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Ordinarily, young Wall Street attorneys do not prowl the dicey neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs in search of an ex-crackhead, or a guy called “Benny” who turned up dead, or people with nicknames like “Heavy” who might shed light on a killer called “Shorty.” But as a result of four months of such after-hours detective work in Corona, Queens, litigation associates Elise S. Zealand and J. Andrew Kent of Sullivan & Cromwell recently enjoyed an overdue victory in Queens Supreme Court. On Sept. 26, Justice Robert Hanophy vacated the murder conviction of Lazaro Burt, who was wrongly incarcerated for 10 years for the shooting death of one Wilfredo Cesareo. Thanks to testimony of eyewitnesses unearthed by the Sullivan associates, Burt is a free man. The testimony was so strong that Queens Assistant District Attorney Josh Martin — simultaneously persuaded by a mysterious tip from an informer that something was fishy about the Burt conviction — made the Sept. 26 motion to vacate. Summing up the long hours, the false hopes of failed leads, the heartbreak of Burt’s long-suffering mother dying a week before she could see her son’s exoneration, Kent said, “Other stuff should be easy in the future.” For Zealand, who is familiar with crime blotters from her pre-law reporter days at the upstate Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, sleuthing was old hat. “I’ve been out trying to find bodies in the woods before, and I’ve seen them dragged out of the river,” said Zealand, 33, a graduate of Columbia Law School. “And I’m comfortable talking with strangers. “So we’d walk around the neighborhood out there in Queens. We knew the hangouts — the barber shops, the laundromats, the bodegas,” said Zealand, who was reached in Spain where she is enjoying a rest. “A lot of people were afraid to talk to us. When they did, we’d duck behind a car and write down everything we could remember. “Once, we got a lead on a guy called Benny. Andrew located an address. But when we got there, [Benny] had died.” Zealand added, “Andrew was great. All he needed was a nickname, and he’d track them down.” Kent credits such success to a perservering nature. “I think I might just be unusually persistent and obsessive,” said Kent, 31, a graduate of Yale Law School. “[Burt's] life was at stake, and I really believed in the innocence of our client. So we were willing to look at whatever slim possibilities there were, and track down anything. We had no idea what would pan out and what wouldn’t.” The big breaks came in locating Lissette Saillant, former crack cocaine addict and girlfriend of the late Cesareo, and someone named Carl “Heavy” Drummond. At Burt’s trial, Saillant initially identified him as the man who shot Cesareo, who she said had defended her honor after Burt groped her one summer night on Northern Boulevard. But in court last month, she told Hanophy that she had mistakenly named Burt due to the fact that she was high at the time. Later, she said in court, “I did tell a lot of people. But no one would listen to me.” The witness known as “Heavy” came forward to finger Jarrett “Shorty” Smith as the real alleged murderer and groper. Drummond explained to Hanophy that he had been too frightened to tell police what he knew 10 years ago. “Shorty’s a psycho for sure,” Drummond testified. “I got seven kids, and I don’t want a psycho trying to murder my kids.” When Kent located Drummond, he was pleased to inform him that “Shorty” was safely behind bars, serving two 20-year prison terms for an unrelated robbery and murder. Consequently, Drummond was confident in speaking up. The Queens district attorney has not yet decided on trying Smith for the murder of Cesareo. PRO BONO PRACTICE Zealand and Kent were each full-time pro bono attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell, part of the firm’s “Pro Bono Practice,” in which prisoners are provided high-end Manhattan counsel that they otherwise could never afford. One associate works full-time for a year doing work in the pro bono practice, assisted by partners at the firm. Kent is just ending his one-year assignment to the post, in which he was preceded for a year by Zealand. He will move on to handle commercial litigation, as she has already. Penny Shane, a litigation partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, was first to assume the special pro bono duty when it was instituted 12 years ago. “It’s a singular position, unique so far as I know,” said Shane, 39, a graduate of New York University School of Law. “Mostly, we represent prisoners in civil rights cases. It’s all real-life litigation experience: motion practice, working out discovery issues with adversaries, and trials. All of which translates completely into other litigation experience.” Shane said associates are wrong to believe that pro bono litigation could slow their prospects for partnership. She argued, “It’s a misconception. I would hope that my own career path would allay such fears.” In fact, Kent and Zealand noted, Sullivan & Cromwell invested heavily in freeing Burt, to the tune of 1,800 billable hours, not counting support time from paralegals, librarians and secretaries. Kent said fellow litigation associates who lent particular aid included Damore Viola, Erica Smith-Klocek and Amy Parker. Additionally, he and Zealand enlisted the help of summer associates Kapila Juthani, Daniel Nusbaum and Amy Tovar. As Kent moves on to matters more characteristic of a Wall Street litigator, he said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever be knocking on doors in Queens in the near future, but the case was — this sounds trite — incredibly educational. “When you have responsibility like that all in your lap,” said Kent, noting again that his client’s freedom was in balance, “it forces you to think hard about what you’re doing, what’s coming down the road — your long-term strategy, and how it relates to what you do on a day-to-day basis.”

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