Projects, Units & Initiatives

Wrongful Conviction Unit

As the nation’s largest provider of public defender services, we are the only New York City public defender that handles trial, appellate and post-conviction cases for clients accused of criminal conduct. Over the years we have had scores of successful outcomes in wrongful conviction cases. Yet, despite these successes, until, we did not have funding dedicated to a unit devoted solely to litigating wrongful convictions.

The Wrongful Conviction Unit was created to address the population of prisoners who have exhausted all possible avenues of defense – at the trial and state and federal appellate levels – and are still fighting for their freedom and to clear their names of crimes they did not commit.

Our plan is to investigate wrongful conviction claims of both clients already assigned to our Criminal Appeals Bureau, as well as those of persons who write directly to our unit seeking our help to overturn their convictions.

Our work involves intensive investigations, seeking out witnesses who were never spoken to, or who are now claiming they gave false testimony or that law enforcement threatened or enticed them to testify falsely against our clients. We look for forensic evidence that can be tested, such as DNA and fingerprint evidence; and we will be searching for physical evidence that may not have been presented at the time of conviction such as cellphone records and video recordings.

Our unit seeks to work with the conviction review units in the different district attorney officers, and where necessary, bring litigation in both state and federal court. Currently, we are a staff of three people: a supervising attorney with over 30 years of trial and appellate experience, an experienced investigator who is both a retired NYPD detective and a Legal Aid investigator of several years; and a highly knowledgeable paralegal who assisted inmates for ten years, the very types of motions that our unit will be bringing in court. We have begun to avail ourselves of interns to assist in the workload as it continues to expand. As our unit continues to grow, we plan to work with volunteers from law firms.

Our Impact

In 2006, James Davis was found guilty of murder in the shooting death of Blake Harper at a crowded party at a Brooklyn Masonic Temple. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Davis, then 21 years old, to the crime. The case against him rested solely on stranger eyewitness identification testimony which has deteriorated over time.

We filed an appeal in a wrongful conviction case to vacate the conviction of Mr. Davis based on claims of actual innocence, ineffective assistance of counsel, and newly revealed Brady evidence, which emerged late last summer during an evidentiary hearing in the trial court.

The New York State Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial for Mr. Davis.

The Legal Aid Society then won a writ of habeas corpus in Kings County Supreme Court enabling James Davis to be released from detention at Rikers Island while the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office considered whether to retry.

Finally, The Wrongful Conviction Unit secured a dismissal of charges against Mr. Davis, making him a free man after 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Learn more about work on behalf of James Davis.

Contact

If you are innocent and have exhausted all appeals for a conviction in New York City, write to The Wrongful Conviction Unit and request our questionnaire to be considered for representation:

The Wrongful Conviction Unit
c/o The Legal Aid Society
199 Water Street
New York, NY 10038

Or email: wcu@legal-aid.org