Bobby Johnson walked out of prison a free man in September 2015 with the help of his family and some diligent attorneys who believed in his innocence.
Johnson endured nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit. With the help of New Haven, Connecticut-based attorney Kenneth Rosenthal and the Connecticut Innocence Project, Johnson saw a Superior Court judge vacate his sentence. Rosenthal asserted in court documents that New Haven police detectives coerced the then-teenager to confess to the shooting death of Herbert Fields.
Johnson and two other men whose cases were investigated by New Haven police have gotten their murder convictions thrown out. Another similarity among the cases was how the attorneys for those men worked to get them reacclimated to society after they were released.
Even though the men won their freedom, there was still the issue of coping on the outside and doing things such as getting an apartment, finding a job and even going to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a license.
In interviews with the Connecticut Law Tribune, these attorneys said representing clients who have been exonerated are different from representing someone in a motor vehicle tort or a bankruptcy. You stay with your client, they said, and help them through the maze of life post-prison.
“I was very much involved with him after he left prison and the challenges he faces today,” Rosenthal said of Johnson. “He went into prison at age 16 and came out nine years later as a young man. It’s things as simple as getting him a Social Security card. There are many things you might not think of that someone leaving prison has to deal with.”
Rosenthal, of New Haven’s Green & Sklarz. said he personally drove Johnson to places for potential employment and he assisted in getting him housing. He also put him in touch with people who can help with counseling, and then there was Rosenthal’s car.
“He needed a car, so I just gave him an old car of mine,” he said. “I do get emotionally invested with some clients. Bobby might have been one of them.”
Most recently, Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder’s Sean McElligott helped secure the freedom of Vernon Horn, who spent 17 years in prison for a murder that authorities now say he didn’t commit. Horn was released from prison in April and sued New Haven and the investigating officers earlier this month. At the crux of the case were phone records that sat in a New Haven detective’s home basement for nearly two decades that would have exonerated Horn in the 1999 deli robbery murder of Caprice Hardy.
Like Rosenthal, McElligott said he didn’t think twice about doing what he could to help get Horn back on his feet after he left prison.
“One of the first things Vernon and I did was drive around looking for apartments,” McElligott said, adding, “He needed a place to live and was staying at a hotel. This is not something you do for most clients, but I was compelled by the situation to help in any way I could.” McElligott and his legal team, including colleague Matt Blumenthal, also helped Horn get furniture, a cellphone and a bank account.
McElligott said representing Horn and helping him gain his freedom is the reason he went to law school in the first place.
“The idea that you can represent a great human being like Vernon, who has been so completely wronged, is in the category of why I went to law school,” McElligott said Thursday. “As a lawyer, you are highly motivated in cases like these to find justice for your client.”
In preparing for a lawsuit against a police agency such as New Haven’s, McElligott said it’s essential to work a little harder than you would in other cases.
“The most important thing is to fully vet your client’s situation and, before accusing a police department of misconduct, you want to make sure you have your facts straight,” he said. “There is an extra level of diligence involved by the lawyer when making serious accusations against a police officer.”
McElligott said his firm, which is based in Bridgeport but has offices in New Haven, has a long history of representing people in civil rights cases against police and other state entities.
“With all of these cases, we put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of research prior to bringing a complaint like the one we did,” McElligott said. In addition, preparation of pursuing legal action to getting an innocent person out of prison also entails talking to fellow attorneys who have done similar work, he said.
“I am often in touch with a lot of different attorneys who have similar cases against police departments,” he said. “It’s a small community of people [attorneys] who do this kind of work, and we all share notes.”
Rosenthal said one of his biggest challenges in representing someone post-conviction is just that: representing someone post-conviction.
“There is a negative view [by the courts] of post-conviction litigation,” Rosenthal said. “The attitude is, once a conviction is final, you should not have to listen anymore. It’s perceived there are too many prisoners bringing legal action and the courts are inundated with them. There are some cases with no merit, and too many people are crying wolf.”
The third case of a man being exonerated after being imprisoned following investigations by the New Haven police was Scott Lewis. He served almost 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and last year settled a lawsuit against the city for $9.5 million.
While the Johnson, Horn and Lewis cases all revolve around the New Haven police, longtime New Haven attorney John Williams, of John R. Williams & Associates, said the New Haven police should not be the poster child for bad police work.
“The New Haven police deserve the rap they are getting and did terrible things to those guys, but it would be very unfair to say New Haven is unique because, throughout the state, there is a problem with police departments,” said Williams, who has practiced law for 51 years in Connecticut, including 49 years in New Haven. “In my opinion, New Haven is far from the worst. It’s the lawyers in New Haven that are making the difference.”
Williams, who said about 35 percent of his work is related to police misconduct cases throughout the state, added. “Even when I started in 1967, they talked about the New Haven bar being the most aggressive. I don’t know why that is, but it seems true to me.”
Williams added: “Police have special powers and we recruit officers from the human race and humans are weak. Given these powers, they will abuse them whether that is in Amsterdam or New Haven.”