A Louisiana man is free after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for a fatal shooting that he did not commit, according to the Innocence Project New Orleans.
The state moved to vacate the conviction of Cedric L. Dent, 47, on Monday for the murder of Anthony Milton. A judge dismissed the case, and the state will not retry it.
Dent embraced his mother and reunited with other family members after he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary on Monday.
“I was a working man. I was taking care of my family. All of the sudden things went wrong in my life, and they just took my life away from me. I was hurt. I was angry. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I felt numb, and I couldn’t understand why this happened to me,” Dent told local news station WWL in an interview. “I got locked up when I was 23 and I’m 47 now. It took all my good years from me.”
Sometime around 10 p.m. on Sept. 2, 1997, Milton was shot in the back of the head as he walked through a parking lot in the St. Thomas Housing Projects with his cousin Jerry Hamilton.
Milton had just argued with his alleged shooter while in line at a nearby grocery store, according to Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). The shooter followed the men into the lot. The shooter was unknown and to Milton and his cousin. After the shot was fired, Hamilton looked at the shooter for a few seconds, before that person ran away, according to IPNO.
The lead detective heard rumors that Dent was a possible suspect and showed several photos of Dent to Hamilton. He identified Dent as the shooter and a warrant was issued for his arrest, according to IPNO.
Hamilton was the only witness to identify Dent as the shooter during the trial. He said he was sure Dent was the shooter and had a long opportunity to look at him before they were in the lot.
Dent, 23, at the time of his arrest, was at the movies on the night of the shooting, but his attorney never provided an alibi, according to IPNO. He was convicted of second-degree murder, but the verdict wasn't unanimous.
District Attorney Jason Williams’ office said in a statement that such a verdict would not be acceptable today under state and federal law, the Associated Press reported.
"After a thorough review of Mr. Dent's case, our office concluded that – like many convictions decided by non-unanimous jury – his guilty verdict stemmed from a trial that was unfair precisely because one of the twelve jurors had voted to acquit and because of constitutionally ineffective assistance from his defense attorney," the statement said. "The legal system failed Mr. Dent, and just as significantly, failed the victim of this crime and his family."
The IPNO later discovered that the state had hidden documents, which included police notes of a witness identifying another suspect. Those documents also revealed that Hamilton’s initial description of the suspect did not match Dent.
He failed to mentioned Dent’s gold teeth. He gave at least six different versions of what he witnessed, but the jury never heard how his story changed, according to IPNO.
In May of this year, IPNO filed claims for post-conviction relief. The Promise of Justice Initiative also petitioned the court to overturn Dent’s conviction because the verdict was not unanimous.
"Cedric Dent is a victim of the failures of every system that was put in place to protect his rights as a person accused of a crime - a police department that did the bare minimum to investigate a serious crime; lawyers that didn't have the resources or the wherewithal to investigate his case; and a district attorney's office that concealed evidence that should have been turned over and would have helped Mr. Dent get the not guilty verdict he deserved at trial," Meredith Angelson, one of Dent’s lawyers, said in a statement released by IPNO.
Dent is the nephew of another man freed from prison by IPNO. Elvis Brooks was wrongfully imprisoned for armed robbery for 42 years. Brooks was released in 2019 after an IPNO investigation, which included fingerprint evidence and witnesses who said he was not the robber.
“The fact that two members of the same family were wrongfully convicted may sound like an extraordinary coincidence, but in fact it shows just how commonplace these horrific miscarriages of justice are in our criminal legal system. Mr. Brooks received the same unfair and dehumanizing treatment in 1977 that Mr. Dent did in 1997. The causes of wrongful convictions in our community are spread vast and rooted deep—today as they have always been,” IPNO Executive Director Jee Park said in a statement.