Professor Brett Dignam, Clinic Students Win Hard-Fought Case for Man Wrongfully Imprisoned 18 Years
A man who was wrongfully convicted for the 1990 double murder of a former New Haven alderman and the alderman’s lover should be freed within 60 days unless the state of Connecticut decides to retry him, a federal judge ruled Monday in a hard-fought victory for Columbia Law School Professor Brett Dignam and her clinical students.
Scott T. Lewis maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested for the murders in 1991. In addition to the federal habeas litigation leading to Monday’s decision in Lewis’ favor, the history of the case includes two state habeas proceedings and a formerly confidential FBI report backing Lewis’ claims that he was framed by a corrupt police officer.
After his initial arrest, Lewis was released until he was rearrested for the murders in 1994. He faced trial in 1995, was convicted—based primarily on the testimony of one witness who has since recanted—and was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Lewis contacted the FBI within days of his conviction and convinced that agency to conduct what became a 22-month investigation of the police officer who he claims framed him. Lewis then represented himself in post-conviction proceedings over the course of 14 years and focused on proving he was framed by a corrupt police officer.
In his decision filed Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. wrote that Lewis “is entitled to federal habeas relief because the State suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence which should have been disclosed under [the] Supreme Court's decisions Brady and Giglio.”
Columbia Law School Professor Brett Dignam has represented Lewis since 2009. She called the ruling “a finely grained and detailed analysis of complicated legal and factual issues by a careful and thoughtful judge who demonstrated to the students and to the community that the Constitution protects us all.”
“Mr. Lewis was a full partner in his own defense who contributed insightful perspective and rigorous attention to detail,” said Dignam, who has participated in major litigation in more than 30 federal and state prisoners’ rights cases. “It was a privilege and honor for the students to begin their careers by representing him in this inspiring and challenging case.”
Dignam began her representation of Lewis while she was a professor at Yale Law School, and she was assisted by eight students there. When she joined Columbia Law School in the fall of 2010, Dignam brought the case with her. Since then, more than 40 Columbia Law School students have worked on the proceedings as participants in Dignam’s Mass Incarceration Clinic. A team of eight students presented evidence and examined witnesses in a trial on Lewis’ habeas claims before Haight in June 2013.
Dignam and the students were assisted by Elora Mukherjee, who co-teaches the Mass Incarceration Clinic with Dignam and is a former staff attorney at the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
"This is a rare victory,” Mukherjee said. “Justice has been served for an innocent man. We look forward to welcoming Mr. Lewis home."
Dignam and her team argued that Connecticut prosecutors violated Lewis’ rights by suppressing exculpatory evidence. Specifically, they argued that the state’s key witness, a teenager with an extensive psychiatric history, knew nothing about the crime and had been coached in his testimony by the corrupt police officer. Lewis’ team also argued that prosecutors withheld the identity—and ultimate death—of an informant who had reported that another man confessed to the murders.
An award-winning teacher, Dignam has supervised students in a broad range of litigation matters and has designed and overseen workshops conducted by students for prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut on issues including immigration, sexual assault, and exhaustion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Before entering the legal academy, Dignam served as a law clerk for the Honorable William H. Orrick of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, California, and then developed a prison litigation practice in both federal and state courts. She also served as an attorney in the Criminal Appeals and Tax Enforcement Policy Section, Tax Division, at the Department of Justice.
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About the Columbia Law School Mass Incarceration Clinic
Columbia Law School’s Mass Incarceration Clinic focuses on litigation in federal courts to resolve claims related to prisoners’ confinement conditions. In collaboration with nonprofits and civil rights law firms, students visit clients in state and federal prisons to interview, counsel, and develop strategies to help litigate a range of issues via formal claims and internal administrative remedies. Students collaborate with clients to identify cases and projects, which may include federal habeas action on behalf of state prisoners claiming innocence, religious freedom claims on behalf of federal prisoners, or claims related to medical care and mental health.
The clinic also works to supplement resources available to immigration detainees held in the New York area. In addition to acquiring a thorough historical and theoretical grounding in criminal justice and incarceration, students gain experience in counseling, negotiation, oral argument, preparation of pleadings, briefs, and other litigation-related writing, in the context of representing confined and often indigent clients.
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Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School combines traditional strengths in corporate law and financial regulation, international and comparative law, property, contracts, constitutional law, and administrative law with pioneering work in intellectual property, digital technology, tax law and policy, national security, human rights, sexuality and gender, and environmental law.