Criminal Justice

With Help from 'Old Sage' Environmental Lawyer, Inmate Wins Review of Conviction

At the age of 70, Syracuse, N.Y., lawyer Sidney Manes took on a new cause.

Manes had developed an expertise in environmental law after giving up criminal defense in the 1950s, the Syracuse Post-Standard reports. But when he received a letter from inmate Hector Rivas in 1996, Manes started working to dig up exculpatory information.

“Manes, then 70, was a rich lawyer with his own little island in the Thousand Islands,” the story says. “He’d paid no attention to the murder trial in 1993 when Rivas was convicted of strangling his former girlfriend, pediatric nurse Valerie Hill.”

In the next 11 years, Manes filed 12 Freedom on Information requests, the story says. He eventually received hundreds of pages of information, including police reports suggesting that Rivas’ girlfriend died on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, a time when Rivas had an alibi.

The prosecutor in Rivas’ trial had argued that “autopsy sectional slides” of the victim’s brain showed the time of death was as early as Friday. Manes, however, learned the supposed slides were nothing more than photos of the brain. New forensic testimony supported the later time of death.

This summer, the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Rivas’ lawyers had submitted compelling evidence that he could be innocent. A federal judge will now decide whether Rivas’ right to a fair trial was violated, entitling him to a new trial. In oral arguments, the appellate lawyer on the case credited Manes, “the old sage,” for digging up the important documents.

Manes worked pro bono on the case. “I’m one of those widows and poor people lawyers,” he told the Post-Standard. “I don’t know why.” He is now 86 years old and still practices law two days a week.

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