"A Ray of Light in a Very Dark Place"


So many aspects of OAD’s work are exceptional, but none is more important than the fact that our lawyers change people’s lives for the better everyday.

Here is one remarkable example of OAD’s work: the story of Supervising Attorney Margaret Knight's representation of Khalil A. Cumberbatch.  Please take a few minutes to read it.

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A Dream Deferred

Khalil A. Cumberbatch is living his dream.  He is the Associate Vice President of Policy at The Fortune Society.  He is a college graduate, an influential social justice advocate, and father of two beautiful children.

Fourteen years ago, however, Mr. Cumberbatch was living a nightmare: he was serving an eleven-year prison sentence for robbery.

When he was 21 years old, Mr. Cumberbatch participated in a robbery with three other men.  As they fled, they caused a car accident that resulted in significant injuries to the driver of the other car.  Mr. Cumberbatch immediately recognized the fault in the decisions he had made, and he pleaded guilty to first degree robbery.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was a high school graduate with no prior arrests, maintained a full-time job, and had an abundance of powerful, mitigating evidence presented on his behalf at sentencing, Mr. Cumberbatch was sentenced to 11 years in a maximum-security prison to be followed by five years of post-release supervision.

"A Ray of Light in a Very Dark Place"

Mr. Cumberbatch vividly remembers his first meeting with the lawyer that had been appointed to handle the direct appeal of his criminal conviction.  Given his experiences at trial, he did not have faith in lawyers or the legal system.

When he met with OAD Staff Attorney (now Supervising Attorney), Margaret Knight, there was one burning question he had for her: "Why did you choose to practice criminal law?"

 Margaret Knight, OAD Supervising Attorney

Margaret Knight, OAD Supervising Attorney

For Mr. Cumberbatch, Ms. Knight's response was "a ray of light in a very dark place."

She told him that because the criminal legal system is flawed, justice is not always meted out fairly.  And she had dedicated her career to fighting against that injustice.  

Ms. Knight filed and argued appeals challenging the trial court's failure to properly advise Mr. Cumberbatch of the length of his post-release supervision. The Court of Appeals agreed with Ms. Knight and, on February 7, 2008, it reversed his conviction.

For the next six months, Mr. Cumberbatch, Ms. Knight, and other OAD staff worked tirelessly to produce a comprehensive report documenting the extraordinary evidence of Mr. Cumberbatch’s rehabilitation.

Seeing this record of his own successes--college transcripts, certificates of completion from vocational programs, letters of recommendation--had a profound impact on Mr. Cumberbatch: “The system has a way of telling you who you are based on a conviction: a robber, a felon, a dangerous person who doesn’t warrant relief. This report was the antithesis of that narrative."

OAD’s report also had a powerful impact on the Court.  The sentencing judge rejected the recommendation of the DA’s Office and resentenced Mr. Cumberbatch to eight years in prison followed by two and a half years of post-release supervision.

He was finally released in 2010.

"That day, I made two commitments to myself:  first, I was not going back to prison.  Second, i was going to recreate my legacy, so that when my children told the story of their father, it would be that he made some bad decisions but also made many good ones, and that the good outweighed the bad."  

Shortly after his release from prison, Mr. Cumberbatch got a job at Brooklyn AIDS Task Force.  Later, he joined College Initiative, which helps people with criminal histories go to college.  In the midst of all this, he enrolled in college full-time, graduating in two years, and immediately began work on a Master of Social Work.

Mr. Cumberbatch credits OAD’s meticulousness and persistence in fighting to get his sentence reduced for giving him the opportunity to fully embrace and give meaning to his new life.

A Legacy of Justice

May 8, 2014 brought another twist of fate.  Because of Mr. Cumberbatch’s felony conviction, he was detained by immigration officials and faced deportation.
But OAD’s exhaustive memorandum continued to pay dividends.  After months of uncertainty, he was released from custody based in no small part on the report that OAD had compiled in support of his resentencing six years prior.

Then, in December of that year, Mr. Cumberbatch became one of two recipients of an Executive Pardon from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

He was finally, truly, free.

Rather than take some time to relax, he jumped right back into helping others.  “My legacy couldn’t be that the moment I got some privilege, I didn’t use it.  I felt I must use the exceptional opportunities I had to argue for those who didn’t have them.”
And so he has.  In addition to leading [a=]The Fortune Society’s[/a] advocacy, policy, research, and education efforts, he is a powerful advocate for the reentry community and also serves as a lecturer the Columbia University School of Social Work.

“There are two people, outside of my mother, who, when looking back on these moments of my transformation, have always been there for me.  One of those people is Margaret.”

 Ms. Knight and Mr. Cumberbatch

Ms. Knight and Mr. Cumberbatch

Khalil A. Cumberbatch's experience powerfully demonstrates how and why OAD matters.  We provide the highest-quality representation to those who would otherwise not have access to it, and in so doing, we help people living a nightmare get closer to living their dreams.

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