DNA Evidence Used to Overturn Criminal Convictions for Pro Bono Client

September 14, 2016

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

At a hearing in New York Supreme Court on September 14, 2016, Justice Edwina Richardson-Mendelson granted Cleary’s motion to vacate Mr. Jones’ criminal convictions for murder, rape, and robbery based on newly discovered DNA evidence. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office consented to the motion.

This is believed to be the first time the Manhattan DA’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit has consented publicly to the vacatur of a conviction of murder, and the first time that the CIU has consented to vacatur 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 murder, rape, and robbery. The conviction was based solely upon the testimony of a single eyewitness, who testified that she 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, he was convicted and served 29 years in prison for these crimes. Mr. Jones has always maintained his innocence.

The firm 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 some of 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 lawyers moved to vacate Mr. Jones’ convictions.

After the trial court and Appellate Division ruled against Mr. Jones and denied him a hearing on his motion, Cleary appealed the case to the New York Court of Appeals. In December 2014, the New York Court of Appeals handed down a landmark ruling in the case, unanimously reversing the Appellate Division and trial court’s earlier summary denials of Mr. Jones’ motion to vacate and ruling that he was entitled to a hearing before the trial court on his motion. The decision overturned longstanding precedent which did not afford 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’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 Office chose to send the case to its Conviction Integrity Unit for review. Among other steps to convince the CIU to vacate the convictions, Cleary submitted letters explaining the science and applicable law as well as letters attesting to Mr. Jones’ character.

“We are extremely pleased with the Court’s decision in Mr. Jones’ favor,” said Breon Peace,  partner at Cleary. “After persevering through nearly 30 years in prison for crimes he did not commit and 8 years of court proceedings to get his conviction vacated, Mr. Jones finally receives a measure of justice. We are so happy for Mr. Jones and his family.”

At the court hearing on September 14, 2016, Justice Richardson-Mendelson vacated Mr. Jones’ convictions. The Court also set a control date of November 3, at which time the Manhattan DA’s Office will inform the Court whether it will dismiss the indictment or seek to retry Mr. Jones.  Cleary will continue to assist Mr. Jones in seeking the dismissal of the indictment in connection with this matter. Mr. Peace stated, “We sincerely hope that the Manhattan DA’s Office will dismiss the indictment.”