Common Ground Relief helps wrongly convicted man rehab a house in the Ninth Ward

Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- Common Ground Relief, a nonprofit organization in the Lower 9th Ward, is helping Calvin Duncan, who spent 30 years at Angola wrongly accused murder. Upon his release, Duncan was given a historic house  at 1317 Feliciana that he wants to make his home. Duncan, left, sits on the front porch with Thom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief.
Advocate Staff Photo by Eliot Kamenitz -- Common Ground Relief, a nonprofit organization in the Lower 9th Ward, is helping Calvin Duncan, who spent 30 years at Angola wrongly accused murder. Upon his release, Duncan was given a historic house at 1317 Feliciana that he wants to make his home. Duncan, left, sits on the front porch with Thom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief.

FINALLY HOME

At 50, Calvin Duncan has never married, traveled nor owned his own home. He spent most of his adult life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, sentenced to life imprisonment without probation, parole or suspension — convicted of a crime he did not commit.

One person’s testimony and alleged eyewitness identification were all it took to convince a jury of his guilt and incarcerate him for 28 years.

“I never thought I was going to get out of prison,” Duncan admitted.

But, today, he works full-time as a paralegal at The Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans’ Central Business District and is a student in Tulane University’s Paralegal Studies program. He’s also become a homeowner.

When Duncan was exonerated and let out of Angola on Jan. 7, 2011, he was issued a $10 check. Only 19 years old when sentenced for murder, there was no family to welcome him home, but he received a free place to live through the Innocence Project.

Later, a childhood friend, Alvin Abbot, gave him a 19th century house in the 9th Ward bought at a tax sale, which had lain abandoned and empty for 40 years. It was gutted after Hurricane Katrina and still structurally sound.

In addition to becoming Duncan’s home, the house will be a refuge for newly released prisoners, so Duncan can help mentor and transition men back into the community.

After trying to renovate it by himself, Duncan wrote to Councilmember Kristen Gisleson Palmer for a list of agencies that might be able to help him procure funding. Common Ground Relief responded immediately.

“This is a great project for a remarkable guy, so Calvin can help others,” said Thom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground. Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, his organization continues to offer assistance to residents moving back to the 9th Ward.

Common Ground Relief partners with licensed general contractors to ensure houses are worth renovating and their reconstruction complies with city building codes. Robert Wolfe Construction, Inc., completes accurate assessments before any resources are committed. Robert Wolfe confirmed Duncan’s house was free of termites, structurally sound and its foundation completely level.

“Common Ground appealed to us because they are honestly trying to make a difference,” said Randy Epperley, who works with Robert Wolfe Construction.

“We want to do a good thing for a person who deserves it, but also have a model of doing it right,” he added. The construction team aims to demonstrate it is possible to renovate an old house to become hurricane resistant and energy-efficient at a reasonable price.

Duncan’s house will incorporate green building materials, including insulation, energy-efficient doors and windows and a water-catch system for less than $120 per foot.

“This is a great house,” Pepper said of the 120-year-old, wood-frame, two-bedroom residence. Its original Cuban roof tiles were brought to New Orleans in the 1890s as ballast on ships. Pepper wants to demonstrate that it is feasible to renovate architecturally significant homes so “we don’t need to tear them down.”

Common Ground runs a job-training program that brings young people together with licensed, insured and bonded general contractors to learn valuable carpentry and construction skills, although this renovation will be done with paid local labor. At the moment, Duncan’s house is a hollow shell with vines growing through a hole in the roof and a padlock on the front door. About $200,000 must be raised to fully complete the project.

“This is my dream house,” Duncan said, leaning against a brick fireplace in the empty living room.

As a 2013 recipient of an Open Society Foundation fellowship, Duncan is committed to helping other prisoners serving life sentences get access to the courts.

“Calvin works tirelessly to ensure others at Angola have the opportunity he had to challenge injustice,” said Sarah Ottinger, executive director of the Capital Appeals Project.

Duncan had begun studying the law immediately after being arrested in an attempt to get a fair trial, but an overworked public defender provided little help. He continued his research in prison, but quickly realized it was virtually impossible for him to obtain trial documents. He wrote “countless” letters to state and federal agencies asking for the documents concerning his case. Lifers must have outside help make the requests, Ottinger explained.

Duncan had almost lost hope of release when the Innocence Project accepted his case in 2003. “There were some dark days,” Ottinger remembered. Innocence Project ultimately uncovered evidence that contradicted his case.

Duncan knows most of the men serving life sentences at Angola because he was an inmate counsel substitute for 23 years. For 19 of those years, he served as paralegal and won freedom for a several fellow inmates, including Wilbert Rideau. Imprisoned for more than 43 years, Rideau went on to author a book, “In the Place of Justice.”

“Calvin is the kind of person who will never forget the people he has left behind,” Ottinger said. Duncan is grateful for his freedom and sees beauty in everything. He enjoys walking to work because he treasures that privilege.

“It is a tremendous blessing to work side-by-side with him because he has such joy,” Ottinger said.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Common Ground Relief, Inc., 1800 Deslonde St., New Orleans, LA 70117 or online at www.commongroundrelief.org.