Home>In Memoriam>Priscilla Read Chenoweth, New Jersey civil rights leader, dies at 90

Priscilla Read Chenoweth.

Priscilla Read Chenoweth, New Jersey civil rights leader, dies at 90

Former CORE leader, deputy attorney general worked pro bono to help exonerate a Union City man wrongfully convicted of murder

By David Wildstein, March 02 2021 10:19 pm

Priscilla Read Chenoweth, a racial justice and civil rights advocate and former editor of the New Jersey Law Journal, died on February 16.  She was 90.

Chenoweth helped found a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) after moving to Metuchen in the early 1960s and was the vice president of the Middlesex-Union CORE.

In October 1963, Chenoweth organized a March on Trenton that was led by Bayard Rustin and James Farmer.  She raised money and coordinated rallies to help CORE field representatives registering Black voters in the South.

She was appointed chair of the Middlesex County Equal Opportunity Commission in 1965 and played a key role in funding an anti-poverty program in the county.

Chenoweth graduated from Rutgers Newark Law School in 1968, at age 38.

From 1968 to 1970, she served as a New Jersey Deputy Attorney General while Arthur Sills, a powerful Middlesex Democratic insider and former law partner of David Wilentz, was the attorney general.

In 1974, Chenoweth began a 29-year career at the New Jersey Law Journal, rising to the post of managing editor and chief case digest editor.

During her time at the Law Journal, Chenoweth worked as a pro bono attorney on social justice cases.  She spent seven years helping to exonerate a Union City man, Luis Kevin Rojas, who was an 18-year-old high school student when he was charged with murder in New York City in 1990.

Chenoweth used $50,000 of her own money to hire investigators and found a PATH police officer who identified Rojas as being in the train station at the time of the shooting

She alleged that Rojas’s public defender, David Fronefield, had spent just 30 minutes with his client before convincing him to accept a plea deal.

Chenoweth argued there was no physical evidence linking Rojas to the murder – he was found carrying a .22 caliber bullet, not the .32 caliber used in the shooting – and eyewitness misidentification.  Rojas served five years in prison before his acquittal in 1998.

Rojas later sued New York City and repaid Chenoweth her $50,000 investment after being awarded $550,000.

“Do not be deceived by Priscilla Read Chenoweth’s sweet manner, the dust on her resume, the spectacles on her nose or her matronly appearance. Do not dismiss this 68-year-old widow as some kind of amateur Angela Lansbury with a law degree,” the New York Times wrote in a front page story.  “That is what prosecutors did seven years ago, Mrs. Chenoweth believes, when she decided to try to save a stranger who she believed had been wrongly convicted of murder.”

Chenoweth had lived in Maryland since her retirement from the Law Journal in 2003.  She is survived by her children and grandchildren.

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