By Earline Brooks Colbert, as told to Jamiles Lartey
The year my son Cedric Dent was sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, it changed everything for me and my family. Except for one thing: the trips I took to Louisiana State Penitentiary to see him. Those, I was used to — because I had already been making them for the last 20 years to visit my brother, another Black man locked up for a murder he didn’t commit.
My brother, Elvis Brooks, was arrested in 1977 for a murder at a New Orleans bar during a robbery. During his one-day trial, 13 witnesses — including me — testified that Elvis was home at the time on the night of the crime. Instead, the jury believed the testimony of three white patrons in the bar who said my brother did it, even though one had been unable to identify him before the trial. We would later find out that the robbers had touched two beer cans in the bar and left partial fingerprints, which were not a match for Elvis.
None of that mattered. Growing up in New Orleans in the 1970s, it often felt like police and prosecutors didn’t care anything about justice — they were just out to control and re-enslave Black men. Elvis, who was only 19 at the time of the robbery and murder, avoided the death penalty by a single juror’s vote.
Louisiana State Penitentiary is known to most people as Angola, after the plantation that used to sit there. To this day, the prison operates a farm where mostly Black men pick crops virtually for free. Every time I got to that place, a strange feeling came over me, like a sense of despair.
It crushed my whole family to lose my brother to Angola, especially knowing that this quiet, gentle man was completely innocent of what he’d been charged with. Despite how painful it was, I went to visit him religiously — at least once a month. I wanted to let him know he wasn’t cast aside, that he was still loved. I knew not everyone behind bars had that, but it was important to me that my brother did. I never wanted Elvis to give up hope.
Two decades into my brother’s incarceration, in 1997, my son Cedric was arrested for a murder that he didn’t commit. He was only 23, and it was the worst kind of déjà vu.
Despite what we knew about the system when the arrest warrant was issued for my son, we walked straight to the police station so he could turn himself in. We wanted to do the “right” thing.
Even today, I still believe it was the right thing to do. Cedric wanted the opportunity to prove his innocence. And what was our alternative? For my son to be shot down by police as a fugitive?
There was no physical evidence connecting my son to the crime. He was convicted on the word of just one eyewitness, who changed details multiple times. He described the shooter as being 5’6” with a short haircut. Cedric was taller, and he had a long, high-top Afro at the time. He also had a hard-to-miss mouth full of gold teeth. Still, his lawyer never pressed the witness about the discrepancies.
Like thousands of others in Louisiana — mostly Black men — Cedric was convicted by a non-unanimous jury, where at least one juror voted to acquit, believing that the state hadn’t proven the case against him. Even after those kinds of convictions were abolished by Louisiana voters and later ruled unconstitutional in 2020, my son remained behind bars.
Although it was a coincidence that another wrongful conviction hit me so closely, I knew it wasn’t a mistake. What the system was doing to men like Cedric and Elvis was intentional. They took my brother, and then my son, to work at that labor camp called Angola before either one turned 25.
It wasn’t Cedric’s first time at Angola — as a young boy, he’d come with me to visit his uncle. Now he was back for life, and the three of us were together again at visitations. Every time we spoke, I would tell them both, “Be encouraged, be blessed, be safe, stay focused. I love you, and Jesus loves you.”
Angola is two to three hours from New Orleans. For years, I took the bus to get there because I couldn’t afford a car. I’d line up early in the morning — sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. with family members of other incarcerated men, mostly mothers, girlfriends and wives. It was first come, first served for a space on that bus, and the $25 fee (closer to $90 in today’s money) was often a struggle for me to pay.
As I got older, I scraped together the money for a decent car. If it weren’t for those trips to Angola, I probably would have spent that money on something else. Getting to work on the bus wasn’t too much of a problem for me, but getting to the prison became a challenge, especially when I’d bring Cedric’s son and daughter to see him. Every time we went, it crushed me to watch my elementary school-aged grandbabies being patted down by security just so they could see their father for a few minutes in the visitation room.
I bought that car with money I earned working in administration at city hospitals in New Orleans. I was stuck in the infamous Charity Hospital the night Hurricane Katrina hit and wound up stuck there for almost five days before rescue teams made it to us. Like many people in the city, I lost everything in the storm and spent time away as the failed government response made it impossible to stay. I lived in Texas for months after the storm, and might have stayed if it weren’t for Elvis and Cedric being stuck at Angola. Being so far away made it difficult to visit, and being there for my son and brother was non-negotiable.
Sometimes I sit and reflect on what I could have done with the time I spent over my 40 years of traveling to Angola, and I think about how much more joyful our time together as a family might have been. I never bought a house, despite the fact that I worked hard my whole career. I probably could have afforded one, but I never would have been able to enjoy it. I would have felt like the money I saved for a down payment should have gone to helping my brother and son with things they needed, like the warm clothes prisoners aren’t provided and food from the commissary to supplement what the prison serves. Sometimes I feel like the system robbed me of my American dream.
My life saw many peaks and valleys, and it was largely faith that carried me through. I can’t count the number of times I prayed for Elvis and Cedric — for their freedom and just for them to be OK. That prison breaks men down — their bodies and their spirits — and many die there.
For 40 years, every time I picked up a phone call coming from that prison, the first words out of my mouth were always, “Are you all right?”
Elvis was let out of Angola in 2019, after Innocence Project New Orleans filed an application for post-conviction relief alleging that the district attorney’s office had failed to turn over evidence that might have convinced a jury not to convict. Even still, our tough-on-crime D.A. did not look to exonerate my brother, but instead let him plead guilty to lesser charges and leave on time served. It was one last little bit of cruelty that — despite the withheld evidence of his innocence — Elvis was forced to choose between getting out right away, or staying in prison to continue the fight. What kind of choice is that, really?
In April 2022, my brother Elvis was finally exonerated after it was revealed that the fingerprint evidence was never disclosed by the state to Elvis or his attorney.
Four months later, the new, reform-minded D.A. vacated Cedric’s conviction on grounds that my son had received ineffective assistance of counsel, and that he’d been convicted by an unconstitutional non-unanimous jury. After a quarter-century, my son was free from prison.
Because they’ve been exonerated, both my brother and son are eligible for compensation from the state for wrongful conviction. But there’s no guarantee: Only about 41% of exonerees in jurisdictions that provide these funds actually receive anything.
I hope they both receive something, but no amount of money could ever replace the trauma Elvis and Cedric lived through, the hours I spent on the way to and from Angola, or the lives we all could have lived if the system treated them like their lives mattered.
Despite all the suffering the system put our family through, I thank God every day for the fact that they were both able to walk out alive. You can’t unwind those years of oppression, and just because they are out physically, doesn’t mean that our family will ever be completely restored mentally, emotionally or spiritually. But with God’s grace, we’re working on it, one day at a time.
The communications director of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections did not respond to questions about the farm operated by the Louisiana State Penitentiary by publication time.
The story has been updated since publication to clarify the identity of the district attorney who vacated Dent’s conviction.“
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