HE FIRST TIME LESLEY RISINGER helped free a man
wrongfully convicted of a crime, she was a 33-year-
old stay-at-home mother of three, living in Kearny,
with no legal training and no more than an amateur
interest in the law.
But as she read the story of Luis Kevin Rojas in the Jersey
Journal in 1991, something about the 18-year-old Hudson County
man’s claim that he had not committed the Manhattan murder,
for which he was facing a 15-year sentence, struck her as believable, compelling and requiring her immediate intervention.
Risinger showed the article to her mother, Priscilla Read Chenoweth, a lawyer who had quit private practice and was working
as an editor at the New Jersey Law Journal in Newark. The two
began a seven-year crusade to exonerate Rojas who, they came
to believe, was a victim of mistaken identity. Chenoweth took
the role of lead counsel, pouring $65,000 of her retirement savings into investigators and additional lawyers. Risinger assisted
with research, writing and seeking new evidence.
Thanks to their years of hard work, the appelate court grant-
ed an appeal in 1995. At a retrial in 1998, new evidence unearthed
by mother, daughter and their team helped set Rojas free.
“They stepped up to the plate and they helped me,” says
Rojas, now 41 and an electrical engineer. “I’m here today be-
cause of them.”
That case lit a fire in Risinger, a tall, lean woman with ramrod
posture and an earnest manner. She found the experience “ex-
hilarating,” she admits with a twinge of guilt, because “there was
nothing exhilarating about it for him.”
Nevertheless, it proved pivotal in her life, prompting her to
finish her undergraduate degree and go on to Seton Hall Uni-
versity School of Law. In 2006, three years after passing the
bar, she plunged into a second exoneration case. Fernando Ber-
mudez, a New York man, had served more than 18 years for
murder. Risinger got the indictment dismissed after eyewit-
nesses changed their stories and prosecutorial and police mis-
conduct were proven. In the courtroom, Bermudez engulfed
Risinger in a bear hug, his face contorted in pain and relief.
“Lesley is just a remarkable person, a beautiful person inside and out,” says Bermudez, who now lives in Connecticut
with his wife and the two youngest of his three children. “She
Exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners has become the life
mission of tenacious attorney Lesley Risinger. BY TARA GEORGE
RIGHTING WRONGS: Seton
Hall University School of Law
professor Lesley Risinger, who
cofounded the Last Resort Exoneration Project with her husband, Michael, is seeking justice
for New Jerseyans incarcerated
for crimes they did not commit.