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Wrongful Conviction 2015


Speaker(s): Karen A. Newirth, Paul Casteleiro, Vanessa Potkin
Recorded on: Nov. 2, 2015
PLI Program #: 157643

Paul Casteleiro is the legal director for Centurion, the oldest exoneration nonprofit in the nation. He has been the primary attorney in 18 exonerations of people serving life in prison and currently has pending cases in state and federal courts in Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Numerous national and local publications have profiled Paul; in 1998 he was the lawyer in the James Landano retrial, covered in its entirety on Court TV. Millions watched the jury’s acquittal of Landano for the murder of a police officer that he did not commit.

In addition to winning many exonerations, Paul has been a trailblazer in criminal justice reform. A leader in exposing false confessions, he obtained the first ever published opinion in New York State that admitted expert testimony on the psychology of police interrogations and false confessions. His other achievements include proposing New Jersey’s law to compensate wrongfully imprisoned people; overturning the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s law admitting hypnotically enhanced testimony in criminal trials; establishing the unreliability of the F.B.I.’s bullet lead composition analysis, which led the FBI to stop offering such testimony. Following the widespread publicity that exposed the glaring injustices present in the case of Ralph Lee, Jr. and Erik Kelley who each served 24 years for a murder they did not commit, the State of New Jersey established the first statewide Conviction Review Unit in the nation to examine inmate claims of actual innocence.

A graduate of Rutgers Law School, Paul clerked for civil rights attorney Morton Stavis, a co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights. After law school, Paul’s first assignment was assisting Stavis in the Chicago 8 retrial. Shortly thereafter Paul became a public defender in Hudson County, New Jersey.

In 1979, Paul launched a solo practice with a focus in criminal and appellate cases. Early in his practice he met Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion, who retained Paul to represent Centurion’s first client and exoneree. With that case, Paul began his 35-year collaboration with Centurion.


Vanessa Potkin joined the Innocence Project in 2000 as the project’s first staff attorney. She helped pioneer the model of post- conviction DNA litigation used nationwide to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons. She has represented and exonerated over 25 innocent individuals, from Louisiana to Montana, who collectively served over 450 years of wrongful imprisonment, five of whom were originally prosecuted for capital murder. Vanessa maintains a post-conviction docket, crafting litigation strategy, writing motions, and litigating in trial and appellate courts nationwide to secure post- conviction DNA testing and to obtain relief based DNA test results, and other exculpatory evidence in cases involving: false confessions, erroneous eyewitness identification, informant testimony, faulty forensics, prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. She works with a wide-range of forensic experts. She also helps train and mentor newer attorneys at the Innocence Project. Vanessa is a nationally recognized expert on wrongful convictions and the use of DNA to establish innocence; she is regularly consulted by attorneys, judicial and legislative committees, and media outlets. She was a member of eight person multidisciplinary technical working group that collaborated on a report for criminal defense attorneys published in 2012 by the National Institute of Justice to increase understanding of the science of DNA and its application in the courtroom (“DNA for the Defense Bar”). Vanessa is an adjunct professor of law at Cardozo School of Law, and has co-taught the Innocence Project legal clinic since 2000.


Karen A. Newirth is the Senior Fellow in the Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Department.  She is responsible for all aspects of the Innocence Project’s work in the area of eyewitness identification, the leading cause of wrongful convictions, including strategic litigation, litigation training, and public education and advocacy.

Ms. Newirth received a B.A. in Educational Studies with Honors, Magna Cum Laude, from Brown University and a J.D. from New York University School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and Politics.  Following law school, Ms. Newirth was a law clerk for Judge Whitman Knapp of the Southern District of New York.  Prior to joining the Innocence Project, Ms. Newirth was a senior associate at the law firm of Brafman & Associations, P.C., and an associate at the law firm of Cleary Gottlieb, where she represented individuals in all phases of state and federal criminal investigations and prosecutions.  Ms. Newirth previously served as the Chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of New York and as a member of the Board of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.