Articles Posted in Prisoners’ Rights

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Alcatraz09-225x300Our office had two happy results in cases in the last twenty-four hours, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. I won’t use names to protect client confidentiality, but here is the short version of how two men will pass a more peaceful Thanksgiving than they have in a long time.

Our first client was in prison in Virginia for years for trafficking in cocaine while he was on federal supervised release. After his Virginia prison term ended, he was brought to the Southern District of New York to face sanctions for violating his release terms. Although he had a long rap sheet, he did well in Virginia prisons, completing numerous courses and garnering praise from his work supervisors in jail. He was ready to be released, but, although he had family around the country, there was no plan for him. We nonetheless asked for time-served and the federal judge asked us to come back with a plan in a few weeks, that is, yesterday. We proposed also making a written submission to aid in sentencing and present what we learned about the client’s success in jail.

So associate attorney Victoria Medley got to work, calling around potential drug rehabilitation programs near the client’s family members in Maryland. Calls went unanswered, paperwork was required, and the whole effort seemed mired in bureaucracy. Eventually, though, a suitable program was found and told us, in principle, that he would be accepted. We submitted a detailed brief to the judge about the client’s progress in prison, and explaining the unique circumstances that caused him to go off the rails and back into drug dealing years ago. We showed up to court yesterday expecting that he would be detained through the holidays until an actual rehab bed could be secured, confirmed, paid for and, basically, guaranteed.

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IMG_1123-e1539730197788-300x176With a heart full of joy, I had the unique pleasure of attending the wedding of Felipe and Karen Rodriguez last month. Felipe has been my client since the summer of 2015, when I signed up to assist the Innocence Project in representing him in his claim that he was wrongfully convicted of a 1987 homicide in Queens. Gov. Mario Cuomo granted Felipe clemency at the beginning of 2017. The clemency petition really had two parts: Felipe was just about the best inmate the prison system had ever seen, and there was basically no credible evidence supporting his conviction. He renovated the prisons he resided in and counseled serial killers no one else would talk to. He ran a Catholic prayer group and started a newsletter. He was so trusted that he was put in charge of caustic chemicals at one of the prisons he was assigned to. He did 27 years, and we are still fighting to prove his innocence in the courts. Felipe’s case was profiled in detail in the Daily News last Christmas — and he has thrived since then.

After he got out, Felipe was reunited with his son, who had last seen him on the outside as a toddler. But Felipe and Felipe Jr. kept in touch over the years, shedding tears of joy on the meadow in front of Eastern Correctional Facility on the day of Felipe’s release. And Felipe has thrived in the two years he has been out, proving Gov. Cuomo’s judgment to be sound. He works long hours in a hotel and takes care of Karen and her two boys, whom he considers to be his sons. They met as she was waiting tables, and he was lonely and tired after a long day of work. The wedding was a glittering occasion in the greatest tradition of New York City. The ceremony was in an office overlooking Washington Square Park, presided over by a prominent criminal lawyer who was just appointed as a judge. The party afterward was at a nearby Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. The judge was there, along with the former editor-in-chief of the Daily News, the former president of NYU, a retired fire chief that Felipe befriended through the prison ministry, and my brilliant co-counsel on the case, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, along with a bevy of Karen’s friends and relatives. Felipe and Karen’s boys danced long past their bedtime.IMG_0707-300x300

The main witness against Felipe has unequivocally recanted his testimony. The district attorney’s office is looking at the case. I believe that it is only a matter of time before Felipe’s exoneration is complete, and the failures that gave rise to his wrongful conviction in 1990 are exposed. Nothing will give Felipe back the 27 years he lost, but he is determined to live a lifetime of joy in the precious years of freedom he has left.

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According to an article in the New York Post that was picked up in Newsweek, the City of New York has paid out $384 million in settlements for police abuse cases filed in the last five years. The recipient of the largest slice of that pie? Antonio Yarbough, our client since 2008 who was exonerated in 2014. Antonio  and his co-defendant Sharrif Wilson were framed by NYPD officers for the 1992 slaughter of Antonio’s family by a killer who went on to kill again seven years later and has never been caught. Starting on the day Antonio found his mother, his sister, and a 12-year-old friend stabbed and strangled in Coney Island, he and Sharrif were wrongly imprisoned for nearly 22 years. They were released after DNA found under Antonio’s mother’s fingernails linked the murders to a similar slaying of a young woman in Sunset Park in 1999.

According to the articles, data released by the City’s Corporation Counsel shows that 37 cases were settled for $1 million or more, accounting for about half of the total payout. Most cases were much smaller. Of the more than 11,000 cases that were brought over the five-year time period, only about half settled at all. Three thousand of the cases settled for between $5,000 and $25,000, which is typical for a false arrest that does not lead to more than a night in jail.

Many of the largest settlements like Antonio’s come from a more violent time, when police were overwhelmed with murders and would do anything to close cases. Money can never make up for the wrongful loss of freedom, but these settlements help the victims of police misconduct heal. Hopefully, they also help deter policies and practices that lead to abuses by a small minority of police.

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In the Daily News yesterday, Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York — who handled the Jabbar Collins civil suit that ended in a $13 million bill to taxpayers to compensate for police misconduct in Brooklyn — urged Gov. Cuomo to sign the bill creating a commission on prosecutorial conduct. Ethical, self-confident district attorneys will welcome the oversight. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York is wrongheaded to oppose it.

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Wrongful convictions are life-destroying not only to people wrongfully convicted but also to crime victims, especially victims of future crimes that could have been prevented had the right person been prosecuted in the first place. Prosecutors are almost never disciplined, let alone prosecuted themselves, even for the most egregious misconduct such as holding back exculpatory evidence or knowingly presenting coerced testimony.

Judge Block, who has overseen an active criminal docket for nearly a quarter of a century, writes that trial judges are not in a position to prevent prosecutors’ abuse: “If a prosecutor withholds or tampers with evidence, we probably won’t know about it. And even when we discover that prosecutors have committed serious constitutional violations, our power to directly sanction them is extremely limited.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A new law should close an “egregious loophole” that had allowed police officers who sexually assault prisoners to defend themselves by claiming their prisoner consented to the sexual activity. That’s the last thing an 18-year-old woman using the pseudonym Anna Chambers expected to hear when she filed rape charges against two New York City detectives last year.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Screen-Shot-2018-04-03-at-12.16.52-PM-300x171.pngAccording to Buzzfeed News, in September 2017, Detectives Eddie Martins and Richard Hall stopped Chambers and two friends after allegedly spotting marijuana in the front cupholder of their car. They took Chambers into custody but let her friends go. Then, according to the Buzzfeed report, Martins and Hall forced Chambers into an unmarked police van, where they took turns raping her for almost an hour. Eventually, she was released onto the side of the road. She immediately contacted a friend, who rushed her to the hospital to complete a rape kit. The DNA collected from the kit matched both Martins and Hall, according to Buzzfeed. Chambers assumed that her case against the detectives was a slam dunk: after all, there was positive proof that they had sex with her after detaining her and while they were on duty.

The last thing Chambers expected was for Martins and Hall to claim consent. Remarkably, even though it is illegal for parole officers or corrections officers to have sex with people in jail, the same standard did not apply to police officers who take people into custody. Buzzfeed reported that New York was one of 35 states with a legal loophole that permits law enforcement officials to have consensual sexual relations with detainees in their custody.

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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.

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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.”