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Articles Posted in Prisoners’ Rights

New York City is home to it’s own archipelago of three federal jails, three borough jails, eight functioning jails on Rikers Island, two locked prison wards, and lockup facilities in each of seven state and federal criminal courthouses in the five boroughs. The best estimate is that there are upwards of 10,000 men and women incarcerated in the City of New York on any given day. Other than the court facilities, these jails are on lockdown: no visits, limited movement within the facilities. Inmates are cut off from their families, their lawyers, social workers, work and educational programs, and everything else that provides hope in a dark time.

And they are starting to get sick.

As the New York City Bar Association and many other groups have said, it is time to let people out. Our nation’s four-decade experiment with mass incarceration has failed. The only way to make the jails safe is to dramatically reduce the density. Public health and public safety require it. Many more people will die if the jails remain full.

I often say that our clients come to us on the worst day of their lives, the day they are arrested, or learned that a loved one was arrested and may be separated from them for a very long time. As the world faces a health crisis whose proportions remain unknown, the distress of being a criminal defendant is harder than it ever was. Jails and prisons are even more dangerous than usual and even a short period of confinement could be deadly. In the face of this, we are here to help.

But it is not business as usual. The courts are on very limited operations. Most of our appearances have been adjourned. An oral argument scheduled for tomorrow at the Second Circuit will be conducted via teleconference. Some police departments have wisely slowed the rate of arrests to avoid placing potentially infected people in detention facilities that have so far been spared. Once the virus enters a jail or prison, it seems almost certain everyone inside will get it and the vulnerable will die. If you have a loved one who is incarcerated, circumstances have changed and you must continue to advocate for their release.

Unfortunately, our main adversaries, the wise men and women at the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, have not yet come to understand that simple humanity demands that some long-term investigations wait until this crisis is over. The Federal Defenders of New York, who oversee federal indigent defense in New York City, have provided unparalleled leadership, pressing for legal access to inmates and for an end to non-emergency new arrests, but with little response so far. Click here for the Federal Defender’s letter to the courts and U.S. Attorneys.

Thirteen years ago Nina Morrison, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project – the organization, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, that spawned the movement to use DNA to free the innocent in the United States – came across the case of Felipe Rodriguez.

Felipe was a Brooklyn construction worker and a new father in 1988, when police started investigating him for a murder in Queens the year before. He was arrested the following year and convicted after a trial in 1990.

But the case against Felipe had more holes than Swiss cheese.

“Motion Granted.” With those words, the Hon. Joseph Zayas of Queens Supreme Court vacated the murder conviction and dismissed the indictment against Felipe Rodriguez.

It was a triumphant end to a fight that has consumed our office since 2015 and the Innocence Project since 2007.

In all those years, Mr. Rodriguez was granted executive clemency by Gov. Andrew Cuomo based on his stellar prison record, got married, worked steadily at a hotel, helped raise two beautiful children, and was reunited with his adult son, who was just three when Felipe was wrongly convicted in 1990.

Defense attorneys were turned away from the high rise federal jail in lower Manhattan known as the Metropolitan Correction Center on Saturday morning. The Legal Department told us, it was “due to an earlier security issue.” Apparently, they were scouring the jail to find Jeffrey Epstein’s killer.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Screen-Shot-2019-08-12-at-6.18.46-PM-300x110.pngEpstein was found dead by hanging. He had been taken off suicide watch less than two weeks earlier. Suicide watch is a special unit where each prisoner is observed 24/7 by another prisoner who has special training. Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found unconscious with neck injuries on July 23. Seems the prison hierarchy thought six days was enough even for a man whose rich, hedonistic, rapacious lifestyle had come to a crashing end. From there, they put him in the “SHU” — the notorious special housing unit, typically reserved for the most violent inmates. Then, they took away his roommate. Then, guards stopped checking in on his cell every thirty minutes like they are supposed to.

He was found dead at 6:30 a.m., according to the New York Times.

The clouds parted just in time for Antonio Yarbough to enjoy a piece of cheesecake on a Manhattan rooftop last Thursday. He was celebrating five years since he walked out of a Brooklyn courtroom a free man. But he still does not know who killed his family.

IMG_3241-225x300EVWSG4FLI66A4VDF6ZCFQUHW2M-200x300Friends, relatives, reporters, and not-a-few lawyers gathered to honor Tony and help him celebrate his exoneration, just as we celebrated on a Manhattan rooftop in June 2014. Tony’s wrongful conviction for the slaughter of his family — which was actually committed by an unknown man who raped and murdered a fourth person seven years later — was one of the most appalling episodes of the reign of Charles Hynes as Brooklyn District Attorney. Hynes was defeated by Ken Thompson in 2013. Thompson agreed Antonio should be released after just five weeks on the job.

Antonio has spent the last five years recovering from what the state did to him. He has reconnected with his extended family and old friends. He has made new friends. He has worked at a hotel. He now donates his time to the Alliance of Families for Justice, where he sits on the board (alongside actor Danny Glover) and provides support for families affected by the criminal justice system. Antonio has touched countless lives with his quiet grace and heroic resilience. As he said on Piers Morgan the day after his release, he has no time for bitterness.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Screen-Shot-2019-02-21-at-3.18.47-PM-231x300.pngTop New York State officials claimed that they cannot be sued for the sex abuse, cover-up, and retaliation against Yekatrina Pusepa, a female inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, at the hands of a prison guard. Last week, a federal judge said they were wrong.

In October 2017, our office, partnering with the Law Offices of Daniel A. McGuinness, P.C., filed a lawsuit alleging that prison officials created an environment that failed to protect Ms. Pusepa, and other female inmates, from the sexual advances of correction staff. Ms. Pusepa, who was 25 at the time, was repeatedly approached by Corrections Officer Ruben Illa. Illa’s advances were notorious in the prison and, the complaint alleges, prison staff knew what Illa was doing and did nothing to stop it, preferring to hold Ms. Pusepa out as bait to try to catch Illa in the act. On one occasion, Illa groped Ms. Pusepa in her cell while two inmates held up a curtain to block the view. On another, he tried to have sex with her in a supply closet, but got scared off. On December 2, 2015, Illa called Ms. Pusepa out to the prison’s medical clinic for no apparent reason, then wrote her up for being out of place. After resigning from the prison, he pled guilty to filing a false report. He denies the sexual contact.

But Ms. Pusepa’s ordeal did not end with the sex abuse. When she refused to cooperate with a Department of Corrections investigation, she was thrown into solitary confinement on trumped-up charges, purposely left alone with a notoriously violent inmate, and verbally threatened and harassed by prison staff, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, top officials including Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner of DOCCS, Jason Effman, Associate Commissioner and PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Coordinator for DOCCS, and Sabina Kaplan, the Superintendent at Bedford Hills were responsible for what happened to Ms. Pusepa because they were deliberately indifferent to the danger she faced from the guard who assaulted her.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Screen-Shot-2018-12-29-at-9.03.52-PM-300x265.pngAs of December 27, there were 180,429 prisoners in federal custody. Think about that a minute — about a fifth the population of San Francisco behind bars for interstate crimes. No one seriously thinks this many people should be housed, clothed, fed, and secured with federal tax dollars. (More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. when you include state and local facilities, way more than any other country in the world, including China, which has four times as many people and notoriously strict laws).

There are two reasons for the staggering number of federal inmates: over-criminalization and excessive sentences. In other words, too many things you can do can land you in federal prison: crimes like fishing in the wrong waters, or charging a health insurer for dental work performed by an unlicensed dentist. And when people are locked up for federal crimes, it is for too long, like when a teenage street-level drug dealer is held liable for the whole drug conspiracy that he is part of.

So what a breath of fresh air when the lame-duck Congress briefly came together at the end of 2018 to agree on federal criminal justice reform. Pres. Donald J. Trump signed the so-called “First Step Act” into law on December 21. The press crowed that Trump would “go down in history” and that the changes represented a “sweeping reform.” Probably none of them read the 148-page law, which will have no effect on the vast majority of people caught up in the federal criminal justice system. At a human level, the most important provision of the new law is that it bans the barbaric practice of using restraints on female inmates as they are giving birth. You read that correctly. Until recently the Bureau of Prisons routinely shackled women in the hospital, in labor, as though they might take the opportunity to escape as their baby was being born. It took Donald Trump and a voted-out-of-office Republican congress to finally make that illegal.

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.

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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