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U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan of the Eastern District of Tennessee ordered the release of Ronnie Cooper, a federal inmate convicted in 2010 based on his alleged participation in a drug trafficking ring and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The court’s order follows the government’s agreement to have Mr. Cooper resentenced to time-served in the face of a strong Brady claim and other evidence demonstrating Mr. Cooper’s innocence. This development is the culmination of Paul, Weiss’s six-year battle for Mr. Cooper’s freedom.
Mr. Cooper’s direct appeal in the Sixth Circuit was originally handled by a former Paul, Weiss summer associate, who was Mr. Cooper’s court-appointed advocate. When it became clear that his direct appeal would not succeed, she approached Paul, Weiss about taking on the case pro bono going forward based on her belief that Mr. Cooper was wrongfully convicted.
In November 2015, Paul, Weiss filed a motion, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, to vacate Mr. Cooper’s sentence based on the government’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. Specifically, investigators engaged by Paul, Weiss located and interviewed the star trial witness for the prosecution, who, after agreeing to cooperate with the government, had delivered devastating testimony against the other defendants, but not against Mr. Cooper. When interviewed in 2015, this individual stated that, prior to trial, he had expressly informed law enforcement officials that Mr. Cooper was not involved in the drug operation, information that was never disclosed to Mr. Cooper’s trial attorney. In a March 2019 decision granting Mr. Cooper’s motion in part, Judge Jordan concluded that Mr. Cooper was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the factual question of whether the cooperating witness did in fact inform the government of Mr. Cooper’s non-involvement.
The court held a preliminary evidentiary hearing in August 2019, at which this cooperating witness provided testimony consistent with what he had previously told Mr. Cooper’s investigators. The court found that this testimony supported Mr. Cooper’s Brady claim and ordered extensive discovery in advance of a final evidentiary hearing.
Simultaneously, due to the continued efforts of Paul, Weiss and Mr. Cooper’s investigators, the two jailhouse informants whose testimony provided the bulk of the trial evidence used to secure Mr. Cooper’s conviction submitted affidavits recanting their testimony in full.
Faced with a crumbling case, the government agreed to have Mr. Cooper resentenced to time served. As a result, Mr. Cooper is now able to rejoin his wife and children in Utica, New York approximately 20 years before his sentence was to expire.
In a recent email to one of the team members, Mr. Cooper said, “I still remember when you told me that you and your firm were going to put together a team of lawyers to work this case and you kept your promise, it brings tears to my eyes when I think about how blessed I am to have your support because nobody has ever fought this hard for me ever and I appreciate that.”
The Paul, Weiss team was led by litigation partner Jaren Janghorbani and counsel Justin Lerer and associates Chris Rice (who has continued to work on the matter while on a secondment), Oleg Shik, Theo Galanakis and Kerissa Barron. Litigation partners Michele Hirshman, Roberto Finzi, Harris Fischman, Chris Frey, Loretta Lynch and Lorin Reisner provided invaluable assistance.