Justice Served by Law School’s Exoneration Project: Another Freed!
March 17, 2023
Spearheaded by Lesley Risinger J.D.’03, the director of the Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law, and Project co-founder, Professor Emeritus Michael Risinger, the State of New York has vacated the conviction of Sheldon Thomas and released him from custody. Arrested when he was 17, Thomas spent more than 18 years in prison under a wrongful conviction for murder.
The case revolved in part around a witness photo identification of a different man with the same name. After reinvestigating the case, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office characterized the error as “a mistake that was first concealed and then explained away during the proceedings” because “the detectives were intent on arresting [Mr. Thomas] and used the faulty identification procedure as a pretext.”
During proceedings against Mr. Thomas, police officers admitted to the use of the erroneous photo, but, as the Associated Press notes, “The judge nonetheless found that there was probable cause to arrest Thomas based on ‘verified information from unknown callers’ and the fact that he supposedly resembled the other Thomas, investigators said.”
To provide evidence that there was no resemblance, Last Resort approached Seton Hall Law Professor Brian Sheppard, who devised a ‘doubleblind’ eyewitness study using a group of 32 law students of color. Twenty-seven of the students correctly concluded that defendant’s photo was not in the photo array. Of the remaining five, only one concluded that the other Sheldon Thomas was the defendant. According to a story written by S.P. Sullivan of NJ Advance Media for NJ.com, the Last Resort’s work, including the study, “was key to proving Thomas had been mistakenly identified” and convincing Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to move to vacate Mr. Thomas’s murder conviction. That story has been reprinted with permission here.
Recognizing the milestone, Professor Lesley Risinger thanked her co-counsel before the Brooklyn CRU, William Kastin of the New York Appellate Defenders and the many people involved in securing the release of Sheldon Thomas:
We wish to express our gratitude to the Conviction Review Unit of the District Attorney’s Office for their painstaking and thorough review of Mr. Thomas’s case, and to District Attorney Eric Gonzalez for his decision to free Mr. Thomas on the CRU’s recommendation. Mr. Kastin and I were partners in this effort, and I couldn’t be more grateful to him for his steadfastness and zeal in every aspect of it. … We have received much support from members of the Seton Hall community, most especially that of Seton Hall Law Professor Brian Sheppard, who designed an eyewitness study that confirmed Mr. Thomas’s wrongful identification. We were also fortunate to have the support of our co-counsel in the post-conviction proceedings, attorney Don Yannella, and the amicus support of the Innocence Project, which was represented tenaciously through the years by eyewitness litigation expert Karen Newirth, now of Newirth Law. It is such stalwart friends as these who have been supporting Mr. Thomas for thirteen years, and we all join in saying that we could not be happier for him and his family on this momentous day.
Unlike a number of other wrongful conviction projects, the Last Resort Exoneration Project has focused on cases that do not have DNA evidence available and are, because of that, exponentially more difficult to win.
As the NJ.com article notes,
Relying on limited resources and the help of law students, the group has compiled massive troves of evidence in cases over the years, occasionally drawing consternation from judges over the sheer size of their filings.
Mr. Thomas was the organization’s only non-New Jersey client, but he was not the only client that Last Resort exonerated. In addition to securing the release of Mr. Thomas, the organization recently won a hard-fought victory in gaining the freedom of two Camden men, Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, who had similarly been wrongly convicted for murder on weak eyewitness testimony.
Notably, prior to the Last Resort Exoneration Project and even her attendance at Seton Hall Law, Lesley Risinger assisted her mother, Priscilla Read Chenoweth Esq., in obtaining the exoneration of Luis Kevin Rojas, who was convicted in 1991 and served 4 ½ years for a murder he did not commit; Rojas was later found to be actually innocent and awarded compensation, by the New York Court of Claims. Then, as a newly minted lawyer, beginning in 2005 she led the effort that ultimately resulted, on November 12, 2009, in the complete exoneration of Fernando Bermudez for the 1991 murder of Raymond Blount.
Regarding the release of Thomas, the NJ.com article noted: “With his freedom won, Michael Risinger said, his spouse was ‘back to batting a thousand’ on picking — and correcting — wrongful convictions.”
Mr. Thomas’s release will mark the Last Resort Exoneration Project’s final court win per se, as it will soon be concluding its direct representation of clients and transitioning into a consulting role. The organization will now share its knowledge and skills in connection with other legal projects and the New Jersey attorney general’s conviction review unit. In doing so, it will maintain its unblemished record, having secured the release of every single client it has represented.
In looking back at Mr. Thomas’s case, Professor Lesley Risinger remarked, “Justice has finally been served.”