DNA Evidence Used to Exonerate Pro Bono Client

November 3, 2016

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP has won a significant victory on behalf of pro bono client Clifford Jones.

At a hearing today in New York Supreme Court, Justice Edwina Richardson-Mendelson dismissed the indictment of Mr. Jones for charges of murder, rape, and robbery, upon the recommendation of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. With Justice Richardson-Mendelson’s dismissal, Mr. Jones has been formally exonerated for crimes for which he was convicted and served nearly 30 years in prison. This is believed to be the first time the Manhattan DA’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit has exonerated an individual convicted of murder, and the first time that the CIU has exonerated an individual based on DNA evidence. The Conviction Integrity Unit was created in March 2010 by District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to address claims of actual innocence and prevent wrongful convictions from occurring.

In 1981, Mr. Jones was convicted of a murder, rape, and robbery he did not commit. The conviction was based solely upon the testimony of a single eyewitness, who was impaired by heroin at the time she identified Mr. Jones in a photo array nearly four months after the crimes were committed, and a lineup nearly five months after the crimes were committed. There was no physical evidence presented at trial that pointed to Mr. Jones as the perpetrator of the crimes. Mr. Jones’ defense at trial was centered on the misidentification by the impaired witness. Nonetheless, Mr. Jones was convicted. Mr. Jones has always maintained his innocence.

Cleary Gottlieb became involved in Mr. Jones’ case in 2008 and moved for an order for DNA testing of any physical evidence that had not been destroyed. As a result of the motion, hairs from the perpetrator’s hat and fingernail scrapings from the homicide victim were located and tested. A mitochondrial DNA expert determined that the hairs gathered from the perpetrator’s hat matched a common African-origin profile and excluded Mr. Jones as the contributor of the profile. In addition, testing of one of the fingernail scrapings identified foreign DNA that did not match Mr. Jones. Based on this DNA evidence, Cleary Gottlieb lawyers moved to vacate Mr. Jones’ convictions.

In December 2014, the New York Court of Appeals handed down a landmark ruling in the case, unanimously reversing the Appellate Division and Supreme Court’s earlier summary denials of Mr. Jones’ motion to vacate and ruling that he was entitled to a hearing before the Supreme Court on his motion. The decision overturned longstanding precedent in granting the state’s highest court the power to review cases in which new evidence has been presented.

After the momentous Court of Appeals ruling, Cleary Gottlieb’s mitochondrial DNA expert tested the remaining, usable hair samples. Those samples with reportable results matched the same common African-origin profile as the previous test, similarly excluding Mr. Jones. After the conclusion of testing in September 2015, the Manhattan DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit began reviewing the case. Among other steps to convince the CIU to vacate the convictions, Cleary Gottlieb submitted letters explaining the science and applicable law as well as letters attesting to Mr. Jones’ character. In September 2016, Justice Richardson-Mendelson granted Cleary Gottlieb’s motion to vacate Mr. Jones’ conviction, with consent by the Manhattan DA’s Office.