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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Law Firm Scores $5M for Exoneration Case

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) - A law firm that defended three men who were imprisoned 18 years for a murder they didn't commit got a $5 million payday from a federal judge on Monday.

U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert granted the payout to the legal team of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, who represented John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and John Kogut.

The three men fought for nearly a decade to prove that Nassau County, N.Y. Police Detective Joseph Volpe and his crew framed them for the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco in Lynbrook, Long Island, according to court records.

All charges against the men were dismissed in 2005, two years after their convictions were vacated and they were released from prison.

The men were tried twice, and their trials lasted 48 days, putting their fleet of attorneys to work for 11,222 hours, at between $250 and $700 per hour over an eight-year span, according to Monday's ruling.

Their attorneys should be paid for their work, Seybert ruled. She awarded the law firm $4.9 million, including $4.5 million in attorney's fees, $320,000 in costs and $97,000 for the cost of the fee petition.

"Both trials were technically complex, involving extensive expert testimony about DNA evidence and forensic hair comparison," the judge wrote in a 16-page ruling.

At the end of their second trial in 2014, a jury found that Vople denied them their constitutional right to a fair trial and awarded each of them $18 million - $1 million for each year they spent in prison. Volpe has since died.

Nassau County tried to argue that the fees should be reduced because too many staff attorneys were on the case, but Seybert didn't buy it.

"This case was exceedingly arduous and complex, involving extensive expert analysis and presentation of DNA evidence, spanning eight years and two trials," Seybert noted.

In addition, the judge held that Neufeld Scheck & Brustin "achieved excellent results for their clients" and said that the county did not show that a particular phase of the case was overstaffed by the law firm.

"The balance of defendants' argument on staffing consists of abstract references to specific attorneys' hours during various time periods, which the court will not parse through," Seybert wrote.

She also said figuring out contested billed phone call and meeting time during the "litigation saga" does not seem productive, and sidestepped that issue.

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