Law professor helps inmate gain freedom
Public Relations - Published: September 9, 2013
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Professor Leonard N. Sosnov

Milton Scarborough had spent half his 73-year life in prison for a triple murder he said he did not commit and knew nothing about.

Throughout his 36 years behind bars, he steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1976 north-central Pennsylvania shooting of a mother and two young children. And while his innocence has never been established in a court of law, he is now a free man due in large part to Widener Law Professor Leonard N. Sosnov.

Sosnov began representing Scarborough almost three years ago through Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit dedicated to freeing innocent people sentenced to life imprisonment or death.

It was about that time that things started heating up in Scarborough’s case. New information arose and the only eyewitness recanted. That eyewitness, John Shafer, originally testified he went to the victims’ home with Scarborough and two other men who are brothers to commit a robbery.

Recently Shafer – who never served prison time – said he had been promised lenient treatment decades ago in exchange for favorable testimony, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. He has since recanted his testimony and now says Scarborough was not present at the crime and played no role in the killings, Sosnov said.

“It’s been on his conscience all these years,” Sosnov said.

In addition, two other witnesses have emerged, claiming another man in Florida admitted to the killings. There was also a pending motion for DNA testing of physical evidence from the crime scene. These developments, along with a legal battle over what Sosnov maintained was a prosecution’s failure to turn over evidence that would have been helpful to Scarborough’s defense at trial, and a previous defense attorney’s failure to address that in a timely fashion, had Scarborough hoping for a new trial.

Sosnov knew that could take years, if he was able to convince a judge to grant it. He also knew prosecutors would fight hard against the idea of a retrial, given the challenging task of reprosecuting a 1976 case. So, he proposed a deal that Lycoming County prosecutors agreed to: having served more than half of his 30-to-60 year sentence, Scarborough would be resentenced to time served, but retain his conviction, withdraw all appeals and remain on probation.

“It’s a fair compromise for both sides,” Sosnov said. “It’s bittersweet because you always hope you can prove a person’s innocence, but I feel very good we got Milton his freedom.”

Sosnov said his client told him he had been offered lenient treatment to cooperate, much like Shafer, back in the 1970s.

“He turned it down, saying ‘How can I testify when I don’t know anything?’” Sosnov said. Given that, Scarborough was reluctant to agree to the resentencing deal at first, but given his failing health and the prospect of more years of legal wrangling he reconsidered.

“He just felt, practically speaking, it was worth having his freedom now,” Sosnov said.

Scarborough was released Aug. 23 and is living with his niece, who grew up watching her late father – Scarborough’s brother – fight to prove his innocence. Sosnov has not seen Scarborough since the release, but he has been in email contact and has enjoyed seeing a digital photograph of his client smiling, in a motorized wheelchair enjoying his new home.

“It was a heck of a lot of work, but I did it because this is what I’m interested in – people who are very likely innocent and need help,” he said.

In his 23 years teaching on the Delaware campus, Sosnov’s work with Centurion Ministries has also brought about the release of four other inmates who had long maintained their innocence. He worked on Scarborough’s case with fellow defense attorney David Rudovsky. Both provided their representation pro bono.