(NEW ORLEANS) — A New Orleans man who has spent two-thirds of his life in prison for a killing he always denied committing has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will be released. Elvis Brooks, 62, has maintained that he’s innocent since his arrest in July 1977, shortly before his 20th birthday.
“I wanted my freedom,” he told reporters Tuesday, after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of Cecil Lloyd and to three counts of armed robbery at New Orleans’ Welcome Inn bar. “I’ve been locked up since 1977. I’m not getting any younger.”
Brooks had been serving a life sentence for murder. But evidence that would have cleared him, including fingerprints that weren’t his on two beer cans that the robbers had held, was withheld at trial, according to attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans.
Shackled and wearing his orange Louisiana State Penitentiary jumpsuit, Brooks said prosecutors offered the plea bargain Thursday while he was with his lawyers preparing for a hearing on that claim. “It was a shock to me,” Brooks said.
“It is deeply unfair that an innocent man would be forced to choose between entering a plea to secure his immediate freedom and waiting years more in prison to prove his innocence through litigation,” IPNO attorney Charrel Arnold said. She said some of the organization’s cases have taken decades to resolve.
As requested by prosecutors, Judge Byron Williams sentenced Brooks to 21 years — the maximum in 1977 — for manslaughter and 42 years on each count of armed robbery, all to run concurrently and with credit for time served.
Brooks probably will be released Wednesday, IPNO spokeswoman Cat Forrester said. She said he will be living with and working for one of his brothers, a restaurant owner in Alexandria. Forrester said her organization has created an online fund and Amazon wish list for Brooks, who cannot ask for compensation for wrongful incarceration.
Another brother, 64-year-old Gregory Brooks, who is retired, and his wife, Wanda Brooks, were in the courtroom Tuesday to show support for Brooks, and to represent the rest of his living siblings — two more brothers and five sisters. His parents and three other siblings are dead. “I don’t believe he is innocent — I know he is,” Gregory Brooks said, stressing the verbs.
Donna Andrieu, head of the appellate division of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, said, “I think the district attorney was showing some mercy.”
Although three white witnesses at the Welcome Inn identified Brooks as one of two armed robbers, IPNO said his trial attorney wasn’t informed that neither of two black victims of a nearby bar holdup 30 minutes earlier had done so. One of the white witnesses, who opened the door to the gunmen, knew Brooks as a neighborhood resident, said Andrieu.
She said prosecutors weren’t acknowledging any defects in the case. “We’re acknowledging he’s 62 years old and still has an opportunity for a life outside the penitentiary,” she said.
Wanda Brooks said it’s a disgrace that her brother-in-law spent 42 years in prison. “We always knew he was innocent,” she said. She also said Elvis Brooks “wasn’t an angel” before his arrest, and his record probably hurt him at trial, “although truth was on his side.”
The judge noted that, when arrested in 1977, Brooks was on parole after pleading guilty in 1974 to felony theft.
Wanda Brooks said her brother-in-law is looking forward to his first meal in freedom and, when she asked, told her he’d like grilled shrimp and French fries. She said she asked, “Not fried shrimp?” and was told, “No, I’m a diabetic.”