Note: This the sixth in a series of interviews with 2021 contenders in the race for Manhattan District Attorney.
Tali Weinstein immigrated to the United States from Iran as a young child in 1979. Her early law career included work as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. During the Obama administration, she served as counsel to Attorney General Eric Holder.
‘Structural change is only possible if we reckon with the mistakes of the past.’
Most recently, Weinstein served as counsel to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. She also teaches courses at NYU Law School including “Criminal Justice Reform and the District Attorney.”
Tell us about your work in the Brooklyn DA’s office regarding wrongful convictions.
As General Counsel for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, I had the privilege of managing the nation’s premier — and largest — Conviction Review Unit (CRU), which Eric Gonzalez and the late Ken Thompson built together. Our CRU team would look back and ask: Was the defendant innocent of the crime? Was the conviction unjust for some other reason? Did the prosecution and police act ethically and fairly?
We started the practice of publishing reports in individual exonerations. And alongside the investigative work, our team — together with the Innocence Project and the law firm WilmerHale — also published a first-of-its-kind report detailing and studying the reasons behind the first 25 exonerations in Brooklyn, which added up to a staggering 426 years of wrongful imprisonment.
I am proud of that report, because I believe that structural change is only possible if we reckon with the mistakes of the past.
How would that experience affect the design of your conviction review unit in Manhattan? I’m also wondering how you would handle high-profile cases in which many office veterans have a vested interest in maintaining flawed convictions, a problem in Brooklyn.
I led the design and creation of Brooklyn’s Post-Conviction Justice Bureau — the first stand-alone bureau of its kind in the nation — in order to emphasize the importance of prosecutors’ ongoing responsibility to pursue just outcomes even after convictions are final. In addition to wrongful convictions, the bureau addresses parole and clemency proceedings, conviction sealing, and excessive sentencing review.
I am an advocate for new legislation to allow us to address excessive sentencing claims better.
Every wrongful conviction investigation must be conducted in the same way, whether high-profile or not and regardless of the original prosecution team. I hope to bring to Manhattan these models and my experience in leading the pursuit of post-conviction justice.
Given that your husband has a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, and that as Bloomberg News noted, the two of you “mingle in the upper echelons of New York’s philanthropic and social circles,” why should voters trust that you’ll hold the city elite accountable?
I have spent most of my career in law enforcement and have always been guided by the principle that everyone is equal under the law. I’m not intimidated by power — I served as a Supreme Court law clerk twice, and I advised the top lawyer in the United States — or money. Under my watch, prosecutors will follow the evidence wherever it takes them.
Robert Morgenthau used to say the DA’s office should prosecute “from the streets to the suites” and I believe that should be the mantra of this office. To me, the concerning conflict is accepting campaign contributions from defense attorneys or other partners in their firms, when those firms might have a case in the Manhattan DA’s office now or later. I am the only candidate in this race who has pledged not to take more than $1 from those lawyers.
Why should the criminal justice reform crowd view you as in touch with the everyday realities faced by people ensnared in the system, most of whom are low-income people of color?
The first American I ever met was an immigration officer who had the power to decide whether to let me and family into this country or to deport us on the spot. I carry from that experience, and my journey as an immigrant, an identification with vulnerable people that I think makes me a better prosecutor. I often think about the fact that one of the hardest things about being a prosecutor is that you’re meeting people at possibly the lowest, saddest, most-vulnerable moment in their life — whether they are the victim, witness, or defendant. Approaching those moments with empathy and humanity is critical.
As a lawyer and professor, I have been fighting for criminal justice reform for years. Your question is about people who have been let down by the criminal justice system. Surely women are among them. We know that victims of gender-based crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence are often reluctant to report what happened to them, and disappointed with their experiences with the system when they do come forward. It’s why I am committed to a wholesale transformation of how we respond to these cases. I will work to build trust with every person in every community, so every New Yorker can feel safe, seen, and protected.
Theodore Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics is now available.
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