Giving $50,000 and 7 Years of Your Life to Free a Stranger...

Giving $50,000 and 7 Years of Your Life to Free a Stranger From Prison

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A 68-year old New Jersey widow was so convinced of a young man’s innocence after reading a news account of his murder conviction that she spent seven years and $50,000 of her own money to see that justice would prevail.

Priscilla Chenoweth, an editor at the New Jersey Law Journal, has a law degree of her own but little experience with criminal trials. Yet she began to reinvestigate the shooting because, she said, the convicted Luis Kevin Rojas also had little experience – in gangs, or violence. “He had no record, and nice friends. He had a reputation for peaceableness.”

It began when Rojas, an aspiring engineer, was sent to prison at 18, charged with second-degree murder for supplying the gun in the 1990 shooting death of a teen in Greenwich Village. Chenoweth learned of a letter-writing campaign by 150 of Luis’s classmates to the judge insisting the teenager’s involvement was impossible. “I was impressed,” she remembers. And something moved her to take action.

She thought she would help with fundraising. But when she realized the appeal was being handled clumsily by a lawyer-friend of the Rojas family who was not investigating the evidence, Mrs. Chenoweth went to work reading transcripts, interviewing witnesses and filing motions with an unwavering tenacity.

The mother of three and grandmother of five worked along with her daughter, Leslie Estevao, who first brought her mom’s attention to the case. They enlisted a retired New York City police detective, Dennis O’Sullivan, whose busy pasttime is unsolved murders, to contribute to the crusade. He even put up his own house to gain Rojas’ release on $50,000 bail.

A second retired police officer, Mike O’Connor, was enlisted. He and Estevao, who began calling herself the “kitchen-table detective,” located a key witness to establish a Rojas alibi, a transit officer who remembered seeing Mr. Rojas just miss a train leaving the station the night of the murder. Records indicate the train departed no later than 2:03AM, leading to the conclusion that Rojas could not have been a half mile away at 2:07AM when the incident occurred. Jethro Eisenstein, a former criminal lawyer, also donated his services, and won an acquittal this October from a Manhattan jury in the State Supreme Court.

Luis had spent a third of his life in prison. His mother died during the stay. Mrs. Chenoweth received Mothers Day cards from him and offered as much emotional support as she could. “I really admired the tremendous patience and courage he displayed during his time in prison. He never whined to me. ”

If our definition for a Good Samaritan covers the bases of kindness, generosity and helpfulness, Priscilla Chenoweth surely wins the title with a Grand Slam.

(Story idea submitted by Pamela Phillips)