On April 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit voted not to review its 2012 decision on the case of Rudolph Young. In October three of the court’s judges had upheld a district court ruling that overturned Young’s 1999 conviction for a 1991 home invasion, on the grounds that the conviction was based on an inadmissible witness identification. John Blume, Director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, and Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, along with multiple generations of Innocence Clinic students, had worked for years to exonerate Young. “We are very pleased the full court denied rehearing en banc,” says Blume. “This is another step towards our ultimate goal of proving that our client Mr. Young did not commit this crime.”
Rudolph Young was fighting to exonerate himself of a Brighton, N.Y., home invasion and burglary ever since eyewitness testimony led to his conviction in 1993. A state appeals court initially reversed that ruling, but after a second identification, Young was convicted again in 1999 and the state courts affirmed. On October 16, 2012, however, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously ruled that the testimony violated Young’s rights and ordered a retrial.
In 1991, the home of William and Lisa Sykes was invaded by a man wrapped in a blanket and wearing a scarf over his face, leaving only his eyes visible. After failing to identify him in a photo line-up, Lisa Sykes picked Young out of an in-person line-up. He was found guilty of the break-in and theft.
The next year, a state appeals court overturned the conviction on the grounds that Young had been arrested without probable cause, rendering the line-up testimony inadmissible. However, when Lisa Sykes identified Young as the home invader again five years later, the judge allowed her testimony under the “independent source doctrine,” receiving it as untainted by any events subsequent to the night of the crime. Young was convicted a second time.
A few years later, Cornell Law School Professor John Blume was speaking at a continuing legal education program in nearby Rochester, and he was approached by a public defender named Brian Shiffrin about a case that had been bothering him of a former client. Shiffrin believed the convicted man, Young, was innocent, and that the state courts had misapplied federal law in affirming his convictions. He asked Professor Blume, Director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, and Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, to look into it.
Blume reviewed the trial record and concluded that there was no solid evidence against Young besides Sykes’s identification, which he thought dubious. He offered his assistance, and the assistance of students in Cornell Law School’s Innocence Clinic. Young, who at the time was challenging his conviction as a pro se inmate in federal habeas corpus proceedings, was thrilled at the prospect.
Over the next several years, Blume and multiple generations of Cornell Law students conducted legal research and drafted briefs and pleadings for Mr. Young. After a federal district court judge ordered a new trial and the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office appealed, Blume became counsel of record for Mr. Young and argued the case in the Second Circuit. Blume also persuaded the Innocence Project in New York, headed by Barry Scheck, to file an amicus brief on Mr. Young’s behalf. Throughout the litigation, the focus was on discrediting the independent source identification determination, and emphasizing the dearth of reliable evidence pointing towards Young’s guilt.
For Young and his defenders, the Second Circuit’s decision was momentous. “Claims of this nature generally lose,” says Blume, “so the fact that this one won is significant. I think Mr. Young won because the court was persuaded that there is a very strong possibility that Mr. Young is factually innocent.”
According to Blume, the decision is also significant because it shines a light on the unreliability of the evidence that is often admitted under the independent source doctrine. “Allowing this type of identification evidence is a recipe for convicting an innocent person,” he says. “We know that eyewitness identification evidence in general is often wrong and this type of tainted eyewitness testimony is even more problematic, but courts continue to allow it as a sort of compromise. I think what [the Young decision] reflects is that, in cases where a court looking at all the evidence concludes that it is unrealistic that a witness’s identification was based on the actual encounter as opposed to subsequent events, the court will order a new trial. Especially when the other evidence is as weak as it was in this case.”
Young’s case was the third victory for Cornell Law School Innocence Clinic clients in the last six months. In March, one of Blume’s clients, Edward Lee Elmore was released from prison after being incarcerated for more than thirty years after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that Elmore’s trial lawyers failed to adequately challenge forensic evidence the federal court concluded was suspect and unreliable. Earlier this month, a state trial judge in South Carolina granted a new trial to another of Blume’s Innocence Clinic clients, Wesley Max Myers, based on DNA evidence which the judge believed created a material possibility that Myers was wrongfully convicted. According to Blume, Cornell Law School students played an invaluable role in these cases as well.
-- Owen Lubozynski