Professor Emeritus William Hellerstein, who retired in the fall of 2010 after 25 years of service to the Law School, was honored by the Legal Aid Society at its 40th anniversary Prisoner’s Rights Project reception held on November 15th at offices of Davis Polk and Wardwell.
Over his 21-year career at The Legal Aid Society, Hellerstein rose from staff attorney to Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Appeals Bureau, arguing cases before the New York State Court of Appeals, the Second Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court. In 1971, responding to what he viewed as serious constitutional deficits in the prison system, Hellerstein created the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project. “One of the things that had always troubled me was the conditions in prisons and holding pens,” recalled Hellerstein. The Project, which opened its doors on September 1, 1971, just days before the Attica inmate uprising, was devoted to addressing the deplorable conditions in the state's prisons and in the city's jails.
Since its inception 40 years ago, the Project has carried out groundbreaking work to protect the legal rights of prisoners through law reform, class action litigation, and advice and representation in individual non-criminal matters. The Project's landmark victories to prevent unconstitutional conditions of confinement for clients have had a national impact, and the Project continues to be a national leader in prison reform advocacy.
The Project's current priorities include preventing guard brutality, sexual abuse, and unsafe conditions; addressing the lack of mental health and medical care; and remedying the lack of educational programs for young prisoners. Virtually all persons incarcerated in New York City jails (13,000 individuals) and New York State prisons (57,000 individuals), as well as prison staff, benefit from the class action cases that the Prisoners' Rights Project has litigated.
Hellerstein joined the faculty of the Law School in 1985, and taught evidence, constitutional law, and a seminar in constitutional litigation. His teaching and mentorship inspired countless students to pursue careers in public service.
In 2001, Hellerstein created the Second Look Clinic, the only clinic in New York City focused exclusively on non-DNA innocence cases. Over the clinic’s nine-year history, there were several monumental victories, in particular that of David Wong who spent 18 years in prison, wrongfully convicted of murder, before Hellerstein proved his innocence in 2004, and Stephen Schulz, who served 9 years for a robbery he did not commit and was freed in 2009.
Hellerstein continues to work for justice as a Permanent Member of the New York State Justice Task Force, established to investigate and identify recurring weaknesses in the criminal justice system that lead to false convictions.