Case Overview

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Case Overview

The Crime

On November 27, 2005, Catherine Woods, a 21 year-old woman was found viciously murdered on the floor of her Upper East side of Manhattan apartment. According to police reports and ear-witness testimony, the murder took place between 6:20 pm and 6:25 pm. At 6:50 pm that evening, David Haughn, the victim’s live-in, ex-boyfriend, phoned 911 to report the crime. On February 15, 2007, Paul Cortez was convicted for a crime he did not commit. Paul is currently enduring his 25 years to life sentence at a maximum-security prison in New York.

The Victim

At the age of 19, Catherine moved from her affluent community in Columbus, Ohio to New York City to pursue a dancing career. Within weeks of relocating to NYC, she was raped by her landlord. As a result, Catherine’s father, a prominent and influential Ohio State University leader, moved his daughter to a “safer” New York City neighborhood – the Upper East Side. Catherine was a very complex individual who had many secrets in her life – including dating many men simultaneously and her night time profession as a stripper. Her days were filled with dance and voice classes, various part-time jobs (including one in a hair salon), and stripping at two different gentlemen’s clubs in Manhattan. She danced under the name “Ava.” Interestingly, she told her parents and many friends that she was dancing in an off-Broadway show as a character named “Ava.”

On one of her trips home to Columbus, Catherine met David Haughn, an unemployed, aspiring rapper. Soon after, David moved to New York City to live with Catherine. At the time of the murder, Catherine was seeing a few different men, but the two consuming most of her time were David, her then live-in ex-boyfriend, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Paul Cortez.

David Haughn

David grew up in several foster homes throughout the Columbus area. He dropped out of high school and was attempting a career as a rapper. After meeting Catherine, David followed her to New York City and moved in with her. Catherine paid most of his bills as he struggled with debt and bounced around from job to job. At the time of the murder, David was working as a doorman in a building around the corner from where they lived. Weeks before the murder, Catherine asked David to move out. She eventually allowed him to move back in and sleep on the sofa as she feared for his safety given his state of mind, financial struggles and drug use.

Paul Cortez

Paul Vincent Cortez was born on March 18, 1980.

Paul grew up in a rough, low-income neighborhood in the Bronx. From the time he was a child, he worked tirelessly on his academics and artistic pursuits hoping one day to be able to support his family and move them out of the Bronx. His early life was filled with family, friendships, mentors, hard work, academics, music, sports, theatre and art. Paul was always well liked by teachers and students. He dated many girls throughout his life without any problems. He never had any run-ins or problems with police.

Paul grew up with a family striving for the American dream. His family loves America and many family members serve in law enforcement and in our military. From his early childhood, his family looked at Paul as the carrier of their dreams. He was blessed with so many people who loved and supported him. Throughout each phase of his life, Paul had a large outpouring of people in his life who saw goodness and promise in him. He was always known as a gentle, nurturing and loving soul.

Paul’s hard work paid off very early on in life. In sixth grade, he gained a three-year academic scholarship to the very prestigious Buckley School. He made the 2 1⁄2 hour trek each way from the Bronx to his Upper East Side school by subway and bus beginning at 5:30 am. At the Buckley School, Paul excelled in academics and athletics. He was the captain of both the football and wrestling team.

At the Buckley School, Paul excelled in academics and athletics.

In 1995, Paul’s academic efforts paid off again as he earned another academic scholarship to an elite institute for his high school education. At Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, Paul left behind his sports interests to focus more intensely on his passion for the arts. Upon graduation from Poly Prep in 1998, Paul elected to defer his collegiate studies so that he could pursue his music career.

The following year, Paul accepted a scholarship to attend Boston University’s Theatre Arts Program, which only admits 40 students per year. As a student at BU, Paul starred in Amadeus at the Huntington Theatre, and performed in other popular performances such as Ahknaten at the Schubert Theatre and The Nutcracker Ballet at the Minnesota State Theatre.

Upon graduation from BU in 2002, Paul returned home to New York in hopes of chasing his musical and theatrical dreams. To support himself and pay off his student loans, Paul became certified as a physical trainer and worked at the New York Sports Club, and then later at Equinox Fitness Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At the time of his arrest in

December 2005, Paul was in the midst of auditions for the Broadway Show Rent, and was completing another solo musical album.

Paul & Catherine’s Relationship

Paul and Catherine met at New York Sports Club in 2004. From the very beginning, Paul was very aware of her complicated situation with David. Catherine spoke of David as her “ex”, and felt bad for David because he did not have a family or home.

Paul and Catherine started out as friends. They both lived extremely busy lives with lots of friends and career motivations – Paul was forming a band and Catherine was training in dance and singing while trying to get out of bad relationship with David.

From the get-go, Paul and Catherine spoke on the phone every day. They were seeing each other five to seven days each week. Catherine attended many of Paul’s musical performances and they visited the ballet together. Six weeks into their relationship, Paul and Catherine’s relationship changed and they became romantic with each other.

In April of 2005, Catherine was drugged at one of the strip clubs where she worked. She immediately phoned Paul for help. Paul raced to the club to provide aid. He was terrified for Catherine’s well-being so he called her father asking him to help. Catherine was upset with Paul for involving her father. When questioned by her father, Catherine told him that Paul was crazy and that she was not working as a stripper or involved in anything dangerous – Catherine’s father believed her. Following this incident, Catherine broke up with Paul and they did not speak for 3-4 weeks thereafter. They did, however, eventually reconcile and get back together. Paul had met David once when Paul came to visit Catherine at home. David did not know about Paul (but Paul knew about David). When David found out that Catherine was dating Paul, David became very upset that she had been misleading him about their relationship.

The Media Circus

In the immediate days following the murder, the police leaked erroneous information to the media relating to the Catherine Woods murder investigation. The murder stories littered the front pages of the New York Post, New York Daily News, and other tabloid-like newspapers, as well as mainstream television news outlets. The sensationalized media created the narrative of the Puerto Rican predator from the Bronx taking the life of the sweet, innocent girl from the Midwest. The media made it about race, Paul never did.

The stories cited anonymous police sources with reports of Paul’s confession letter, the existence of a surveillance video capturing Paul leaving the scene of the crime and other twisted stories – none of which were remotely true.

The stories steamrolled and new media sources piled on by citing the erroneous reports in the New York Post and New York Daily News as facts. CBS 48 Hours Mystery also added to the sensational storylines with two specials entitled “The Last Dance” and “Death of A Dream.” With the ensuing media frenzy, Paul and his family were followed and hounded by the media – they immediately became prisoners in their own homes. The media villainized and convicted Paul Cortez long before he ever set foot in the courtroom before the non-sequestered jury.

The Police Investigation

No one witnessed the crime. The murder weapon was never found. No surveillance video placed Paul at the scene of the crime. No one interviewed by the police saw Paul at the location, much less with blood dripping from his person. A clutch of hair with roots still attached was found entwined in the victim’s bloody fingers – that hair was dissimilar to that of Paul Cortez.

At least three of the hairs were light in color, like David Haughn’s (whose hair was never scientifically tested).

Haughn initially told police that he left the apartment 20 minutes prior to calling 911, placing him squarely inside the apartment at the time four disinterested civilian witnesses heard screams and cries from Catherine. Haughn, however, changed his timeline at trial to one that did not incriminate himself.

Although Paul would ultimately be charged and convicted for the murder, from the inception, Haughn, who immediately fingered Paul, was identified as the prime suspect. It was only when a latent print mistakenly believed to have been impressed in a matrix of blood transfer at the scene did not match Haughn that the focus shifted to Paul. From the beginning, Paul was cooperative with the police and voluntarily submitted his DNA, turned over his clothing, cell phone and other belongings, and allowed the free search of his apartment.

Paul was ultimately arrested and tried, based on circumstantial evidence consisting of the high-volume calling patterns between himself and Catherine, cell site records placing him on the Upper East Side near the time of the murder, and a witness’s assertion that Paul owned and was wearing shoes that were possibly consistent with the size and style of of the shoe’s outer sole left in blood near the victim’s body. The only physical evidence argued to be directly incriminating was the latent partial fingerprint matched to Paul that had been lifted from Catherine’s bedroom wall.

The police also seized thousands of pages of Paul’s diaries dating back to when he was ten years old. Those thousands of pages contained Paul’s deepest thoughts – and all the prosecutor came up with to use negatively against Paul were the lyrics to a song Paul co-wrote with his band member and childhood comic drawing of a Teenage Mutant Turtle holding a sword. Despite having every action in his life scrutinized, the police and prosecutor had to manipulate and fabricate information to serve their false narrative.

The police and prosecutor presented this manipulated narrative about Paul when questioning people from Paul’s past in attempts to pile on to the narrative. Years later, many witnesses spoken to by Paul’s current attorney recounted their harassment at the hands of law enforcement who tried to pressure them into corroborating the false narrative the police were perpetuating.

Dawn Florio & Laura Miranda

Along this fight for justice, it has been particularly frustrating that many people assume that since Paul had a college education in the arts, he should have been smart enough to know not to trust the police or to only speak with an attorney present. This notion, however, goes against what you learn as a kid – you should be able to run to the police for help. Sadly, the police exploited Paul in his moment of devastation. Paul did not realize that even when you are innocent, you should not allow yourself to be questioned by the police without an attorney present.

Once Paul was arrested, he was locked in Ryker’s Island prison for 18 months with only a few minutes each day to speak to his family and others. He had no access to legal resources. He was forced to rely on his uneducated family to find and retain an attorney with their limited finances. Paul naively assumed that if he told the truth, our legal system would eventually grant him his freedom.

Paul’s mother soon met with Dawn Florio, a neighborhood criminal attorney who floated her family connections to impress Paul’s mom and secure the business – Florio’s uncle James was the governor of New Jersey, and her aunt Anita was a Court of Appeal judge for the State of New York. Florio and her colleague, Laura Miranda, would represent Paul at trial. His family pooled together all of their life savings to hire defense counsel for Paul. Once retained, Paul only spoke to Florio and Miranda a few minutes each week leading up to trial.

It was later learned that Florio had an extremely checkered past with multiple arrests (none of which ever made it to trial). Also, while she was representing Paul, she was under simultaneous indictment by the same prosecutor’s office for smuggling drugs into a client at Ryker’s Island. The case against Florio received repeated adjournments and to this day, the court file remains “sealed.”

Paul’s trial attorneys did not show up for the first three days of trial – Laura Miranda was held in contempt of court and fined $1,000 for not showing up. When they finally did show up for the trial, it was painfully clear that Florio and Miranda had done insufficient preparation and were ill-prepared for trial. In fact, in the pre-trial court minutes, Miranda even admitted that she would not be prepared for trial.

Among the many fatal errors made by Florio and Miranda in representing Paul:

  • Florio and Miranda chose not to hire an investigator – something unheard of in a murder case. The Court even granted Paul funds to pay for investigators and experts – Florio and Miranda inexplicably did not use or draw upon any of those government funds in their representation of Paul.
  • They did not have any of DNA at the scene of the crime tested (skin under victim’s fingernails, several blonde hairs intertwined between victim’s fingers (Paul had dark hair), blood splatter pattern on the jeans of the victim’s live-in ex-boyfriend who was said to discover the body and a knife that was found in the sink with blood on it. Again, government funds were made available for such testing;
  • A fingerprint that was not visible to the naked eye was characterized by the prosecutor as having been left at the scene of the crime despite no expert support for such claim. Florio and Miranda fatally did not draw upon the government funds to hire a single expert to examine the “fingerprint.” Clearly, if Paul’s attorney would have consulted an expert, the expert would have deduced that the latent print was left prior to the murder on one of Paul’s many visits to the apartment to visit the victim;
  • Florio and Miranda did not hire anyone to reconstruct the crime scene;
  • Florio and Miranda did not hire a cell phone and cell tower expert to examine the call data;
  • Florio and Miranda did not call any witnesses other than character witnesses and Paul himself.

The Appeal

The New York state appeals process began for Paul in 2007 and took seven years for him to get a final judgment on June 21, 2014. The direct appeal only allows you to argue issues which occurred during pre-trial and trial proceedings, nothing more. Paul needed friends and family to find appellate attorneys to hire. More than $200,000 was spent on this seven-year direct appeal process.

On appeal, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that Dawn Florio and Laura Miranda representation of Paul Cortez was burdened by a conflict of interest – given the simultaneous indictment by the same prosecutor’s office. The appellate court also ruled that the prosecutor overstepped his bounds by giving his opinion about the “bloody fingerprint” without actually having an expert support his assertions that the print could only have been left at the time of the crime.

The Court, however, found that these errors amounted to harmless error without expanding the trial record to show that the conflict of interest weighed on their representation of Paul.

So, as next step in the seemingly endless and expensive legal process, Paul’s post-trial attorney filed a 440 motion to expand the original trial record to include new evidence and forensic expert findings. Meanwhile up to this point Paul had already been in prison for eleven years for a crime he did not commit.

The Smoking Gun & Other New Evidence

At this point, after losing direct appeal, must hire new attorneys, re-investigate crime 10+ years later, hire experts that cost $10k-$20k, all from prison cell depending on others.

In the immediate aftermath after the murder, law enforcement obtained video from several surveillance cameras that captured individuals in the immediate vicinity of Catherine’s apartment. For a brief period of time, law enforcement erroneously believed that Paul’s image was captured fleeing the location of the homicide. This faulty information was reported by several news outlets and communicated to several witnesses by the prosecutor. By the time of the trial, however, the prosecution had conceded that Paul’s image was not on any of the surveillance footage. That surveillance video, to the detriment of Paul, would play little role at trial.

One of the surveillance videos obtained by law enforcement was from a camera adjacent to the entrance of Catherine’s apartment. Ten years later, Paul’s current attorney finally received a copy of that video (included in countless boxes of case-related materials previously in the possession of Dawn Florio and Laura Miranda).

Upon review of this surveillance video, alternate suspect David Haughn is clearly depicted leaving the scene at 6:37 pm after the time of Catherine’s murder. This evidence breakthrough unquestionably contradicts Haughn’s trial testimony and places him at the scene of the crime during the crime. Further, the prosecutor’s theory on the timeline is unquestionably wrong. Did Dawn Florio, Laura Miranda and the prosecution not watch this surveillance video or did they choose to keep it from the trial? They each had possession of this verified, timestamped surveillance footage. Shockingly, the prosecutor actually presented an earlier time sequence from this same surveillance video to show David and Catherine walking the dog earlier in the evening.

The 440 motion also included numerous reports from forensic experts. Most importantly, four different leading fingerprint experts all provided affidavits and scientific analysis to demonstrate that the “bloody fingerprint” was a pre-existing print subsequently covered at the time of the crime. The expert reports also show that there also existed a separate partial fingerprint on the crime scene wall that was never identified or introduced at the trial (by either side).

A cell phone expert also provided analysis to show that only 3 phone calls between Paul and Catherine actually connected on the day of the murder – thus, undermining the prosecutor’s narrative about the continuous, jealous rage phone calls from Paul to Catherine on the day of the murder.

Also, after the trial, CBS 48 Hours Mystery reported that it had interviewed the witness who purported to identify Paul’s footwear at trial. In a portion of the CBS interview that did not make it to air, this witness told CBS that he he had no recollection of Paul’s footwear that evening, especially since they were in a dark bar. Somehow, several months later, this witness’s recollection inexplicably became clearer and he definitively testified on the specifics of Paul’s footwear. Interestingly, this witness moved out of the country after the trial.

The 440 motion detailed numerous other deficiencies in the case against Paul and the mind boggling, conflicted defense put forward by Dawn Florio and Laura Miranda.

Where the Case Stands

On August 3, 2017, Paul’s 440 motion was denied by Judge Patricia Nunez in the 1st Department of the Supreme Court of New York. The judge’s rationale for the denial was illogical as she explained that the “smoking gun” video of David Haughn leaving the crime scene after the murder had little value because it was not timestamped and could have been from a time before the murder. This statement is especially disturbing since the video was indisputably timestamped – the prosecutor even conceded it was David in the video and that it was timestamped.

Next the judge minimized the forensic findings of six experts concluding the print was under the blood. The judge wrote that Paul had been in the apartment many times and it could be very likely have been an old print was later covered in blood (and consistent with the expert findings). While the judge’s theory is correct, the prosecutor’s entire case was premised on the print being left at the scene of the crime. Without a print left at the time of the crime, there is no case against Paul Cortez.

Further, the judge erroneously stated that many of Paul’s arguments were procedurally barred as this was his second 440.10 motion, and these arguments needed to be included in that initial motion. Paul had never filed a previous 440.10 motion. He had, however, filed a 440.30 motion (requesting the ability to DNA test the hairs and other evidence) – but that denied motion has no procedural bar on the latest motion.

So, with a 440 decision rife with confusion and errors, Paul filed federal habeas corpus in 2019. To date, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York has not ruled on the habeas corpus filing.