I woke up crying. All my legal work was put away neatly in my locker. Every time I opened the locker, I slammed it back shut.
I didn’t recognize it then, but my healing began at this lowest point, when my pain was absolute. Forgiveness began when pain was everything I looked at, everything I heard.
I started to take self-inventory. I asked myself: What would my mother tell me now? Little by little, I started to hear her advice: Strive to overcome. Regain your focus. Regain your strength and your determination. You can go through a lifetime with hatred in your heart, but once you forgive someone, you’re done with it. The choice is yours.
I realized I needed to get some weight off my shoulders. There were forces keeping me in prison, but I couldn’t fight those forces with my own anger and bitterness weighing me down. I was bitter toward the people involved with my arrest and conviction: the police, the defense attorney, the prosecutors, the judge. I was angry at Sharon R. for testifying against me. I was angry at family and friends who should have done something to get me out of jail. I was angry at my mom for not being able to afford to move out of the Calliope Projects and into an area where murders weren’t as likely to occur. And I was mad at myself — that was the biggest blame. I could have been smarter. I had the ability to learn, but I had left school. I could have done better.
I took my anger on bit by bit. It was easy to forgive my mom, because I knew she’d done her best. Then I asked myself: If I saw the police officer involved in my arrest, would I be able to handle a conversation with him without blowing up? I decided I was one up on him because I was traveling the road of pain and suffering and gaining knowledge. I went through the entire list. I thought about the DA who’d done all the talking in court. Of course there were questions I wanted to ask him, but the DA didn’t haunt me. I didn’t have nightmares or wake up screaming. (I wondered if there were nights when the DA did, though, knowing he had done at least two people wrong.) I thought about Sharon. I knew she wasn’t the only cause of my being in prison, and she certainly wasn’t going to be the cause of my getting out.
When it came to myself, I made a decision that there was no reason to add extra burden to my own shoulders. I decided to fight it in the courts the best way I could, take my licks, and then wait for the results, whether good or bad. If bad, I would strive to do better. If good, I could finally put the conviction behind me.
Forgiveness became a picture in my mind of a fork in the road with signs telling what lies ahead. One side said: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE THE SAME. If I stayed in the mind frame of hatred, I’d experience nothing but confusion and violence. The other side said: CLEANSING. Once I chose to walk that road of cleansing, I began dropping frustrations, and I felt that weight lifting. That’s how forgiveness has been in my experience. Some relief came then. Some still comes now.
When I finally got out of bed after my mom died, a calm came over me. It was a pleasure to step beyond what was happening around me.
I couldn’t change the things I had to forgive, but I could change if I forgave. To hold a grudge is self-destruction, but forgiveness is a strength. It’s a process of humbling myself and leaning on the truth. And in all things the truth is far better than a lie.
In 1994, after the laws of public record had changed, I was finally allowed to obtain a copy of my eighteen-page police report — first time I’d ever seen it, twenty years after my arrest. I was blown away. There was so much exculpatory evidence. Still, my codefendant and I spent years going through the courts, trying to prove our innocence.
Finally an inmate counsel called Spider told me about the Innocence Project in New Orleans. Spider talked to Emily Bolton at the Innocence Project, and she said she would oversee my case.
In 2002 she got my codefendant and me transferred to the proper court. At the evidentiary hearing she presented a crime-scene reconstructionist, who testified that Sharon couldn’t have observed us running, because her vision was obstructed by a long porch. We had mental-health records showing that Sharon had hallucinations and was on heroin. The coroner testified that it was impossible for Elliot Porter to have been killed at 1:30 AM and set the time of death much later. Those testimonies devastated the prosecution’s case.
When people in the courtroom heard the facts that were never disclosed at the original trial, they were crying. Court officials were crying and walking out; they couldn’t take any more. The judge seemed impatient to make his ruling: He reversed the conviction and the sentence, saying it was inexcusable and unlawful. He ordered a new trial.
People exploded with applause. He had to call for order.
I was afraid to rejoice, because I’d seen life sentences get reinstated, and we still had to go through another trial. When I got in the patrol car heading back to prison, I couldn’t hold my head up. I had to lie down on the seat.
My codefendant and I went back to prison for thirteen more months on a suspended sentence. Two or three days before the new trial, we got called to court. The prosecutors offered us a plea for time served if we let them keep the conviction. My mind was set. I was nearly forty-eight years old, and I’d spent more years in Angola than I had in the free world, but I wasn’t going to plead guilty to this crime. If I failed at the retrial, Angola would be my final resting place.
They called us back the next day. The DA had decided the case wasn’t worth pursuing. They dropped the charges.
The next morning, June 24, 2003, my codefendant and I were each given a check for ten dollars and a trash bag full of our legal work. Twenty-seven and a half years after we walked in, we walked out Angola’s gate.
As soon as I was out of prison, I had the overwhelming urge to throw up. Just throw up everything. Get the demon off of me. I went to live with a cousin in Mississippi and stayed in my room for three or four weeks, just stayed in the bed. Didn’t listen to music. Didn’t watch TV. I cleared my mind. I tried to get in tune with my body. I didn’t want anything lingering on me.
I didn’t know what life would be like on the outside. I didn’t know it would be damn near impossible to get a job. (I still don’t have a steady job.) I didn’t know I’d have to pull my own tooth because I couldn’t afford dental care. (I still don’t have healthcare.) I didn’t know I wouldn’t qualify for reentry programs because I wasn’t a parolee. I didn’t know the state would drag my compensation claim through the court for years, or that Louisiana would limit compensation to twenty-five thousand dollars a year, not to exceed ten years. What about the other seventeen and a half?
I like not being in prison, though. I appreciate the small moments. I can take a walk whenever I want, or sit and enjoy the quiet. I don’t have to ask permission to use a phone. I can put on a coat when I get cold.
When I got my compensation, one of the assistant attorney generals offered me an apology. He knew the money didn’t make up for what I’d been through, and he said it was cases like mine that made him want to be a better lawyer. That meant more to me than hearing the judge read the final decision.
The first thing I bought with my compensation money was a bag of apples. Sure did. I didn’t need anything fancy. I didn’t want a ten-gallon hat and platform shoes. I got a house in New Orleans, and luck brought me some small parts in television shows like Treme and American Horror Story and Memphis Beat. I had a role in 12 Years a Slave. Yes, indeed, I identify with that story.
Turns out Sharon was living with her daughter in a project across from my sister. I hadn’t given a thought to Sharon since I’d gotten out, but people who knew both of us were inching us together, probably to see what would happen. So we met.
She said, “Greg, I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.”
I said, “Well, I know that feeling: to be sorry about something you can’t change. So I accept it for what it is. It’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do with it.”
I grabbed her in a hug. She was crying. It wasn’t just boo-hoo. She was sobbing. This was a pouring out, a letting go.
My experience in Angola is bigger than me. And it’s bigger than Angola. I’ll tell you what: there are lots of ways to be in prison. We just have to keep chipping away until something changes. We all need mercy and then some.
I did the math, and author Gregory Bright must now be sixty years old. The state of Louisiana owes him much more than the $250,000 it has given him as “restitution” for his wrongful imprisonment. Here’s my list: about $440,000 for the other seventeen and a half years (they compensated him for just ten of the years he served); apologies from the district attorney, his lawyer, and the police department; dental and medical insurance for the rest of his life; and a full scholarship for any classes he wants to take. I’d throw in his mortgage, too.
The story of Gregory Bright’s twenty-seven and a half years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is the most horrifying account of legal corruption that I have ever read: he was locked up in prison at the age of twenty and released at forty-seven, when his conviction was proven to have been wrongful.
Why do these police officers, prosecutors, and judges still have jobs? Where is the justice?
I have thought about corresponding with prisoners for years, but Gregory Bright and Lara Naughton’s account “Twenty-Seven and a Half Years” [June 2015] and Tracy Frisch’s interview with Maya Schenwar were the push I needed. I just sent off my first letter to an inmate.
I just finished reading Gregory Bright’s story. I cannot believe he is unable to find a job. With his compassion, forgiveness, and perseverance, he should be running for president.