November 7, 2019

Associate Maria Ortiz Successfully Represents Client in Pro Bono Criminal Appeal Centered on Evidence


A Milbank associate helped a pro bono client win an appeal in a criminal case that hinged on a lack of evidence. In a case before the First Department of the Appellate Division, associate Maria Ortiz argued for the client, known as Mr. C., whose appeal was referred to Milbank by the Center for Appellate Litigation.

Mr. C. had been observed by police officers in a high drug trafficking area in New York City. The officers reported witnessing an “exchange” between Mr. C. and a woman, though they did not indicate that they saw drugs or money changing hands. The woman was approached by an officer who saw her chewing on an object that turned out to be a small bag of crack cocaine worth $10. On searching Mr. C., the officers found no drugs on his person, but $10 in one pocket as well as other denominations of cash in another. Because of previous felonies on his record, Mr. C. was sentenced to six years in prison.

In oral and written arguments before the Court, “we argued that the verdict was against the weight of evidence,” Ms. Ortiz says. In reviewing the facts of the case, the Court agreed, concluding that “the People did not prove beyond any reasonable doubt that defendant sold cocaine to the woman, which was the only crime charged.” The Court unanimously ordered Mr. C.’s conviction reversed and the indictment dismissed.

Ms. Ortiz, a second-year associate, took on the case during her second month at the firm as a pro bono project. In preparing the appeal, she had support from partner George Canellos as well as associates David Marcou and Daniel White, among others.

For the argument, Ms. Ortiz says, “It was incredibly rewarding to work with other litigators who are not only talented in persuasive writing, but also really skilled at narrowing down our key arguments. This was my first time drafting and arguing a criminal appeal, and the learning experience was invaluable. I really appreciated the time and guidance provided to me throughout the process by George and the team.” The experience also reminded her that well-prepared and practiced oral arguments “can really help a case,” Ms. Ortiz says. “Even if, on paper, the facts might not be the best, strong advocacy at the appellate level can really make a difference.”

Adding that the pro bono win was a “team effort,” she says, “I’m grateful to have worked with such instructive, passionate litigators who were all dedicated to helping our client.”

Working with the Center for Appellate Litigation, the Office of the Appellate Defender and other organizations, Milbank’s litigators regularly assist with pro bono criminal appeals, recently winning another appeal for a client who had been denied effective assistance of counsel.