Judge Overturns Robbery Conviction of UVA Law Clinic Client Facing Deportation
A judge in Fairfax County Circuit Court on Thursday reversed the 2010 robbery conviction of a 22-year-old client of the University of Virginia School of Law's Innocence Project Clinic and the law firm McGuireWoods.
The judge, Randy I. Bellows, found that prosecutors committed a Brady violation when they failed to disclose that the robbery's alleged victim had a prior conviction for possessing a fake Social Security card — information that would have cast doubt on his testimony against the clinic's client, Maligie Conteh.
Conteh, who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone at the age of 3, remains incarcerated at an immigration detention facility in Portsmouth, Va., where he has been awaiting deportation for two years. His lawyers are asking prosecutors with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to end the deportation process and release him in light of the overturned conviction.
"The judge was doing everything in his power yesterday to make sure that Maligie gets released," said Deirdre Enright, director of investigation for the Innocence Project Clinic. "He issued an order then and there saying that this conviction is vacated so we can take it to the federal authorities and say, 'Let him go. The conviction is the sole reason you're detaining and deporting him, and that has been vacated.'"
Conteh served roughly 17 months in prison for the robbery conviction, but was detained by ICE because his sentence was nearly over. All told, he has been imprisoned for more than four years.
The clinic's private investigator, Lisa Inlow, turned up the key evidence that led to the judge's finding that a Brady violation occurred in Conteh's case. She went to Northern Virginia to find out more about the robbery victim.
"We always investigate the criminal histories of witnesses in our cases," Enright said. "Lisa found out that the victim had criminal convictions prior to this happening, one of which was fraudulent use of documents weeks before this [robbery] occurred. Maligie's defense attorney could have used that to question his credibility and his veracity."
Additionally, Conteh's alibi all along was that he was logged onto Facebook on a friend's computer at the time of the robbery. His lawyers presented new evidence — a photo posted 10 minutes after the robbery — that support his account.
"When Maligie was first questioned, he repeatedly denied involvement. He said, "I didn't do it. I didn't do it. I was on the computer,'" Enright said. "There were Facebook records that would have corroborate d what he was saying all along."
A representative from the Virginia attorney general's office said that the Facebook records did not bolster Conteh's alibi.
The judge did not agree, Enright said. "He was the same judge who originally found Maligie guilty, and he said, 'It causes me reasonable doubt. I don't really understand why it doesn't cause you reasonable doubt.'"
Enright noted that Conteh's case is the third recent Innocence Project Clinic case in which the conviction was vacated on the basis of Brady violations, meaning the prosecution didn't turn over evidence to defense counsel that casts doubt on a witness or gives credibility to the defendant.
In July 2011, a federal judge tossed out the murder-for-hire conviction and death sentence of Northern Virginia man Justin Wolfe, finding that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have exonerated him. (More)
And a federal judge overturned a murder conviction and life sentence of Michael Wayne Hash in February after Eric Weakley, a clinic client, said he falsely confessed to the crime and recanted his testimony against Hash. (More)
"In comparison, this might be considered a 'minor' case. Somebody robbed somebody at knife point for $150," Enright said. "But Maligie Conteh was on his way back to Sierra Leone, where he knew no one. This certainly wasn't minor offense for Maligie."
The clinic became involved with Conteh's case by happenstance. University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon introduced Enright to Jonathan Blank '95, a partner at McGuireWoods' Charlottesville office, who had recently accepted a pro bono appointment to represent Conteh in his immigration hearing.
Blank happened to visit the Law School and talked to Enright. "He said, 'I need to talk to you — I've met with my client and he's saying that he didn't do the crime that they're deporting him for. I thought I was working on an immigration case. It turns out I'm working on a wrongful conviction case. Can you help me?'"
Second-year law student and clinic participant Chris Lisieski was involved with the case. He said the reversal of Conteh's conviction was "great news," but added that he finds it concerning that luck played such a large role in making that happen.
"It makes me worry about the serendipitous nature that this case came to us at all," he said. "Deirdre happened to be with Rachel Harmon, who happened to run into [Blank, Conteh's attorney]. But for that occurrence, this guy could well be on his way to Sierra Leone. That's certainly not justice being done. That's certainly not how the criminal system should work."