Since the start of her career, Cheryl Pilate has always worked on innocence and death penalty cases in addition to her regular federal criminal law practice.
“I’m very passionate about seeing the right thing done,” she said. “There’s nothing more intolerable in our system of justice than an innocent person being wrongfully convicted and locked up for something he or she did not do.”
The cases present tremendous challenges, but are also very compelling to work on, Pilate said.
“When you walk an innocent person out of prison, that’s a feeling like no other,” she said.
It’s a feeling Pilate has had three times in her career, most recently when she accompanied Lamonte McIntyre, who had spent 23 years in prison, out of a courthouse when his case was dismissed.
“It was an absolutely amazing moment,” Pilate said. “It was almost surreal how it happened.”
McIntyre was convicted of double-murder in 1994. Pilate spent eight years working on his case.
Just a couple of weeks after looking into it, she started to see the conviction was wrong.
“It’s kind of shocking he was convicted to begin with,” she said. “When you go back and start unraveling what was done and not done, some very troubling issues began to emerge.”
Some of the things that weren’t done in the investigation “were very telling,” Pilate said, including the fact that there wasn’t a search for the murder weapon and no effort was made to find an accomplice or a getaway car. Nothing was done with physical evidence that was gathered, she said, and no motive was ever developed.
But, Pilate said, having enough evidence to get into court and persuade a judge “is an entirely different thing” and came with challenges of getting witnesses to formally sign an affidavit and agree to testify about law enforcement abuses.
McIntyre’s trial team had to overcome those hurdles and were a day and a half into a planned six-day hearing when the prosecutor ended the case.
Within two hours, McIntyre was out on the street with his attorneys.
“It’s hard to overstate how much that just took our breath away,” she said.
Pilate said she came to McIntyre’s case through Centurion, a New Jersey-based innocence project that she has worked with since 1994. She has gotten two other individuals out of prison through her relationship with Centurion.
With McIntyre’s case complete, she said she’s been contacted about many other innocence cases and anticipates she’ll take another in the future. For now, she’s focused on working on the case of Rusty Bucklew, who has an execution date in March.
Pilate’s work has attracted the attention of fellow attorneys, including some who wrote her nomination letters. In one, Melody Brannon, a federal public defender, described Pilate as “a brilliant litigator and fierce advocate for her clients, many of whom have little power or voice against wrongful prosecution or governmental abuse.”
Pilate, she said, is brave, but not fearless.
“This is an important distinction in our most adversarial climates,” Brannon wrote. “She is never reckless, but careful, thorough, and thoughtful. In taking on some of the most corrupt and bellicose prosecutors and law enforcement, she has risked both her professional and personal safety at times. But she persists, with tremendous success.”