After five years of investigation and advocacy, lawyers from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, in partnership with The Legal Aid Society, have successfully secured vacatur of the second-degree murder conviction of pro bono client Shawn Williams, who was wrongfully convicted for the 1993 shooting of Marvin Mason, for which he has served more than 20 years in prison. At a hearing in New York State Supreme Court, Justice Sharen D. Hudson granted a motion to vacate Mr. William’s conviction and dismiss the original indictment, and ordered his immediate release.
Cleary and The Legal Aid Society first became involved in Mr. Williams’s case in 2013 after it was referred by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU). The CRU suggested the case be reviewed following several accounts of questionable conduct by the former detective who had investigated the case, Louis Scarcella, including eliciting false statements from witnesses in several Brooklyn murders.
No forensic evidence or motive had been introduced during Mr. Williams’s trial. The conviction rested solely upon testimony from a sole eyewitness, Ms. Smith, who claimed that she had seen Mr. Williams at the scene with a gun around the time of the killing, even though it was midnight and she was looking down from her sixth-story window, more than 100 feet away. Since his conviction in 1994, Mr. Williams has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
In 2013, the Cleary team began investigating, located and interviewed Ms. Smith, who then fully recanted her testimony, stating that she had been coerced into naming Mr. Williams by Mr. Scarcella. This new evidence was presented to the CRU in 2014 while the Cleary team continued its investigation.
The team also found alibi evidence placing Mr. Williams in Pennsylvania at the approximate time of the murder and secured expert testimony regarding the unreliability of the eyewitness testimony based on the witness’s vantage point on the night of the murder. This additional evidence was presented to the CRU, but, in January 2017, after continued inaction, Cleary and The Legal Aid Society filed a 440 motion in New York State Supreme Court to vacate Mr. Williams’s conviction based on the new evidence and moved for an evidentiary hearing. The DA’s office opposed this motion.
For more than a year, while its motion has been pending, the Cleary team continually updated the court on new cases that supported the motion and petitioned the DA’s office to drop its opposition. Finally, on June 15, 2018, the Brooklyn DA’s office filed a letter with the court indicating it would join Cleary’s motion to vacate Mr. Williams’s conviction, leading the court to grant the motion to vacate and dismiss the indictment on July 13, 2018.
“While Mr. Williams can never have his years of wrongful incarceration returned to him, we hope that he and his family can find some measure of peace in this vindication,” said Cleary partner Victor Hou. “I could not be more proud of the extraordinary dedication and commitment to justice demonstrated by the members of our pro bono team who worked tirelessly over the course of five years to correct this manifest injustice.”
“It’s truly unconscionable that Mr. Williams spent 25 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit because of shoddy and unreliable police work,” said David Loftis, Attorney-In-Charge of the Post-Conviction and Forensic Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “While we celebrate Mr. Williams’s release today, our hearts still ache for our client because nothing can fully right this tragic wrongful conviction and erase decades of needless incarceration. We urge the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to continue to zealously review retired detective Louis Scarcella’s work to correct other gross miscarriages of justice.”
The Cleary team was led by partner Victor Hou and included current associates Samuel Hershey, Lindsey Simmons, and Margi Schierberl, and former associates David Oliwenstein and Nicholas Karasimas.
The Legal Aid Society legal team was led by Post-Conviction and Forensic Litigation Unit Chief David Loftis, and included attorneys David Crow and Richard Joselson.