Professor Brett Dignam, Clinic Students Win Hard-Fought Legal Victory for Wrongfully Imprisoned Man

Federal Judges Affirm Grant of Habeas Corpus, Rule That New Haven Man's Constitutional Rights Were Violated During Trial for Double Murder

New York, May 14, 2015A federal appellate court today upheld a lower court’s decision granting habeas corpus to a Connecticut man who was wrongfully convicted for a 1990 double murder, a hard-fought victory for Columbia Law School Professor Brett Dignam and her students in the Mass Incarceration Clinic. 

Scott T. Lewis, 49, has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested for the murders in 1991.  In addition to the federal habeas litigation leading to Thursday’s favorable decision, the complex history of the case includes two state habeas proceedings and an FBI report of an investigation into Lewis’ claims that he was framed by a corrupt police officer. He finally faced trial in 1995.  As described by Judge Walker, writing for a unanimous panel, Lewis was convicted —based primarily on the testimony of one witness who subsequently 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.
Today’s decision affirmed that Lewis is entitled to federal habeas relief because the state court’s decision “contravened clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,” and also that it “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.”
In December 2013, after state judges rejected Lewis’ direct appeal and two attempts to obtain state post-conviction relief, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr. granted Lewis’s habeas corpus petition, ruling that the state had violated Lewis’s constitutional right to due process of law. Haight 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 “solid validation of the diligent and impressive legal work Mr. Lewis did as a pro se prisoner as well as the commitment and tireless efforts of many law students.”
Dignam began representing Lewis while she was a professor at Yale Law School, and she was assisted by ten students there. When she joined Columbia Law School in the fall of 2010, she 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 Columbia students presented evidence and examined witnesses in a trial on Lewis’ habeas claims before Haight in June 2013.
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. Dignam and the students were assisted by Professor Elora Mukherjee, who then taught the Mass Incarceration Clinic with Dignam and is a former staff attorney at the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
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. 
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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 have included federal habeas action actions on behalf of state prisoners, religious freedom claims on behalf of state and federal prisoners, as well as claims related to medical care and mental health.
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.