Cleary Gottlieb Wins Precedent-Setting Ruling in New York Court of Appeals on Behalf of Pro Bono Client

December 17, 2014

Cleary Gottlieb won a significant ruling in the New York Court of Appeals for pro bono client Mr. J. The Court unanimously reversed the Appellate Division’s summary denial of Mr. J.'s’ motion to vacate his criminal convictions – convictions based on evidence that has since been called into question by newly discovered DNA evidence – and remanded his case to the N.Y. Supreme Court for a hearing. In so doing, the Court overruled in part forty year old-precedent (People v. Crimmins) prohibiting the Court of Appeals from reviewing the lower courts’ summary denial of a defendant’s motion to vacate based on newly discovered evidence.

In 1981, Mr. J. was convicted of a rape, murder and robbery based solely upon the testimony of a single eyewitness, who was a heroin addict and had used heroin the day that she picked our client out of a line-up. Nonetheless, he was convicted and served nearly 30 years in prison for these crimes. Mr. J. has always maintained his innocence.

Cleary Gottlieb became involved in the case in 2008 and moved for an order for DNA testing of any physical evidence that had not been destroyed. As a result of this motion, hair from the hat worn by the individual who committed the crimes and fingernail scrapings from the homicide victim were located by the People. Cleary Gottlieb had some of the hair samples tested and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner analyzed DNA found on the fingernail scrapings. DNA testing showed that Mr. J. was not a match. Mr. J. moved to vacate his convictions based on this newly discovered evidence, or, in the alternative, for an evidentiary hearing, but the N.Y. Supreme Court summarily denied his motion without holding an evidentiary hearing. The First Department affirmed in a split 3-2 decision. Mr. J. was then granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals.

In reversing the Appellate Division’s decision, the Court of Appeals overturned caselaw that vested unlimited discretion to the lower courts to decide newly discovered evidence claims and prohibited the Court of Appeals from reviewing those decisions. The Court unanimously held that based on the record before it, the Appellate Division abused its discretion in denying Mr. J. a hearing on his motion. Cleary Gottlieb will now continue to press the motion to vacate Mr. J.'s convictions in the N.Y. Supreme Court.

This decision is significant not only for Mr. J., but also for others who may now have the opportunity to have their cases reviewed by the New York Court of Appeals when the lower courts have abused their discretion in denying motions to vacate convictions.