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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New York Public Defender System Faces Overhaul

MANHATTAN (CN) - When Donald Telfair woke up in a hospital last year with a broken nose, swollen eye and smashed-up face, police were not interested in getting a statement on his brutal assault.

The 45-year-old from Babylon, N.Y., found himself in court the next morning with his jaw wired shut, next to an attorney he never met, on charges that he had robbed his assailants.

Telfair broke his silence Tuesday in a phone conference announcing a settlement in his landmark civil lawsuit that will help other poor and disenfranchised defendants like him get capable lawyers.

The settlement signed today in Hurrell-Harring v. New York resolves a 2007 case alleging in five New York counties stacked the deck against poor defendants battling criminal charges.

Under the terms of the deal, five New York counties - Ontario, Onondaga (Syracuse), Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington - agreed to 7 ½-year commitment toward reforms that the New York Civil Liberties Union hope will serve as a statewide model.

These protections could have prevented the lead plaintiff, Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, from pleading guilty to an offense that a judge later determined was not a crime, her lawyer Gary Stein, of the firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, said Tuesday.

"Why did that happen?" Stein asked. "First, Kim, like so many others, was arraigned without a lawyer. It was her first offense. It was a nonviolent offense. She was working at the time as a nurse, and taking care of two children and her mom."

Instead of demanding to be released from bail, Hurrell-Harring copped a plea that she believed would reunite her with her family, Stein said.

NYCLU director Donna Lieberman told reporters that departing Attorney General Eric Holder shares some of the credit for this "historic victory."

In an "unprecedented" statement of interest filed with the Albany County Supreme Court, Holder advocated for an overhaul of local public defender systems.

Jacqueline Winbrone, a 49-year-old widow now living in Rome, Ga., remarked that she "held onto hope that we would reach this moment a long time."

Seven years ago, Winbrone said that her now-late husband planted a gun in her car as his mental health unraveled, and then called the police.

She was arrested on $10,000 bail and stayed in jail long after her husband admitted what he had done.

Winbrone said her lawyer refused to pick up her calls as she languished behind bars for 50 days, causing her to miss her husband's death and funeral.

Choking back tears, she said: "I still have nightmares of being in jail for a crime I didn't commit."

The NYCLU's staff attorney Corey Stoughton predicted that the effects of the settlement will ripple far beyond New York's borders.

"The federal government's endorsement of our lawsuit means that the eyes of the nation are on New York," she said. "This settlement should serve as a model for public defense reform across the nation."

As for the unfinished work locally, she added later: "New York cannot have a two-tiered system of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor."

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