As counsel for the Center for Appellate Litigation’s (CAL) Justice First project, Amanda Rolat seeks justice for clients who are in dire need of vigorous representation: those who may have been wrongfully convicted.
CAL, a nonprofit public defense firm whose clients are assigned by New York’s Appellate Division, First Department, serves some of society’s most disenfranchised clients in a variety of appeals processes. In 2002, its Justice First Project was established in an effort to confront the all too pervasive issue of innocent people serving lengthy prison sentences for crimes they did not commit.
“I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to specialize in wrongful convictions,” said Rolat. “I worked at the Innocence Project (a wrongful conviction nonprofit organization) when I was in college and had the opportunity to meet a lot of exonerees who came to New York to discuss their experiences in prison and on death row for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Rolat’s work is unique in that wrongful conviction cases require extensive factual investigation in an effort to provide information that was not present in the initial court proceedings.
“There are not many areas of law that are as interesting and challenging legally, but also personally rewarding,” Rolat said.
In addition to the customary legal duties of filing motions and appearing in court alongside clients, Rolat’s work necessarily entails going out into the field to gather evidence that could help overturn a client’s conviction. In one memorable case, this meant traveling as far as Florida to track down a witness that CAL had been seeking for two years.
More commonly, Rolat’s fieldwork involves meeting with clients and reaching out to potential witnesses in communities throughout New York City, many of whom have felt targeted by the criminal justice system for their entire lives.
“It can be very tough to gain a client’s trust,” Rolat explained. “By the time my office is assigned on appeal, I think a lot of my clients view me as part of a system that they distrust.”
For Rolat, the key to establishing trust is demonstrating a deep respect for the fears and anxieties that the criminal justice system can inspire in all people, especially those from the communities she serves.
“These cases commonly take longer than a direct appeal, so clients sometimes feel like the increased length of the process is just the system betraying them again,” Rolat explained.
This harsh reality inevitably impacts Rolat’s work as she speaks with members of the community who may have exonerating evidence crucial to a case. In many instances, witnesses are reticent to become embroiled in a system that has targeted them in the past and are fearful of the perceptions their involvement could engender within their own community.
“I always try to make it very clear: I’m not the police. I’m not the prosecutor. I’m not going to force anyone to tell their story if they don’t want to. I’m not there to put them in a dangerous situation,” said Rolat. “Most people just want to remain anonymous. They don’t want to be on anyone’s radar. They just want to go back to living their quiet lives. Sometimes part of getting people to testify is actually understanding why they don’t want to be involved and respecting that.”
These delicate dynamics are just one challenge that Rolat faces in her work.
“One of the things I love most about post-conviction work is that my days are varied,” said Rolat. “Some days, I’m in my office, reading trial records and writing legal motions and briefs. On other days, I’m visiting clients who are incarcerated, locating and interviewing witnesses and former defense attorneys, and consulting experts. There really is no average day in this line of work.”
Ultimately, Rolat views her work as providing unique attention to people who have been forsaken by a system that is inherently susceptible to human error and prejudice.
“In the end, clients want to feel that someone is actually listening to them and that they aren’t just another file,” said Rolat. “Our hope is that once clients see how much time and work CAL does for them, they can finally feel like someone believes in their innocence and is doing everything they can to fight for them.”
NEXT STORY: CEO Corner: JoAnne Page