As an 11-year-old growing up in New Orleans’ infamous Florida Projects, Dan Bright started selling drugs. It wasn’t long before he was making $10,000 a week. He bought his first car at the age of 12; by 16, he was a kingpin. Then, in a one-day trial at Orleans Criminal District Court, Bright was convicted of first-degree murder. At the age of 26, he was sentenced to death by lethal injection. The year was 1996.
After nearly a decade in prison—four-and-a-half of those years spent on Angola’s death row—Bright was exonerated. The Story of Dan Bright: Crime, Corruption, and Injustice in the Crescent City chronicles his journey. The book was written with the help of New Orleans-based journalist Justin Nobel, who first met Bright when volunteering at Resurrection After Exoneration, a local non-profit dedicated to helping people who have been wrongfully convicted reenter society. Bright asked Nobel to help him put together his notes from prison. Together, they detail a fascinating and dangerous life curtailed by a broken criminal justice system. For those focused on issues surrounding incarceration and injustice, it’s an essential read. It throws light on parts of society that are often overlooked and forgotten. As Bright explains in his book, “There wasn’t anything unusual about being wrongfully convicted in Louisiana.”
When did you know that you wanted to write a book?
Dan Bright: I was in prison on death row. I read so many books, man, like three or four books a week. You’re in the cell 23 hours a day. All I did was read, all these different books. Fiction, nonfiction, history, whatever. I was reading a lot of urban fiction and I thought “I could write a book. I could do this. These stories aren’t better than mine. I done more things.” So then I started writing things down.
You mentioned in the book that you damaged your eyes from reading so much while in prison.
At a certain time they cut the lights off. They have these little blue lights, like safety lights, so the guards can see you. You’d have to get into one spot in the cell where you could get enough light to see what you’re reading, but it’s still dark and it strains your eyes.
You’ve always been very close to your mother. What are her thoughts on the book?
She don’t know what to think.
There’s a lot of information in there.
Yeah, a lot of stuff she didn’t know was going on. A lot of stuff she didn’t know about.
You’re also a father. What was it like to be reunited with your children after you were released from nearly a decade of wrongful incarceration?
It was strange. I didn’t know how to feel anymore. When you’re in prison for so long, your emotions die off. You have to become this person that you don’t want to be. You have to become this hard, uncaring person in order to survive. When I came home I didn’t know how to laugh or play or talk to my kids. I had to start all over.
How do you explain your past life to them?
Well, I put it like this: If it wasn’t for my past life, they wouldn’t be here. My old lifestyle is what attracted their mothers to me.
Have your kids read the book?
Yeah. All my kids are grown now, except one. They knew. They didn’t know how deep it went. But see, my mother raised my kids and she would tell them certain things I was into that she knew about. And then they would hear it in the streets. “Your Dad used to do this. Your Dad used to do that.” So they knew, but I never really sat down and talked to them about it because that part of my life don’t really concern them. As long as they’re safe and happy, I’m good. As long as they go to school and get a job, that’s the most important thing.
What was your initial reaction when you learned you were featured on America’s Most Wanted?
I don’t want to sound arrogant. I was kind of happy and pissed off at the same time. I was put on America’s Most Wanted for something I didn’t do, but at the same time it was because I was important. I was seen all over the world. It makes you feel powerful, when you up there with guys like El Chapo and Goti, but at the same time it was for something I didn’t do. So there was anger, and there was pride. Street pride.
You wrote about being assigned an execution date in which you would be put to death by lethal injection. Two decades have passed since that date. What’s it like to receive a death sentence and then have it reversed?
I never lost my focus or my faith, as far as getting out. I mostly wondered how long it’d take. Once you tell one lie, you got to tell another lie to cover that lie up, and so far and so on. That’s what the D.A. and the judge were doing. All we had to do was just expose one lie, and the rest of them would fall like dominoes. All I needed was an attorney or a law firm to help me do that. I always knew I was going to get out someday. I wasn’t afraid—being afraid wasn’t in me. I’m a fighter. I’ve been a fighter since I was a kid. The question wasn’t “Am I going to get out?” but “When?” That’s the thing that kind of shook me, wondering when—20 years, 30 years, 40 years. I seen guys in prison that long who get out and don’t know what to do.
How would you say the whole experience shaped your outlook on life?
I looked at it as a legal war. Either I’m going to win or they’re going to win. I wasn’t going to give up. I wasn’t going to stop fighting. I never looked at it like being afraid or depressed or scared. I just looked at it as a fight to the bitter end. And, you know, I came out on top.
One of the points made in the book that I found so interesting was that had you not been sentenced to death, you may have never received the legal counsel that eventually freed you.
You know, I wasn’t the only innocent guy in prison. You got a lot of innocent guys in there. But they didn’t have the legal representation that I had, Ben [Cohen] and Clive [Stafford Smith]. If it weren’t for them, maybe I would be dead or still on death row.
What role did Innocence Project New Orleans play in helping you regain your freedom?
They played a major role. At first, I didn’t know what the judge was thinking. I couldn’t figure him out. Only thing I could think was that he was psychotic or something. After he sentenced me to death, he appointed a lawyer to my appeal. She came to see me on death row. She said her caseload was too heavy so she was going to give my case to another attorney. When she gave the case over, she gave it to Clive, and I’m glad she did.
He’s something of a rockstar lawyer.
He’s all over the world, man. Last time I talked to him he said he was representing the Taliban. I said “Man, the C.I.A. is going to be all over you!” He said “They already are. They got my phone tapped and everything.”
At 16, you were rich. You put money into your neighborhood, the Florida Projects. You fixed the community pool, started a youth football league, helped strangers pay rent. You wrote “Our plan was to build up our community, and whether it was drug money or not, we were going to do it.” You also express remorse about dealing drugs, specifically the damage caused to people’s lives by addiction. With all this lived experience, what advice would you give to a young person today hustling at the risk of their own freedom?
If a kid doesn’t have shoes on his feet and you tell him “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” he’s going to look at you like you’re crazy. You have to show him a way to get those shoes. If you don’t show him something positive, he’s going to do something negative. In order for me to help people, I have to give them an alternative. I can’t just say “Don’t do this. I been there.” They don’t want to hear that. They need money, just like I needed money. Only thing I can tell them is be careful, make a plan to get out, and know it might not work out the way you want it to. As far as telling someone not to do it, I would never tell someone that because I’m not giving them anything. If you’re in your house and your rent’s due and your lights are about to go off, and then someone says to you “All you got to do is drop this over there and keep walking and I’ll give you ten grand,” if you say no then you’re in the cold and you’re freezing. You lose your house and have to live on the street. These kids aren’t going to do that.
You also wrote in your book “Kids in New Orleans talk about prison the way other kids talk about college.” What do you think are the factors that contribute to this kind of environment?
No jobs. Poverty. There’s not enough positive things here for kids to get into. In the Lower 9th Ward, we had to really protest and get on the mayor just to get one pool opened up for the kids. There’s no hospital over there. There’s no clinics over there. There’s nothing over there, and people wonder why they’re shooting and killing each other.
What were your thoughts when the Florida Projects were demolished?
I was kind of pissed off, because that’s my history. I don’t have no history now. I have no roots. The stuff they’re putting up now, that’s not a project. That’s just apartments. My history is gone. I can’t show anybody where I grew up, show them where it all happened. It’s a good thing for the younger generation, but it’s a bad thing for the older generation because they can’t look back and reminisce.
You meditated while you were in prison. Can you talk about that?
It was hard for me at first, because I couldn’t blank my mind. You have to really just blank your mind out. And it was hard for me to do that because I was always thinking, always trying to figure out a way to achieve something. Then after a while I just started staring at the wall, blanking my mind out. But it’s real hard to meditate, especially on death row because you got so much stuff going on. You don’t really want to blank your mind out because you’ve got some damn fool in the next cell throwing human waste on you. You understand what I’m saying? This is what goes on in the cell block, because they can’t physically touch you. So what’s the next thing? Throwing human waste, urine on each other. I never indulged in it, but I done seen it happen a lot of times. But yeah, meditation is good.
What was your technique?
I’d just look at the wall. The wall was my strategy. I’d just look at the wall and just, like, go into the paint. Let your mind go into the paint on the wall. That’s what you do. Stare at it and blank everything out. Longest I’d do it was two hours. It’s like a reboot. You reboot your brain. Now you can start all over, you’re refreshed. And, you know, I was told if you don’t entertain your mind, your mind is going to entertain itself. You don’t give your mind nothing to feed on, you’re going to start blowing bubbles out your nose and talking to yourself, and you don’t want that.
How would you summarize your survival strategy while in prison?
I stayed to myself. I wasn’t going to take no shit off anybody. Excuse my language. You cross the line with me, I’m going to show you I’m not to be played with. At the same, I don’t want no trouble. But if you cause trouble, I’m going to give you trouble. I’d rather read, exercise, run the yard, work on my case. I’d rather do that than be in the dungeon for busting somebody in the head. But if it came to that, I’d do that, because it’s about survival. I just stayed positive. Focused on what I was trying to do.
You wrote “There’s no such things as an honest New Orleans cop. Even if a well intentioned person joins the police, as soon as they become a cop they become part of that corrupt system.” How long have you held that opinion?
That’s going to always be a part of me. When a cop joins the force his intentions may be good. He may want to do the right thing, but he’s surrounded by all this corruption. Even if he doesn’t indulge in the corruption, he’s still coming up from corruption. He knows who’s doing the corruption, turning a blind eye to it, so he’s a part of it. There’s no such thing as an honest cop.
Arthur Kaufman was one of the detectives involved with your case. How did you feel when you learned he was found guilty of conspiring to conceal evidence in the Danziger Bridge shootings?
I was happy. I was thinking now he’s going to know what it feels like to put that orange jumpsuit on or wait in line to get your food, go through some of the things that I had to go through for some shit I didn’t do, excuse my language.
You were given a $10 check when you walked out of prison. Why?
They give you a bus ticket and a $10 check to put some money in your pocket when you get released. A dollar for every year I was in prison.
Do you still feel anger at the Orleans Parish criminal justice system?
Yes, definitely. I’ll always have anger for what they did me. If they hadn’t done this to me I could be very successful. Or I could be dead, who knows. But they didn’t give me the opportunity to live my life, they denied me that. I’ll always be angry at them, but I’m not angry enough to hurt anyone. I’m going to deal with them through the legal channels and the political channels. I told Karen Herman [D.A. prosecutor in Bright’s case, now Orleans Criminal District Court judge] the worst thing you can do is put me in a cell by myself. She didn’t get it at first. I think she’s getting it now. If you put me in a cell by myself, I’ve got nothing but time to think and educate myself, figure things out.
Was death row your closest brush with death?
I had nearer brushes with death. I wouldn’t say I didn’t take being on death row seriously, because I truly did. But there’s a difference when death is right there, facing you, and when death is somewhere years down the line. You can figure out a way to get around a death sentence. You can’t get around the street. I take death seriously, especially after getting shot.
Do you ever miss your old lifestyle?
I miss the money. I miss the travelling. I still can get the women. But the cars, living in fancy hotels, going all over. I miss it.
I went from counting hundreds of thousands of dollars to debating my granddaughter about what to watch on the Disney Channel.
Put it like this: I went from counting hundreds of thousands of dollars to debating my granddaughter about what to watch on the Disney Channel. Life now has its rewards, but at the same time when you can’t give your family what you’re used to giving them, it angers you. It pisses you off. It frustrates you. It depresses you. And you always have “What if?” or “Should I?” in the back of your mind, but you know the consequences if you get back into that life.
What do you imagine your life would have been like had you not been set up?
Maybe I could have been richer, more powerful. Maybe I could have changed my life, taken all that money and gone legit, done something good with it. Or I could have gotten gunned down in the street. I don’t know. I was denied the chance to live my own life. It was taken from me because they wanted me off the street.
When describing your appeals process, you wrote about feeling “powerful and important.” One of your goals, besides regaining your personal freedom, was to expose the system. Do you feel like you succeeded?
Not yet. I’m not finished. I’m just getting started. I still look at it as a war. A lot of people don’t want to hear the truth. They think we live in this perfect society. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of guys get convicted, because some people don’t think that the justice system is unjust. They think “Oh, he was arrested for it. He must have did it.” A lot of juries work that way.
Perhaps the book provides you a new kind of power.
I hope so. I hope it allows me to expose a lot of things and educate people. That’s the mission, expose the system and educate the younger generation.
Authors Dan Bright and Justin Nobel will be reading from The Story of Dan Bright: Crime, Corruption, and Injustice in the Crescent City (University of New Orleans Press) at 6 p.m. on Thursday, January 26th at Material Life, 6038 Saint Claude Avenue. For more info, check out unopress.org