NYLS and Suffolk County D.A.’s Office Awarded $275K Grant to Investigate Wrongful Conviction Claims

(SUFFOLK COUNTY, N.Y.) – Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini and New York Law School (NYLS) today announced that the District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Bureau has been awarded more than $849,000 in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to aid in the investigation of wrongful conviction claims, including a $275,000 partnership grant awarded to the District Attorney’s Office and NYLS.

“From the outset, our goal has been to work with independent experts and stakeholders and to implement best practices to make our Conviction Integrity Bureau a national model,” District Attorney Sini said. “With this funding, we can further the mission of the Conviction Integrity Bureau, which is to seek the truth and do justice. I thank New York Law School for its continued partnership and the Department of Justice for this critical funding to fully investigate wrongful conviction claims and right any past injustices.”

“As a leader in educating reform-minded 21st-century prosecutors, New York Law School is proud to collaborate with District Attorney Sini and the Conviction Integrity Bureau,” said Anthony W. Crowell, NYLS Dean and President. “This innovative partnership model sets an example for how law students and prosecutors can work together in a new way. I thank the Conviction Integrity Bureau, Professor Adele Bernhard, and our Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic students for their perseverance and hard work.”

“I was impressed by the Suffolk County Conviction Integrity Bureau’s commitment to thorough re-investigation, diligence, and fearless pursuit of the truth, and I look forward to collaborating with the office,” said Distinguished Adjunct Professor Adele Bernhard, who leads NYLS’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office’s (SCDAO) Conviction Integrity Bureau (CIB), in partnership with the NYLS Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic (PCIC), was awarded a $275,000 two-year grant to support joint efforts to identify and investigate wrongful conviction claims. The CIB and the PCIC, led by NYLS Distinguished Adjunct Professor Adele Bernhard, previously worked collaboratively to investigate the wrongful conviction claim of Keith Bush. Mr. Bush, who had been represented by Professor Bernhard and the PCIC for over a decade, was exonerated in May 2019 of a murder he did not commit as a result of this joint investigation. The grant, entitled the “Upholding the Rule of Law and Preventing Wrongful Convictions Partnership Grant,” will provide funding for an additional PCIC faculty member and an additional CIB paralegal as well as additional resources and services to support a further examination of potential systemic issues as well as a review of pending applications submitted to the CIB.

The SCDAO was also awarded a $574,060 two-year grant to support the CIB’s efforts to identify and assess violent felony cases in which post-conviction DNA testing has the potential to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals or reaffirm convictions, and to conduct all necessary DNA testing and analysis in such cases.

The CIB has received several applications from individuals who claim actual innocence of violent felonies. In many of those cases, forensic evidence, including DNA evidence, may remain in the custody of the Suffolk County Crime Lab, the Suffolk County Police Department, or other agencies. DNA testing of that evidence has the potential to conclusively resolve applicants’ claims of innocence in many of those cases. Funding provided by the grant will provide resources for prosecutors and investigators to identify and assess other cases in which DNA testing may support or refute claims raised by those alleging actual innocence. The grant also will fund DNA testing and analysis of forensic evidence relevant to those claims.

Suffolk County was the only awardee in New York State under either program, one of three partnership grants awarded nationally, and one of 10 post-conviction DNA testing grants awarded nationally.

About the SCDAO’s Conviction Integrity Bureau

Upon taking office in January 2018, District Attorney Sini immediately launched a number of initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in Suffolk County and restore integrity to the Office, including the creation of a new Conviction Integrity Bureau, the first of its kind in Suffolk. The Bureau is tasked with reviewing past convictions, evaluating convicted offenders’ legitimate claims of actual innocence, and seeking to vacate wrongful convictions.

The Conviction Integrity Bureau is overseen by Howard S. Master, a veteran public corruption prosecutor who serves as Special Counsel to the District Attorney and Chief of the Office’s Special Investigations Division. Among his many achievements, Master, in his previous role as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (“AUSA”) for the Southern District of New York’s Public Corruption Unit, led the investigation and prosecution of former Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver and the largest fraud and kickback case in New York City’s history, which centered around its CityTime payroll program. He also assisted in uncovering former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’s involvement in a variety of corruption offenses. Following his tenure as an AUSA, which included service as Deputy Chief of the Southern District of New York’s Criminal Division, he served as Senior Enforcement Counsel for the New York State Attorney General’s Office.

About the Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic

NYLS’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic represents a small number of clients who have been convicted of serious crimes in New York State but who present a colorable claim of actual innocence that cannot be proven through DNA evidence alone. New York Criminal Procedure Law §440.10 creates a pathway for such clients to request reversal of their conviction based upon newly discovered evidence. Both Day Division and Evening Division students are eligible to participate. The clinic is led by Distinguished Adjunct Professor Adele Bernhard, who began her career as a public defender.