By Thomas Lowenstein
New Orleans, LA, USA

When I began work as an investigator at Innocence Project New Orleans in 2008, the first thing they showed me was the file cabinet full of requests for help – three thousand applications, give or take, from men and women in prison in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was from this vast pool that the project selected the inmates they would try to help – inmates who were not only factually innocent, but also had a chance to win an appeal. They didn’t have the time or resources to work on cases in which the defendant was at the crime scene but didn’t pull the trigger, or rape cases in which the dispute came down to he said/she said, or even cases in which they knew the defendant was innocent but also knew that, legally, there was nothing else to be done – every avenue of appeal had been exhausted, every issue raised.
Thomas Lowenstein

The screening process for taking cases started with that filing cabinet. Interns read each application for help, wrote brief assessments of the issues involved and identified reasons to think the inmate might actually be innocent and possible issues that might be raised on appeal. The cases were then researched by lawyers and, if a case was worth fighting, the defendant was put in “the queue” – cases waiting for an investigator or attorney to have enough time to take it on. Even then IPNO didn’t sign on to represent a defendant; they would investigate the case for a year or more and then, if they thought they could help the defendant, sign on to actually represent the inmate.

Out of the 3,000 requests for help, IPNO could work about 25 cases at a time and the “queue” was usually about ten cases long. In other words, if your case was on the IPNO “queue”, it meant that you were very likely factually innocent and that something grossly unfair had happened at your trial. And even then you had two or three years to wait before IPNO could begin to investigate your case in depth.

After I’d been working at IPNO a while I thought, Why not get some journalism students to work on some of those cases, the ones IPNO might never get to but were deserving of a look?

Fortunately, Journalism Professor Jay Shelledy at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU, was also interested in the idea; his students were already a researching old, unsolved Civil Rights-era murders, and he welcomed the idea of having some of them work on a potential innocence case.

Our first collaboration proved how effective the model could be. Greg Bright, a Louisiana exoneree, who’d spent 27½ years in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed, had been out for several years but had never received his compensation payment from the State. Greg came to LSU to speak to Professor Shelledy’s class about his situation and one of the class members, Jake Clapp, wrote a piece about Greg’s battle for his compensation that ended up running on the front-page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Within a couple of weeks, Greg had gotten not only his money, but his first-ever apology from a member of the penal system that had put him away unjustly for so long. And Clapp’s article provided important context for a bill in the legislature that increased compensation for wrongfully convicted inmates a bill that became law that spring.
Greg Bright
When I left IPNO a year or two later, I taught a class on criminal justice for Bard Early College New Orleans, working with high school students to understand the justice system that played such a huge role in the life of their city, as well as in many of their own lives. After working with the Bard students, I decided that I wanted the New Orleans Journalism Project (NOJP) to have two areas of focus: training advanced-level journalism students in how to write about criminal justice issues, and also teaching younger students about the history of the criminal justice system here in the deep South, about how the media covers it, and how they can learn to tell their own stories and the stories that matter most to their own communities.

There was no journalism project like this anywhere in the South, a region that could use one because the criminal justice system here is in great need of scrutiny. Layoffs in the area’s media have cut criminal justice coverage at the same time that higher-education budget cuts eliminated a number of journalism classes. Too often, on issues like criminal justice reform or education reform, New Orleans is used by national pundits as an example of how this reform works or fails, or as evidence of the soundness of one concept over another. This trend, along with the cutting of newsroom budgets, means more people from out of town are writing about how New Orleans works, which makes it more important than ever that the people actually living in this system tell the stories that matter most to them and their communities. 

The New Orleans Journalism Project was founded to help address this situation by educating students about how our system works and by training young journalists to do the kind in-depth, community-based storytelling that can help people understand how our system affects the lives of those caught in it, as well as the overall life of our city and region. The goal of the NOJP is to create stories in various formats – written word, podcast, photo journalism, videos – that will add to the community’s understanding of its criminal justice system and therefore to the various reform efforts that are underway to improve that system. And, in so doing, we will help train a new generation of thinkers and storytellers to tell the stories that matter most to the people of New Orleans.

We look forward to hearing your ideas for collaboration, for class work and for stories that need to be told.



Thomas Lowenstein is the Founder and Director of the New Orleans Journalism Project and the author of two books.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.