A Plea for Forgiveness
A client represented by University of Virginia School of Law professor Kelly Orians was recently released from prison after serving more than 26 years when a court agreed to a unique plea deal that focused on reconciliation.
At 18, Everett “Buff” Offray fatally shot Timothy Lacey during an argument involving three others outside a convenience store in New Orleans. Originally charged with a capital offense, Offray was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder in 1996 and sentenced to life without parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola prison. Citing ineffective counsel, he first applied for post-conviction relief in 2004 but delays, caused in part by Hurricane Katrina and then the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed his case back for years.
“I didn’t feel like I was ever gonna get there,” he recalled.
Orians took up Offray’s case last spring after being connected by Calvin Duncan, a mutual friend who was previously incarcerated at Angola and is now a student at Lewis & Clark Law School.
Demonstrating that ineffective counsel rises to the level of violating the Sixth Amendment is difficult, she explained, but Offray’s case “was so egregious that it was almost an exception.” For example, although he was facing the death penalty, his attorney called no witnesses, did not rigorously cross-examine witnesses and only met with her client twice. The attorney was later disciplined and permanently disbarred for unprofessional and unethical behavior throughout her career.
“Our expectations of defense attorneys, and what obligations they have to zealously defend their clients, are tragically low, and it’s often low-income defendants and their families who suffer from that,” Orians said. “I would like to live in a country where people, regardless of what attorney they can afford, would receive more robust defense, especially when their life is on the line.”
In 2015, she was awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship to help launch The First 72+, a holistic reentry services organization serving formerly incarcerated people in New Orleans, and Rising Foundations, a community development corporation dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated people become business owners and homeowners.
To help Offray, Orians gained an unlikely ally to support their claim for release: the victim’s father.
Bill Lacey met with Orians in Northern Virginia, and was impressed and persuaded by Offray’s reputation at Angola. Lacey, who as a young man was also incarcerated in the Louisiana state prison system, reconnected with other formerly incarcerated people who told him Offray looked out for others, spent plenty of time in the law library and “thought about somebody besides Buff.” For Lacey, that was a ringing endorsement. In July, Lacey and Offray had a chance to talk in person, through a meeting facilitated personally by the district attorney, Jason Williams.
“This meeting was the first of its kind facilitated by the DA himself,” Orians said.
She added that under the protection of a use-immunity agreement, Offray was able to speak freely with Lacey during this meeting, answer all of his questions, and, for the first time, take real responsibility for his actions.
“From everything I gathered on Buff and what people told me about Buff, I don’t see him being a statistic of going back to jail, I see that he’s a grown man,” he said. “Now he apologized to me personally for what he did, and I accepted his apology.”
Having poor legal representation also didn’t surprise Lacey, which he called “normal” for the criminal justice system in New Orleans.
But Lacey’s family was divided: His grandchildren and his son’s aunts were adamantly opposed to supporting Offray’s release. Lacey changed his father’s mind after a brief conversation about letting Offray “rot” in prison for the rest of his life.
Everybody deserves a second chance if they’re redeemable, Lacey concluded.
“At the back of my mind, no matter what I do or say, nothing’s gonna bring back my son,” he added, “and there’s no sense in two lives going down the toilet.”
Orians said Lacey’s support did not guarantee that their petition would be successful, but it did expedite court proceedings and advance the plea deal, saving the state a lot of time and money in what would have otherwise been a lengthy legal battle, likely leading to the same result. A change in state law that created a post-conviction plea opportunity, and the election of a district attorney who made restorative justice a part of his campaign platform, also helped Offray’s case move forward. Additionally, the court found that — with a fiancée that stuck by him since his arrest, family, stable home and support network — Offray was well-positioned to reenter society and recidivism was unlikely.
“She was dedicated to the cause; I never had another attorney like her,” he said of Orians. “She had to be heaven-sent to [help me] in my situation … because she went all out with my situation on every turn, she made sure every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ was crossed.”
In exchange for avoiding new, protracted litigation and a formal ruling on ineffective counsel, Offray’s indictment was amended to manslaughter, making him eligible for immediate release. The judge approved the deal Dec. 8, and Offray was released later that day.
“I knew God was real,” Offray said about being a free man ahead of the Christmas season.
Lacey and Offray spoke on the phone the night of his release, and both hope to stay in close touch.
Orians said this was the first plea of its kind for the judge and could be a blueprint for similar cases in Louisiana in the future.
“We’re finally reckoning with the fact that we are the most incarcerated state in the country, in the most incarcerated country in the world, and that we did not earn this title because we have an overwhelming or unique amount of crime occurring,” she added. “We have a history of institutional racism in Louisiana, and across the country, that may be most damaging in the context of the criminal legal system. A lot of work has been done over the past 10, 15 years — really led and spearheaded by formerly incarcerated people themselves — to confront that history and do something about it.”
Offray hopes to share his story so stakeholders have a better understanding of the prison population and human side of the criminal justice system. Prisons also house innocent people who don’t have access to help, he noted.
“A lot of times people don’t understand what it was that caused these situations,” he said, “or they may charge you with a situation and they don’t know that they may have some circumstances that probably could have put you in that situation.”
Offray’s case was an opportunity to show that defense attorneys and their clients do sincerely care about the needs of victims, and the harm endured by communities, Orians said. Her client had an opportunity to be accountable and to express remorse, and the victim’s family had the opportunity to hear that, which was ultimately what everyone involved wanted, she added.
“One of the things that this case represents is that it is possible within a criminal legal system for defense attorneys, prosecutors, victims and their families, and people who have been accused of harm to work collaboratively to determine what is just, what is fair, and what is legal under the Constitution,” she said. “It gives me incredible hope that we can move past the purely adversarial gamesmanship that usually defines the criminal legal system and instead work toward something much more human.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.