Man Wins Freedom After 20 Years, Thanks to The Legal Aid Society and Shearman & Sterling; Reunited With Son Whom He Met Only Once As An Infant

The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story in its Greater New York section over the weekend about the work of The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP in obtaining the freedom of Carlos Morillo in a 20-year-old murder case.

During his years in prison, Mr. Morillo had lost contact with a son he had seen only once as an infant. Now Mr. Morillo has been reacquainted with his son, Carlos Jr., 20, and his two-year-old grandson. Lawyers from Legal Aid and Shearman & Sterling tracked down the mother of Carlos Jr. and the reunion took place.

Elizabeth Felber, a supervisor in the Bronx Criminal Office, and Michael Haidas, who began his legal career as an associate at Shearman & Sterling and took a job at Legal Aid in the middle of the Morillo case, comprise the Legal Aid team. Brian Polovoy, a partner at Shearman & Sterling, and Melissa Godwin, an associate, are part of the Shearman legal team on the case.

The Wall Street Journal
Rebuilding After a Late Exoneration
By Sean Gardiner
April 6, 2012

Released from an upstate New York prison late last year after he was exonerated in a 20-year-old murder case, Carlos Morillo hoped to be reunited with the son he had met only once as an infant.

First, though, he had to find him. Mr. Morillo had long lost contact with his son's mother, Nellie Perez. The Internet was no help: Mr. Morillo, incarcerated since 1991, had no idea how to use it.

On Nov. 18, Carlos Morillo, 49 years old, showed a passport photo from the year he was sent to prison, when he was 29.

Finally, after months of fruitless searches, attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and the Manhattan firm Shearman & Sterling, who had won Mr. Morillo's freedom, tracked down Ms. Perez.

At a reunion last month, Mr. Morillo was reacquainted with his son, 20-year-old Carlos Morillo Jr., and a 2-year-old grandson he didn't know existed. If life were like Hollywood, the scene would have erupted into a joyous celebration.

There was genuine happiness at the meeting. But there were also awkward silences and tangled emotions as the men realized they were essentially strangers.

"I didn't know what to think," the son said. "He looks like me. He acts like me, we're both quiet.

"But there was a whole lot going on in my mind. I was like, damn, now that he's here I want to do so much. But it's been so long, and it's like, I don't know him. I know nothing about him."

Former inmate Carlos Morillo, center, carries bags with his personal items after being released in November.

Mr. Morillo, who speaks Spanish, said he was finally able to hug Carlos Jr. and tell him he loved him. But looking at his grown son also reminded Mr. Morillo of how much of the boy's life he had missed.

"It's very difficult," he said.

The moment marked another bittersweet adjustment for Mr. Morillo, who turns 50 in August, as he attempts to jump-start a life that was put on hold for 20 years.

He wants to get a job and visit his daughters and grandchildren in the Dominican Republic. But his green card expired while he was in prison. He is expected to receive millions of dollars in civil settlements. But until recently, he was crashing on a friend's couch in a small Bronx apartment.

Mr. Morillo once thought he'd die in prison. Now his mind sometimes dwells on the years he lost.

His experience is common for people cleared of criminal charges after spending long stretches in prison—a once-rare event that has become more common with DNA testing and other investigative advances, said Richard Blassberg, assistant director at the Manhattan-based Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice.

In addition to grappling with practical considerations—a lack of job training and money, among them—people who have been exonerated often experience anxiety while trying to reconnect with family and friends and fit into a society that bears little resemblance to the world they left.

"There are all these obstacles, psychological, social, financial, coming at you," said Mr. Deskovic, an exonerated murder suspect who started the foundation.

Mr. Morillo has felt those pressures since he was freed from prison in November after the case's lone eyewitness recanted.

His exoneration came about 4½ years after his co-defendant in the murder, Jose Garcia, was cleared for a different reason. Mr. Garcia's attorneys and his ex-wife were able to produce documents showing that Mr. Garcia was in the Dominican Republic at the time of the 1991 murder of a drug dealer in the Bronx.

After Mr. Garcia was freed, Brian Polovoy, Melissa Godwin and other lawyers from Shearman & Sterling agreed to work pro bono with Elizabeth Felber of the Legal Aid Society on Mr. Morillo's case.

The prosecution's case relied on the word of a single eyewitness, Penny Denor Cameron, who testified that she saw the July 16, 1991, ambush-murder of Cesar Vasquez from the fourth-floor window of her Bronx apartment.

Mr. Morillo's legal team created a video re-enactment of the crime and argued that it would have been difficult for Ms. Cameron to see details from four stories above the scene.

They also presented evidence they said called into question the actions of the detective on the case.

Michael Haidas, a Shearman & Sterling first-year associate who ended up taking a job with Legal Aid in the middle of Mr. Morillo's case, tracked down Ms. Cameron in New Jersey. She eventually said she lied about her identifications.

The conviction was overturned in October. After Mr. Morillo was freed in November, Ms. Cameron told The Wall Street Journal, "I'm just glad justice was done, and I'm hoping they can forgive me. If they can't forgive me, I don't blame them."

The case's detective, Anthony Pezzulo, now 70 and long retired, told the Journal he stands by the case against Messrs. Morillo and Garcia. He said he believes "something is screwy" about Ms. Cameron's decision to recant and suspects she was paid to do so. Ms. Cameron said she wasn't paid.

Steven Reed, spokesman for the Bronx District Attorney's Office, said prosecutors dismissed the case instead of retrying it because "considering all that has happened since the 1993 conviction, it would now be extremely difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Mr. Morillo will likely come into a small fortune because of the conviction. His co-defendant, Mr. Garcia, and his family received $7.5 million after suing over his conviction, but the case took three years. Eventually, Mr. Morillo said, he wants to open a restaurant or maybe a liquor store.

For now, Mr. Morillo is living hand-to-mouth. When he first was released, his longtime friend, Rosa Sierra, and her family took him in. For months, Mr. Morillo slept on her couch.

Until he can obtain a new green card, he spends most of his time visiting old friends and watching television. He goes out to the local clubs and brags that he has several girlfriends, a boast Ms. Sierra's daughter and translator, Walquida Sierra, finds a little dubious.

Since he can't visit his native Dominican Republic, he calls his three daughters and another son a couple of times a day on his new iPhone, which he is far from mastering.

Sometimes, Mr. Morillo says, he has trouble sleeping. Turning on a television helps. He also finds that he is now afraid to ride on the subway. He said he was never fearful of riding the trains before he went to prison even though they were more dangerous then.

"He says he's not sure why," Walquida Sierra said.

Recently, Mr. Morillo obtained a loan he hopes will tide him over until he can get a job. That money allowed him to rent a small, seventh-floor walk-up apartment in the same building where Ms. Sierra and her family live.

A charitable stipend bought him a bed, dresser, a plastic folding table and chairs at Target. He also bought curtains, sheets and a comforter, all in exceedingly bright colors that he never saw in prison.

Mr. Morillo has also experienced some of the finer things: A few weeks back, Walquida Sierra took Mr. Morillo to get a facial, teeth whitening and laser hair removal.

"He liked it," Ms. Sierra said of the hair removal, causing Mr. Morillo to laugh. "He has another appointment to continue the process."