Articles Posted in Civil Rights Advocacy

Oral argument will be heard tomorrow before the Hon. John L. Michalski in Erie County Supreme Court on one simple question: are Brian Lorenzo and James Pugh entitled to DNA testing?

The two men have been in prison for the past quarter century for the stabbing-and-strangling murder of Deborah Meindl, a 33-year-old mother of two, in North Tonawanda, near Buffalo, New York. The crime scene was brimming with biological evidence, none of it ever tested by modern methods. Our client, Jimmy Pugh, has always maintained his innocence, even though he is eligible for parole. No physical evidence linked him in any way to the crime scene and there is no evidence that he knew the victim, her family, or anyone associated with him. The crime scene evidence is carefully preserved in a police locker. DNA testing can exonerate Pugh and Lorenzo — or decisively prove their guilt once and for all.

Nonetheless the Erie County District Attorney’s Office opposes any DNA testing.

photo_55295_20151127-300x236Your phone constantly tracks and records its location and transmits the information to your wireless carrier. Most phone companies keep that data — known as “cell site location information” — for up to five years. And until last week, it was pretty much available to the government for the asking.

Think for a moment what that means. If you went to a psychiatrist, a divorce lawyer, an AA meeting, a yoga class, or a 1980s dance party in the last five years, any policeman in the country could find out about it just by asking the phone company where your phone was at a given moment in time. It is as though the government placed permanent tracking devices on all of us. True, under federal law, the police had to ask for a court order under the Stored Communications Act based on a showing that the cell site data was “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation.” But that is a ridiculously low standard: pretty much anything an investigator wants to see can be tied to an investigation one way or another. Orders under 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(d) were, in practice, routinely granted by both state and federal courts.

All that changed last Friday when a fractured Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. U.S. that grabbing cell site data constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. That means that use of cell site data must be reasonable. For police investigations, a search is only reasonable if it is based on a search warrant supported by probable cause. Probable cause, the Court explained, is something more than the low standard in Sec. 2703(d): “relevant and material” just means cell site evidence “might be pertinent to an ongoing investigation,” whereas probable cause requires a “quantum of individualized suspicion” before police can start rummaging. So a Section 2703(d) subpoena is not enough to support obtaining cell site data. Mr. Carpenter’s conviction, based in part on cell site location data showing his phone was near several stores at the time they were robbed, was thrown out.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Screen-Shot-2018-06-21-at-9.47.54-AM-300x146.pngOn Tuesday, the New York State Assembly passed A. 5285-C, the State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct bill that passed the Senate in a surprise vote last week. Now it’s up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law. Groups like Human Rights Watch and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will be pushing him to do just that, which would create the country’s only investigative body exclusively investigating misconduct by prosecutors.

At the same time, some district attorneys around the state are likely to lobby to stop the bill. They will complain that a commission would have too much power, would dampen their ability to enforce the law fairly, and could interfere with ongoing prosecutions. They will see a violation of separation-of-powers and uncabined discretion vested in unelected commissioners including criminal defense lawyers bent on obstructing the work of prosecutors. Litigation will follow.

So what does the proposed law actually say? The full text is available here or by clicking the graphic above. In fact, the proposal is modest. The commission will be made up of volunteer judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers appointed by the governor and the legislature. It may investigate virtually any complaint against a prosecutor. It will have subpoena power. Its business will generally be conducted in public. But it won’t have any remedy with teeth: at the end of its investigation, all it can do is refer its findings to the governor or an appropriate court. It would be up to the governor or court to take action, removing a prosecutor for cause in appropriate circumstances. In other words, all the commission can do is serve as a conduit for information — information that an unscrupulous prosecutor’s colleagues have an ethical obligation to report in any event.

Prosecutors in New York state who commit even egregious misconduct are virtually untouchable. In today’s New York Times, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project chronicles a Suffolk County homicide prosecutor who not only held back exculpatory evidence, but doctored documents to try to actively hide them from the court. After a little digging, it turned out that the same prosecutor, Glenn Kurtzrock, was responsible for misconduct in four additional cases. If you or I did that, we would go to jail.

But not a prosecutor.

As Ms. Morrison writes: “So what’s happened to Mr. Kurtzrock? Nothing. Thirteen months after his public firing, and five murder cases overturned because of his illegal actions, Mr. Kurtzrock hasn’t been charged with a single crime. Not fraud, not tampering with government records, not contempt of court.” Moreover, he cannot be sued. A long line of Supreme Court cases gives prosecutors “absolute immunity” from civil rights suits, even when they directly violate someone’s constitutional right to exculpatory evidence, as Mr. Kurtzrock apparently did.

Under the Sex Offender Registration Act, registered sex offenders must tell New York State about all “internet accounts with internet access providers” and “internet identifiers that such offender uses.” Does that mean you have to disclose your social media accounts?

Most police and the the State Division of Criminal Justice Services would have said yes. Police agencies routinely scour the internet looking for sex offenders who are on social media but have not properly disclosed their presence. People always thought hiding a social media account was a felony — failure to register under Corrections Law Sec. 168-t.

Turns out it is not.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Screen-Shot-2018-05-09-at-10.26.52-AM-300x298.pngThe abrupt resignation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Monday night left the legal community scratching its head. How could such a bright star, who consistently used the power of his office to fight for just causes, especially for women, have fallen in such rapid and spectacular fashion?

The answer, of course, is that people are complicated.

Schneiderman’s initial response to the New Yorker’s story about four women accusing him of abuse was not encouraging: in a statement quoted in the article he asserted that he never assaulted anyone but admitted he engaged in “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity” in the “privacy of intimate relationships.”  In essence, he told the New Yorker he didn’t do it, but if he did do it, it was consensual.

Victoria-Medley-headshot-225x300New York City criminal defense and civil rights lawyer Victoria N. Medley, Esq. has joined the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma as an associate, expanding our reach, capacity and expertise in New York’s state and federal courts.  Ms. Medley comes to us from the firm of Perlmutter & McGuinness, P.C., which recently dissolved when leading criminal attorney Adam Perlmutter became a judge on the New York City Criminal Court. Our office continues to work with the newly-formed Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, PC on high-impact civil rights cases. Ms. Medley was part of the team that won a $26 million settlement last year for two wrongfully convicted men.

Ms. Medley graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 2014, where she led the school’s local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. While still in law school, she interned with Gideon’s Promise, a non-profit that supports public defenders.  In that position, Ms. Medley second-chaired two trials and assisted in felony, magistrate, and family court matters.  After graduating, she completed a fellowship at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau, where she represented indigent clients appealing their cases.

At the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, Ms. Medley will focus on defending individuals accused of serious crimes including fraud, sex crimes, and computer crimes. She will also continue her work on behalf  victims of civil rights abuses, including prisoners who suffer sexual abuse and individuals injured by police misconduct. Her presence will allow us to expand our criminal and civil rights practices, providing zealous advocacy for individuals and ensuring that their rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are secured and promoted.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Screen-Shot-2018-03-14-at-3.10.35-PM-300x228.jpgA year ago, Gov. Mario Cuomo granted clemency to our client Felipe Rodriguez, commuting his life sentence to the 27 years he had already served for a 1987 murder. Felipe, who is also represented by Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, was released because he was an incredible inmate: he had renovated the rectory in one prison and replaced the plumbing in another; he brought Cardinal Dolan to pray with the men on Easter and recruited writers from among the inmates for a prison newsletter. He was so respected by prison authorities that he was put in charge of caustic chemicals at Eastern Correctional Facility.

Felipe Rodriguez is also innocent. He was wrongly convicted of murdering a young Brooklyn mother named Maureen Fernandez and leaving her body behind a warehouse in Queens. His conviction was based on two pieces of evidence: (1) testimony of a drunk who identified Felipe a year-and-a-half after the murder as someone he briefly saw in a bar with the victim the night she was killed and (2) testimony from Javier Ramos, a friend of Mr. Rodriguez who had admitted to falsely accusing someone else of the murder because he was afraid of the police. No physical evidence, DNA, fingerprints or other forensics of any kind ever linked Felipe to the crime.

As the Daily News reported on Christmas Eve: “The case against Felipe Rodriguez was, at first, a case of no’s. No witnesses. No motive. No connection between Rodriguez and Fernandez. No DNA evidence. No criminal record. No history of violence. No knife. No description of bloodstains on the clothing of the man presumed to be the killer.”

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Screen-Shot-2017-10-17-at-11.20.45-PM-300x127.pngWhen officials at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility found out our client, Yekatrina Pusepa, was in an illicit relationship with a prison guard they did nothing to protect her. Instead, they held her out as bait. And when she would not cooperate with them, they threw her in solitary confinement based on trumped up charges. While in solitary, she was left alone with a notoriously violent inmate who had threatened her before — and was able to brutally attack her because of official indifference. Those are the charges in a new lawsuit brought by the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma and Perlmutter & McGuinness, P.C. in federal court in Manhattan.

The suit is one of at least three pending suits against the New York prison system based on what is alleged to be routine abuse and inadequate protection of women prisoners. In Pusepa’s case, the lawsuit alleges that prison officials bungled their investigation, which ultimately led to minor criminal charges lodged against her assailant, former C.O. Ruben Illa, by re-victimizing Ms. Pusepa at every turn. An official told Pusepa that the prison was aware that she was in a relationship with Illa. Under New York law, inmates are not legally capable of consenting to sexual contact with corrections officers, and therefore all sexual contact between inmates and officers is considered non-consensual. Such contact therefore violates the Eighth Amendment. But, according to the suit, the prison continued to allow Illa to work with Pusepa, even letting him swap shifts with another guard so that he could spend more time with her.

The other lawsuit, also brought by the Margulis-Ohnuma and Perlmutter & McGuinness firms, attempts to hold prison officials responsible for forcible sexual abuse by another guard at Bedford Hills, who was prosecuted for forcibly touching our client.

Our client Felipe Rodriguez is about to go home after almost 27 years in prison.

Felipe needs clothes, food, a job, and a place to live. We are working (with the Innocence Project) on all that, but you can help. The Innocence Project has set up a GoFundMe page to collect cash donations, which will be forwarded to Felipe upon his release to help him to get started with his new life. He also needs men’s clothes — shoe size is 9.5, pants are 36W and 31.5L. To donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/felipereentryfund.

As you may already know, Felipe was granted clemency at the very end of last year based on a petition submitted by the Law Office of Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma and the Innocence Project. Felipe was an amazing inmate: he published a newsletter, renovated a rectory, re-built an institution’s  plumbing system, handled dangerous chemicals, and befriended some of the most hated criminals in the prison system. We also believe that he is innocent of the crime he was convicted of, the stabbing murder of a young mother in Queens in 1987. There was no connection between Felipe and the victim; the main witness against him had made an identical accusation against another individual and — unbeknownst to the jury — was caught on tape saying he had made it all up.

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