Nina Morrison has spent the last twenty years representing inmates in seeking to re-evaluate convictions and establish evidence of innocence. She now has an opportunity to step into a different role, as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Born in 1970, the daughter of Alan Morrison, a Dean at the George Washington University Law School who argued twenty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Morrison attended Yale University, graduating in 1992. Morrison then attended New York University Law School, graduating in 1998. She then clerked for Judge Pierre Leval on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
After her clerkships, Morrison became an associate at Emery Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP where she focused on civil rights litigation. After three years there, Morrison joined the Innocence Project, where she works as executive director and senior litigation counsel.
History of the Seat
Morrison has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. This seat opened when Judge Dora Irizarry moved to senior status on January 26, 2020. On August 12, 2020, the White House nominated HUD attorney David Woll to fill this vacancy, but Woll never received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On September 1, 2021, Morrison was recommended for a nomination by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House. She was nominated on December 15, 2021.
While Morrison has held other positions, her primary experience over the past twenty years has been at the Innocence Project, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of individuals wrongly convicted of crimes. Morrison’s work at the Project led to the re-evaluation of hundreds of cases and the release of many. Not all the individuals released were “proven innocent”, with, in some cases, the evidence merely casting doubt on the original conviction rather than definitively establishing innocence. See, e.g., Sarah Brumfield, Maryland Man Convicted of Two Kilings in 1985 is Freed After DNA Tests Undermine Evidence, A.P., June 19, 2003. In other cases, prosecutors moved to retry defendants who had managed to overturn their original convictions. See, e.g., Bruce Lambert, Prosecutor Will Retry Man Freed by DNA in L.I. Rape-Murder, N.Y. Times, Sept. 12, 2003. We have summarized some of the important cases Morrison worked on by the state of conviction below.
Morrison represented Ledell Lee, an Arkansas death row inmate seeking a stay to permit DNA testing to prove his innocence. Kelly P. Kissel and Jill Bleed, Arkansas Suffers 2 Setbacks to Multiple Execution Plan, A.P., Apr. 20, 2017. Lee was ultimately executed after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal. Kelly P. Kissel and Sean Murphy, Arkansas Overcomes Legal Hurdles, Carries Out Execution, A.P., Apr. 21, 2017. Four years after the execution, new DNA evidence emerged linking a different man to the murder that Lee was executed for. See Heather Murphy, 4 Years After an Execution, a Different Man’s DNA is Found on the Murder Weapon, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2021.
Morrison got involved in reviewing and advocating for DNA testing in 80 Florida cases after the Legislature, in 2003, opened a two-year window for such testing. Mitch Stacy, Florida Attorneys Scramble to Beat Deadline for Inmate DNA Testing, A.P., Sept. 25, 2003. Among the men freed was Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison after being mistakenly identified by a rape victim. See Florida Frees Exonerated Man After 22 Years in Prison, But Leaves Him With Nothing, A.P., Sept. 12, 2004. Another was Orlando Bosquette, a prison escapee who was exonerated by the coordinated efforts of Morrison and Florida prosecutor Mark Kohl. See Jim Dwyer, Innocent Man Describes Decade of Life on the Run, N.Y. Times, May 23, 2006.
Morrison represented Jeffrey Deskovic, convicted of the rape and murder of his high school classmate in 1990. See Fernanda Santos, DNA Testing Frees Man Imprisoned for Half His Life, N.Y. Times, Sept. 21, 2006. Deskovic’s request for DNA testing was initially fought by District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (later a GOP candidate for Attorney General) but was later approved by her successor Janet DiFiore (currently a judge on New York’s highest court), leading to Deskovic’s release. See id. Morrison also successfully obtained the release of Scott Fappiano, who was exonerated after an inventory of DNA samples in his rape conviction were retested. See Nicholas Confessore, After 21 Years, DNA Testing Sets Man Free in Rape Case, N.Y. Times, Oct. 7, 2006.
Notably, Morrison represented Roy Brown, who sought to overturn his conviction for the murder of social worker Sabina Kulakowski, arguing that DNA evidence suggested the real killer was her boyfriend’s brother. See Fernanda Santos, Inmate Finds Vindication in His Quest for a Killer, N.Y. Times, Dec. 21, 2006. However, Judge Peter Corning declined to order a release without additional evidence and testing. Fernanda Santos, Prosecutors Pursue DNA Case as Judge Lets Verdict Stand in ‘91 Killing, N.Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2006. However, after prosecutors subsequently exhumed the body of the accused killer and found a DNA match, Brown was exonerated and released. See Fernanda Santos, With DNA From Exhumed Body, Man Finally Wins Freedom, N.Y. Times, Jan. 24, 2007.
Morrison was an advocate for Brandon Moon, who was convicted of rape in 1988 largely based on the expert testimony of blood testing expert Glen David Adams. See Barbara Novovitch, Free After 17 Years for a Rape He Did Not Commit, N.Y. Times, Dec. 22, 2004. The case led to Moon’s exoneration and the exposure of flaws in Adams’ methodology, with the El Paso District Attorney publicly apologizing to Moon for the time he had spent in prison. See id. Morrison also represented James Waller, who was exonerated of a raping a minor child in Dallas after DNA evidence ruled him out as a suspect. See Ralph Blumenthal, A 12th Dallas Convict is Exonerated by DNA, N.Y. Times, Jan. 18, 2007.
Notably, Morrison represented Michael Morton, who was convicted of killing his wife in 1987 despite evidence showing that she had been killed by an intruder. See Will Weissert, DNA Helps Free Texas Man Convicted in Wife’s Death, A.P., Oct. 3, 2011. The case also drew attention because exculpatory evidence, including statements by Morton’s toddler son, who was home at the time of the murder, were not properly disclosed to defense counsel. See Brandi Grissom, Inmate’s Release Brings Call for New Evidence Law, N.Y. Times, Oct. 9, 2011. The withholding of evidence eventually led to the conviction of prosecutor Ken Anderson for contempt of court. See Chuck Lindell, Ken Anderson to Serve 10 Days in Jail, Austin American Statesman, Nov. 8, 2013, http://www.statesman.com/news/news/ken-anderson-to-serve-10-days-in-jail/nbmsH/.
Statements and Writings
In her role as the Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Morrison has spoken out frequently about her clients and the state of current criminal law. For example, Morrison has been critical of laws that restrict inmates to having a single year to present DNA evidence of innocence, noting that preparing cases often takes much longer. See Sharon Cohen, Deborah Hastings, For 110 Inmates Freed By DNA Tests, True Freedom Remains Elusive, A.P., May 28, 2002. Morrison has also been critical of eyewitness accounts of crimes, noting that they are frequently unreliable and result in innocent people getting locked up. See Ron Kampeas, Setbacks in Sniper Search Illustrate the Frequent Unrealiability of Eyewitnesses, A.P., Oct. 17, 2002. She has pushed for more resources for the re-integration of exonerees. See Florida Frees Exonerated Man After 22 Years in Prison, But Leaves Him With Nothing, A.P., Sept. 12, 2004. Morrison has also spoken out for greater accountability against prosecutors who fail to disclose exculpatory evidence. Nina Morrison, What Happens When Prosecutors Break the Law, N.Y. Times, June 18, 2018. See also Emily Bazelon, She was Convicted of Killing Her Mother. Prosecutors Withheld the Evidence That Would Have Freed Her, N.Y. Times, Aug.1, 2017; Tom Hays, Report Blames Prosecutor Missteps in Botched NYC Convictions, N.Y. Times, July 9, 2020.
In an interview describing the Deskovic case, Morrison noted that she joined the Innocence Project because she wanted to fight for “people who didn’t have a voice or an advocate” and because she wanted to have a greater impact than merely securing settlements in favor of civil rights plaintiffs. See Adam Nichols, DNA Key to Unlock a Cell: Attorney’s “Long Shot” Triumph to Clear Man, Daily News, Sept. 24, 2006.
In other writings, Morrison has praised state courts that have drawn broad constitutional protections for criminal defendants, noting that they are remedying the “constitutional amnesia” of federal courts by more closely aligning their jurisprudence with the underlying principles of the Bill of Rights. See Nina Morrison, Curing “Constitutional Amnesia”: Criminal Procedure Under State Constitutions, 73 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 880 (June 1998).
Morrison has been a frequent donor to Democratic candidates for office, giving to the presidential campaigns of John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Morrison has also donated to gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams.
Having spent two decades working intimately in the trenches of criminal law and procedure, Morrison will join the bench with no learning curve on those issues. While she has less experience with civil litigation, Morrison will have an opportunity to convince senators that her background reflects the intellect and the ability to get up to speed on those issues.
Given her success in overturning convictions and her outspoken-ness on issues of criminal law, many senators are likely to argue that Morrison would be an “activist” on the bench. However, Morrison and her defenders can always argue that ensuring that the innocent are not punished for someone else’s crime is an issue that everyone can get behind.