Priscilla Read Chenoweth, Who Won Freedom for a Stranger, Dies at 90

Priscilla Read Chenoweth, a civil rights activist and lawyer who spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars of her own money to exonerate a stranger wrongly convicted of second-degree murder, died on Feb. 16 at her home in Silver Spring, Md. She was 90.

Her son, Eric Chenoweth, confirmed her death. He said that while the cause was not known, she had recently suffered a series of strokes.

Ms. Chenoweth was an editor for a legal journal in 1991 when her daughter Lesley, a stay-at-home mother, showed her an article in a local newspaper about an 18-year-old son of Colombian immigrants named Luis Kevin Rojas.

The article detailed how, late one night in Manhattan in November 1990, two groups of teenagers had gotten into a fight in Greenwich Village. A youth wearing an orange jacket pulled out a gun and gave it to another, who opened fire on the other group, killing one.

A few hours later the police arrested Mr. Rojas, who had come into the city for dinner. He was wearing an orange jacket and, like the accomplice carrying the gun, he was Hispanic. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

The case shocked the Colombian community in Union City, N.J., where Mr. Rojas and his family lived. He was widely known there as a studious, generally strait-laced young man.

Ms. Chenoweth and her daughter, who now goes by Lesley Risinger, immediately had doubts, and as they began to dig into the facts — meeting with his teachers and family and then Mr. Rojas himself, on Rikers Island — those doubts hardened into a conviction that Mr. Rojas was innocent.

Ms. Chenoweth had not planned to make his case a personal crusade; at first, she just wanted to find him a lawyer who would take it on a pro bono basis. But none came forward at first, and she and her daughter found themselves doing the bulk of the work. Ms. Chenoweth handled the court filings and other legal maneuvers, while Lesley reinvestigated the case with the help of three private detectives.

ImageMs. Chenoweth, center, at her home in Kearny, N.J., with Luis Rojas, right, and his lawyer, Jethro M. Eisenstein, holding a jacket like the one worn by Mr. Rojas when he was arrested. Her efforts on his behalf led to Mr. Rojas’s exoneration.
Credit…Richard L. Harbus for The New York Times

Ms. Chenoweth turned the study in her red brick house in Metuchen, N.J., into a makeshift law office. Since she was not licensed to practice in New York, she eventually had to find another lawyer, Tina Mazza, to help handle the case. The cost mounted; Ms. Chenoweth eventually spent about $60,000 ($100,000 today) on Mr. Rojas’s defense — and that’s not accounting for the thousands of pro bono hours that she and other lawyers put into it.

In 1995 Ms. Chenoweth and her team got the original conviction overturned, thanks in large part to the testimony of a transit police officer, who said he saw Mr. Rojas and a friend at a train station half a mile from where the incident took place at exactly the same time the shooting occurred.

Mr. Rojas was released after more than four years in jail. But the state decided to retry the case anyway, a process that took three more years and the services of another lawyer, Jethro M. Eisenstein. Finally, in 1998, a jury found Mr. Rojas not guilty. The outcome that led to a front-page article in The New York Times about Ms. Chenoweth’s efforts. Neither of the assailants — the one who fired the gun or the one who handed it to him — were ever found.

In the years afterward, Ms. Chenoweth and Mr. Rojas, who lives in North Jersey, kept in touch.

When a reporter asked why she had spent so much time and money on defending someone she didn’t know, Ms. Chenoweth said the answer was simple.

“It was clear to me that it was a gross injustice,” she said. “The legal system had harmed this man, and the legal system should right the wrong.”

Priscilla Read was born on June 7, 1930, in Brooklyn, the youngest of three sisters. Her father, Burton Read, was a stockbroker and financial reporter. Her mother, Gerda (Rosenquist) Read, was a homemaker.

Along with her son and daughter, Ms. Chenoweth is survived by another daughter, Karin Chenoweth, and nine grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

The Reads, who lived in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, were Republican Protestants in a neighborhood that at the time was largely Jewish and a hotbed of left-wing politics. By high school, Priscilla had made friends with students active in the American Labor Party, which had broken off from the Socialist Party of America during the 1930s.

When she was 16, she joined several classmates on a trip to Washington to attend a conference on civil rights. There she met Black students from the South, who told her about living under the oppression of Jim Crow. She also met the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who became a mentor and close friend until his death in 1987.

She continued her work with socialist organizations in college, first at Oberlin in Ohio and then, after transferring, at the University of Chicago, where she met another committed activist, Don Chenoweth. They moved to Queens before she graduated and married in 1951.

Mr. Chenoweth ran a successful printing company, and in 1960 they moved to Metuchen, a New Jersey suburb. Once again, Ms. Chenoweth gravitated toward social activism, joining the newly formed Metuchen-Edison Racial Relations Council and later founding a branch of the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the country’s leading civil rights organizations.

She quickly became a central figure in New Jersey’s civil rights movement. In August 1963 she was arrested during a protest against job discrimination in nearby Elizabeth, N.J.

Image

Credit…via Chenoweth family

She graduated from Rutgers-Newark Law School in 1968 and spent several years working for the state government. She became an editor with The New Jersey Law Journal in 1974. The job gave her time to work a series of pro bono cases — though nothing of the magnitude of the Rojas case.

The experience of working on that case inspired Ms. Risinger to get a law degree herself. Today she is an adjunct professor at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, where she co-founded the Last Resort Exoneration Project with her husband, Michael.

The project has successfully exonerated several people convicted of violent felonies, efforts in which Ms. Chenoweth assisted after her retirement in 2005. She never asked for compensation or sought praise, Ms. Risinger said, but rather insisted that she was simply doing her part in the cause of justice.

“It’s something that calls to most decent people,” she said. “But most decent people don’t have the money, experience or time to do it.”

The case shocked the Colombian community in Union City, N.J., where Mr. Rojas and his family lived. He was widely known there as a studious, generally strait-laced young man.

Ms. Chenoweth and her daughter, who now goes by Lesley Risinger, immediately had doubts, and as they began to dig into the facts — meeting with his teachers and family and then Mr. Rojas himself, on Rikers Island — those doubts hardened into a conviction that Mr. Rojas was innocent.

Ms. Chenoweth had not planned to make his case a personal crusade; at first, she just wanted to find him a lawyer who would take it on a pro bono basis. But none came forward at first, and she and her daughter found themselves doing the bulk of the work. Ms. Chenoweth handled the court filings and other legal maneuvers, while Lesley reinvestigated the case with the help of three private detectives.

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