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He Got Life


Menon sometimes suspected that Wong might actually be indifferent to the outcome of the campaign mounted on his behalf. “He didn’t care so much about victory,” Menon once remarked. “He cared that people cared.” And so, though injustice was arbitrary, an evil, Wong seemed at times to embrace it. “Even though the incident unpleasing at the time, it turned out as a blessing,” he told Patti and Guy, “because [it] give me you guys, my best friends, through it.”

In April 2003, Judge Timothy Lawliss, a family-court judge in Clinton County, which includes Dannemora, heard the new evidence in the Wong case, Wong’s best hope to overturn his verdict.

To lead the defense, Menon had recruited William Hellerstein, a Brooklyn Law School professor and Legal Aid alumnus sure of his own talents—“five-and-oh in arguments before the Supreme Court,” he points out.

On the stand, Dellfava admitted that he’d concocted his earlier testimony. He had to “make what I did wrong right,” he said. Nine inmates, five of them murderers, testified that they, too, were moved by Wong’s plight. One talked of a “moral obligation,” as if he too wanted to do justice. Six inmates testified they saw the stabbing. Three named Gutierrez as the killer. One of Wong’s final witnesses was a muscular, broad-shouldered black man, Umar Abdul El Aziz.

On the stand, Aziz started to cry. “You know, me, I’m guilty,” said Aziz. “I’ve committed crimes . . . I’ll probably die in the penitentiary. Here’s a guy”—he motioned to Wong—“that I know beyond a doubt did not do what . . . you’re accusing him of doing. He’s been seventeen years in jail trying to get to this point, just to be heard, and man, that’s mind-boggling.”

Judge Lawliss was not moved. What was Wong to him? Another of an endless number of inmates who streamed through upstate courts because they had been wronged. He seemed to know in advance what to expect from this case. Lawliss had been educated in the field. His uncle had retired from the Corrections Department, and Lawliss joked that his father, a former Clinton County sheriff, had ninetysomething first cousins, many of whom had probably worked for the prisons. Wong’s side made an issue of Lawliss’s background—he was also a former law partner of the prosecutor—during the case, but the judge scoffed. Every local official should have a prison connection. Prison employees are among the area’s most potent voting blocs.

In his opinion, Lawliss seemed mystified that anyone could, for an instant, believe such a frightening band of criminals as those who testified for Wong. He dismissed Aziz’s tears as an “attempt to bolster his credibility.” Dellfava’s “demeanor wreaked [sic] of insincerity,” he wrote. Instead, he cited the seventeen-year-old testimony of the prison guard, virtually the state’s only remaining witness, who saw the crime from a football field away. “Any individual who works in the correctional facility would have to understand the significance and enormous responsibility of identifying another human being as a murderer,” wrote Lawliss. Wong seemed inconsequential. If anyone was innocent, it was the guards, Lawliss seemed to say, as if they were on trial, which perhaps they were. If you believed Wong’s new evidence, then unscrupulous prison guards were the real culprits.

Jaykumar Menon’s walk-up apartment in the East Village is tiny—one small room with a kitchen beside another small room with a bed and desk. (His shoes are stored in a bucket under the desk.) Lately, as he knew, his Columbia Law School classmates are approaching partner at prestigious firms. Menon, on the other hand, loads debt onto credit cards. He’d stopped working full-time at the Center for Constitutional Rights, taken short-term legal jobs, and through it all, kept a promise to Wong. He’d taken the Wong case with him. He was in his fifth year with the case. His kitchen cabinets were filled with Wong documents.

“You know I didn’t choose Wong,” Menon says suddenly. He sits at his desk in jeans, his shirt untucked as usual. “I just showed up,” he says, seeming discouraged. Which is true. He’d set out blithely. This was to be a grand adventure. Maybe it’s a kind of moral vanity, this arch-justice-doing. Lately, he occasionally felt as if he’d passed up his whole life to prove Wong’s innocence. “Everybody else is living a regular life, and I’m here on this solitary and secret mission,” he says. He couldn’t go to a movie or commit to anything silly or frivolous without working himself up, telling himself, “Well you know, let [Wong] hang. I’m going to go have fun.”

After Lawliss rejected a new trial, the nightmares started. In them, the stout, square-faced district attorney approaches, grabs Menon’s hand. He’s dropping the charges. “It’s a great feeling, and I’m smiling,” Menon says. The feeling doesn’t last. “I realize that I’m dreaming and it isn’t true,” he says. His stomach tenses. He awakens with a start and reaches for the bottle of pink Pepto-Bismol that sits by his bed.

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