It was one of those cases that can make you cringe when you hear about it: A pair of New York women serving 40-year sentences for attempted murder — a crime they didn’t commit. In fact, it was a simple misdialed phone number that led police to one of the women.
And this set off an unfortunate series of events that ultimately led to the incarceration of Latisha Johnson and her friend Malisha Blyden.
Enter Richard Greenberg ’74, the attorney-in-charge at the Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) in New York City. Johnson’s case came through his office’s Reinvestigation Project, and he and his team worked for the next three years to right a disturbing wrong. Greenberg and company found witnesses and interviewed them again. They read through piles of documents. In essence, they wore two hats: lawyer and investigator.
At the beginning of this year, the investigation was finished and the Bronx district attorney’s office agreed with the findings of the OAD. Johnson — who had spent the past seven years in prison — was innocent. Blyden’s case was handled by another office, but it was the OAD’s investigation that exonerated both women. Their convictions were vacated and they were immediately released.
“When people are truly innocent, there is a special burden,” Greenberg says.
“Our client was completely innocent. But there was a terrible series of occurrences. We had to reinvestigate the whole case. They didn’t have DNA, so there was a tremendous amount of labor. It was very intensive work.”
Greenberg spends his days working for those like Johnson and Blyden, individuals in need of an attorney who will go the extra mile. Just take a look at the news feed on OAD’s website. You’ll see headlines such as “Appellate Division reverses robbery conviction based on improper admission of other crime evidence” or “Appellate Division reduces sentence for robbery by 16 years.”
As Greenberg knows, these aren’t just appeals cases he’s working on. These are people’s lives. And that’s where he can help.
Long before he went to law school, Greenberg knew he was going to pursue a career in criminal law. Reading crime stories and mysteries piqued his interest, and soon he began paying attention to what was going on in the real world.
“I became interested in criminal law when I was a kid. I saw people like Clarence Darrow, and then [becoming a lawyer] was something that began to formulate.”
Greenberg didn’t exactly take the typical path to becoming an attorney. Rather than enroll in one of the traditional pre-law majors such as political science or philosophy, Greenberg chose a different route: music. At Binghamton, he became a “jack-of-all-trades,” as the musical polymath honed his clarinet, saxophone and guitar skills. He knew that he wanted to eventually go to law school. But in his eyes, there was no reason to narrow his education.
“I decided to use the time to focus on my passion for music,” Greenberg says of his college days.
He is still a musician. He plays in two bands and has been involved with small film and theater productions over the years. For Greenberg, spending his time on music at Binghamton was crucial for rounding out his life.
“I focused on that so that I could nurture myself as a person,” he says.
After finishing law school in 1977, Greenberg wasted no time entering the world of criminal law. He joined the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, spending two years there before beginning a decade-long stint at the Legal Aid Society in New York. In 1989, Greenberg took a position as assistant attorney general for the state’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Crimes Unit. In 1994, he joined the Office of the Appellate Defender, becoming the attorney-in-charge just two years later, a position he’s held ever since.
OAD is the ideal place for someone with Greenberg’s background in criminal law and public service. The office represents indigent defendants who are appealing their felony convictions in Manhattan and the Bronx. OAD does not take cases upon request; it receives its cases through court assignments. Attorneys from the office typically argue cases in front of both the Appellate Division (for Manhattan and the Bronx) and the Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in the state. In addition to representing clients on appeal for felony convictions, OAD will also provide help in a number of different ways, from assisting a client seeking parole to helping someone with immigration issues.
One of the trademarks of OAD is that it isn’t simply a group of lawyers. The office goes the extra step to help its clients, particularly through its in-house programs. For instance, OAD’s Social Work/Re-entry Program aids clients who are making the shift from prison life to home. The program also helps clients receive job training and mental health treatment.
Working at OAD can be challenging, says Greenberg, because the job requires legal skills and countless hours of tiring work. It also requires a special set of people skills.
“With the work I do, you go to visit clients who may have had tough lives, who may have not been given respect,” Greenberg says. “You need to let the client know you are there to help. That means so much to them. You need to give the client loyalty and compassion. There are clients I’ve stayed in touch with for years.”
Among his colleagues, Greenberg is held in high regard. He’s a positive influence in the office, says Alexandra Keeling, the deputy attorney-in-charge at OAD. She says Greenberg is the type of person who keeps a guitar in his office and sings inspiring lyrics for his co-workers — the type of attorney waiting to hug a client who has been released from prison.
“He is the embodiment of what a public defender is, and it’s so inspiring,” Keeling says.
Greenberg brings the complete package to the job, she says: creative lawyering, positive attitude, a sharp mind and, of course, unparalleled compassion. “He is all about the client.”
Although he’s based in New York City, Greenberg maintains strong ties with Binghamton — especially when it comes to preparing the next generation of lawyers. Greenberg is a member of the Steering Committee of the Harpur Law Council, which was formed in 1995 to serve both pre-law students as well as the alumni community working within the legal field. From mentoring students to fostering a network to sponsoring internships, the council — which is not restricted to Harpur alumni — strives to aid Binghamton’s legal-minded community from all angles.
Through the council, Greenberg has given students the chance to see what it could be like to pursue a career in law and give back at the same time. Greenberg has accepted summer interns each year to work at OAD. The internship is made available through the council’s Public Interest Law Internship Program, where five internships are offered at designated sites, including OAD. Students earn a $2,500 stipend and receive one credit for their work.
But most important, they get an invaluable opportunity to see the inner workings of the legal world while having the chance to serve the public.
For Greenberg, it’s been an inimitable experience to have the chance to mentor students and possibly foster an interest in working in the public sector.
“It’s been great to work with such bright and enthusiastic students,” he says. “They get to see what a career in [public interest law] may be like. I’m thrilled to be able to help.”