The Work

October 29, 2009 6:37 PM

Wilmer Wins Release of Client Wrongfully Imprisoned for 26 Years

Posted by Brian Baxter

We thought it fitting to mark the ABA’s designated National Pro Bono Week by pointing readers to this moving feature in today’s New York Times. The story recounts the case of Dewey Bozella, who served 26 years in a New York prison for a crime he did not commit.
Bozella was convicted in 1977 of murdering a 92-year-old woman in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The evidence against him was scant and over time whatever physical evidence could have exonerated him eventually disappeared.
As the Times reports, Bozella's big break came in 2007 when he contacted The Innocence Project, a litigation and policy organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. The group then contacted Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr about taking on Bozella's case pro bono. The story touches on Wilmer’s work on the case, reporting that it devoted 2,500 hours--roughly $950,000 in billable time--in seeking to overturn Bozella's conviction.

After a year and a half on the case, Wilmer lawyers found four pieces of exculpatory evidence that had never been disclosed to the defense. On October 14 a New York court ruled that Bozella had been wrongfully convicted. And on Wednesday, after the Dutchess County district attorney's office determined that it didn't have enough evidence to go forward with a new trial, a court ordered Bozella's immediate release.

The case might be over, but life on the outside is just starting for Bozella and Wilmer is committed to helping its client reintegrate into society, says Ross Firsenbaum, the senior associate who's handled Bozella's case out of Wilmer's New York office.

"Our pro bono effort doesn't stop when the legal work is over," Firsenbaum says. "We fully intend to help Dewey in this equally difficult time in many respects, which is growing accustomed to the real world."

The effort includes helping the 50-year-old Bozella learn to drive and obtain his driver's license (he was arrested at 18). He's now moving in with his wife and her daughter for the first time. (Bozella and his wife, a sixth-grade teacher, were married while he was in prison.)

"Dewey literally walked out of the courtroom yesterday with the suit on his back and that's it," Firsenbaum says. "There are a lot of things that he now has to take care of."

Bozella's release follows several other notable prisoner releases in New York thanks to the pro bono efforts of Am Law 100 firms.

Cooley Godward Kronish represented David Lemus, incarcerated for 14 years after being convicted of a high-profile murder at the Palladium nightclub, when he was acquitted at a second trial in December 2007. The Am Law Daily's Matt Straquadine also wrote for the Village Voice about the pro bono work put in by Davis Polk & Wardwell to get Lonnie Jones released after five-and-a-half years in prison. (Davis Polk later helped Jones win a nearly $2 million judgment for wrongful imprisonment; Lemus is also suing but with different counsel.)

Bozella's incarceration would seem to be among the most egregious.

"The facts of this case stand out to even those at The Innocence Project, who do this stuff day and night," says Firsenbaum, who usually focuses on complex commercial and securities litigation. "This was a case where there was no reason to prosecute this man with no credible evidence implicating him at all. And yet he still spent more than half his life in prison."

Firsenbaum, who was assisted by Wilmer associate Shauna Friedman on the Bozella case, says it's too soon to know whether or not the firm will represent Bozella on a wrongful incarceration suit.

"We'll consider what options we have when the time is more appropriate," he says. "This is the beginning of our conversation and there are many, many more issues for Dewey to be focused on right now."

Bozella told The Times that the one lesson he'd learned from his ordeal was to never give up.

"If I'd given up, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now," he said. "There were times I wanted to sit down and cry. I'd say when does it end? When does it end? Today it finally ended."

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