A pro bono team of dozens of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison attorneys working over fifteen years finally secured the freedom of Pablo Fernandez, who was wrongfully convicted of murder way back in 1996.
The first sign of victory came in February, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Fernandez’s conviction after finding that a New York Police Department officer had pressured a witness to falsely identify Fernandez at trial.
But Fernandez wasn’t free until the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dropped its new criminal case against him on Sept. 13. The DA’s office declined comment, noting the matter remains sealed.
“This is the most rewarding case I’ve ever worked on in my life,” said Paul Weiss partner David Brown, who led the firm’s pro bono team alongside Daniel J. Beller, who is of counsel at Paul Weiss.
Fernandez was just 22 when he was charged with the murder of a gang leader in Harlem in 1995. He was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison.
Paul Weiss began working on his appeals process in 2005, when summer associate Andrew Goldstein, then a student at Yale Law, brought the Fernandez case to the firm’s attention. Goldstein went on to become a prosecutor in New York’s Southern District and later served on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
Paul Weiss lawyers worked every legal angle on Fernandez’s case, petitioning state courts as well as asking a federal court for habeas relief. Along the way, Brown said, “there were just more and more shocking disclosures of police and prosecutorial misconduct.”
After the Second Circuit’s ruling in February, the Manhattan DA decided to retry the case. Soon after, the Paul Weiss team discovered that a key eyewitness who had testified he was with Fernandez two days before the murder was actually incarcerated at the time.
Now that Fernandez is free, lawyers at Paul Weiss are preparing a civil case against New York City and the NYPD for violation of Fernandez’s civil rights and malicious prosecution, among other claims.
Overturning the wrongful conviction would have been impossible without the help of the Legal Aid Society and the vast resources of a Big Law firm, according to Brown.
“We devoted tens of thousands of hours to it, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses,” he said. “It’s a monumental effort to overturn a wrongful conviction.”
Brown added that Fernandez is one of many wrongfully convicted prisoners who are currently incarcerated. Most of them don’t have the resources to overturn their convictions, he said.
“I think it’s good that the American public is starting to learn more about these cases,” he said. “It goes to show why we need serious criminal justice reform.”