One of Widener Law’s criminal law professors is taking lessons from a significant pro bono win over the summer into his classroom this fall, so his students can get a taste of where old-school, diligent lawyering can take a case.
Professor Jules Epstein
, who taught his first fall class last week in Delaware, spent several weeks working on a Pennsylvania Innocence Project case. His client, who maintained his innocence while serving life in prison, won a new trial and was released on bail. This June, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office elected to withdraw prosecution.
“It is emotionally powerful, meaningful and satisfying to help someone get out of prison who shouldn’t be there,” Epstein said. Today, his client, Lance Felder, has a new job working as a construction traffic flagger and is readjusting to a far more digitized society than the one he left for incarceration 15 years ago.
Felder was convicted in connection with the robbery and murder of a North Philadelphia man who operated a bar and seafood store. The victim, Thomas Keal, was shot in the head after he resisted two men who demanded money from him on a Philadelphia street. Felder and another man, Eugene Gilyard, were arrested three years later on an identification made by the victim’s daughter. Epstein said the daughter saw the shooting from above her father’s business, for about five seconds, and provided the only connection between his client and the crime. There was no physical evidence.
When another man confessed to the crime, Innocence Project efforts to get both Gilyard and Felder freed from prison gained steam. Epstein officially entered the case for Felder in June 2013 and hearings began in July, with the judge asked to determine whether new evidence was enough to call into question the fairness of the original trial.
Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi agreed, and ordered a new trial. One year later, prosecutors elected not to appeal the decision, and withdrew prosecution against Felder and Gilyard.
Epstein said lessons from the case were germane for his students.
“You never try a case without walking the scene. I was at the murder scene. I walked the street,” he said. Doing so showed Epstein the eyewitness’ vantage point was questionable – casting doubt on the identification of Felder.
Epstein, who has studied and written in the areas of mistaken witness identification, said the case was a classic example of just that.
“It’s a reminder that when I teach evidence and criminal law, I have to teach the lesson that sincere witnesses can make mistakes, and to do justice, attorneys have to investigate the heck out of a case,” he said.
Epstein is not alone in performing legal work for inmates who maintain their innocence. Both Professors Judith L. Ritter
and Leonard N. Sosnov
also have taken cases in which their clients have been released from prison or had their sentences converted from death to life in prison.
“It’s a reminder to me that at Widener Law, we don’t stay in the classroom and teach exclusively. Our students see us go out into the world and use what we teach. Hopefully that enriches their education,” Epstein said.