Jim Crow Justice
The frame-up of Corey Walker and the attempt to remove his lawyer
“[The accused] was essentially convicted the day he was arrested, and his trial is only a formality. The dumb and desperate cops trumped up the charges and fabricated the evidence. The prosecutor knows this…The judge is asleep…The jurors are wide-eyed at the process and ever so anxious to believe the lies their proud authorities are producing on the witness stand…It’s just as well that we don’t believe in fair trials because we damned sure don’t have them. The presumption of innocence is now the presumption of guilt. The burden of proof is a travesty because the proof is often lies.” —John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer (2015)
A SWAT team raided Corey Walker’s home in July 1996, and arrested him on a 1995 frame-up murder charge from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has been behind bars ever since. Evidence of his innocence was withheld. He is the victim of prosecutorial misconduct and incompetent legal representation. And now the state is trying to deny him the attorney of his choice, Rachel Wolkenstein, who has defended Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Corey Walker is flesh and blood, not a statistic. He is son, father, brother and lifelong companion. He cries out for freedom and justice and tries to keep body and soul together under excruciating conditions. Imagine if you, like Corey, had spent every long, dreadful day of the past 19 years locked up in a Pennsylvania prison cell, knowing you are innocent. Knowing you were framed up for a murder you did not commit, could not have committed. Hoping every day for a chance to prove it, hoping people would listen. You see your most fundamental rights denied to cover up the lies, the cop and prosecutorial violations that resulted in your frame-up conviction. And now they are even trying to deny you the legal representation of your choice. You know that if the cops and prosecutors have their way, you will spend what is left of your life in prison without parole—shut away till death from your loving, anguished family and the full life that should have been yours. Corey Walker is the tormented human face of racist mass incarceration in the U.S.
We all know the statistics. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—2.3 million women and men languish in U.S. prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years—60 percent are members of racial and ethnic minorities. One-out-of-three Black men spend part of his life in U.S. prisons and jails. We know about the myriad ways the brutality of the prison system devastates Black lives and families even after release—the felony disenfranchisement and the systematic persecution in everything from housing to employment. Not since the days of the infamous post-slavery convict labor system in the Deep South has there been this kind of machine of grinding racist oppression. In her best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander calls modern mass incarceration, the “New Jim Crow.”
Now in the U.S. we are having yet another “conversation” about race—and the connection to police brutality and mass incarceration. It seems key sectors of the ruling class are coming to the conclusion that the prisons are too overcrowded and expensive. Both capitalist parties are talking about reform of the policies that led the U.S. to be “No. 1” in imprisonment. President Obama gives speeches, visits prisons, and proposes cosmetic reforms. We hear about the excesses of mandatory minimum sentencing and disproportionate sentencing policy that account for the current conditions of prison expansion. There’s even some mention of the intensified and concerted racist policies spearheaded by the ruthless “war on drugs” and “war on crime.”
What we hear less about is the war run by cops and prosecutors that fakes evidence and coerces witnesses to convict so many young Black men. And when the cops and prosecutors are caught out, they double down and cover up their racist criminality. Corey Walker was one of those men ensnared in that dual “war” on crime and drugs. And the Pennsylvania judicial system will apparently do anything to stop Walker’s appeal from exposing their dirty game.
Corey Walker was swept up in the mass incarceration net. When he was 15-years-old he started dealing in crack cocaine which dominated economic life on the ghetto streets in Yonkers, New York in the ’80s and ’90s. He has never denied that he was a dealer, noting that, “I cannot deny I wasn’t good at it…. I don’t claim to be an angel.” Yet until the frame-up he was never involved in or charged with a crime of violence or weapons possession. When he left Yonkers to sell drugs in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the cops arrested him and his friend Lorenzo Johnson—not for drug dealing, but for the December 1995 murder of Tarajay Williams. They were arrested months after the murder. Corey was at a bar at the time of the murder and plenty of witnesses would attest to that fact. Lorenzo Johnson wasn’t even in Harrisburg. He was in New York.
The phony murder charges appear to have been part of the state’s strategy to force Walker and Johnson to implicate others. The cops were particularly interested in throwing a wider net around dealers who had come into Pennsylvania from New York. The Harrisburg police and County Drug Task Force called them “New York n----rs.” But Corey and Lorenzo knew they were innocent, so they rejected plea deals and went to trial in 1997. They did not expect that the prosecutor would coerce false testimony from snitches and petty criminals who were promised leniency for their manufactured testimony. It’s taken almost 20 years for Walker and Johnson to learn about the evidence the prosecution withheld that showed they were innocent. Corey’s ineffective lawyer did not even talk to the witnesses at the bar who could have testified to Corey’s whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Gross prosecutorial misconduct
The prosecutors offered up an unbelievable circumstantial case: no eyewitnesses to the shotgun killing, no blood evidence, no fingerprints, no investigation of more likely suspects who were at the scene of the murder; nothing but lying testimony under the coercive influence of the cops and prosecutors. This was the mid-1990s. It was “tough on crime” time, “get ’em off the streets” and into prison time. So in two days in March 1997, with a predominantly white jury, Walker and Johnson were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Years after his conviction, Lorenzo Johnson learned how to file his own pro se legal papers and then found legal help to pursue a habeas corpus action in federal court. In 2011, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his conviction on the grounds of insufficient evidence. He went home for four-and-a-half months, got a construction job, and spoke out against judicial wrongdoing. But the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office petitioned the politically motivated U.S. Supreme Court. The Supremes ruled unanimously with the prosecution to reinstate Johnson’s conviction; they sent him back to prison. The Supreme Court decision Coleman v. Johnson (2012) is now the legal precedent for rejecting appeals based on insufficiency of evidence from state prisoners throughout the country. Johnson, along with Corey Walker, continues to fight for justice for himself and others ensnared in the Jim Crow system.
Walker and all prisoners appealing wrongful convictions—particularly those condemned on death row—are victims of the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the culmination of “war on crime” legislation. Signed into law by “law-and-order” Democrat Bill Clinton, the AEDPA gutted federal habeas corpus appeals. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal recourse going back to English common law and included in the U.S. Constitution permitting a challenge before a court of a person’s detention as unlawful. The AEDPA, particularly given the Supreme Court’s punitive interpretation of it, has sharply narrowed this constitutional protection, permitting only one habeas appeal and requiring for success proof that a conviction was contrary to “clearly established federal law” or based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence.” In the words of Ninth District federal appeals judge Stephen Reinhardt, “constitutional rulings by state courts” are “nearly unreviewable by the federal judiciary.” In a law review article Reinhardt wrote that habeas corpus “has been transformed over the past two decades from a vital guarantor of liberty into an instrument for ratifying the power of state courts to disregard the protections of the Constitution” (New Yorker, June 21, 2015).
Actual innocence no defense in Jim Crow legal system
Now there is more evidence of the innocence of Lorenzo Johnson and Corey Walker, and stunning proof of grievous misconduct by police and prosecutors. Vital new information in the case is being brought to light through the state post-conviction relief appeals (PCRA) process. Corey tried to get his lawyers to investigate some of this years ago but they neglected to do so. New witness statements, disclosed police records and the trial record itself lay bare the suppression of evidence of innocence and cop/prosecutorial coercion and corruption.
The state had no credible case to begin with: Without an eyewitness or physical evidence, the prosecution relied on two low-level dealer/addicts who testified as to motive and opportunity. It turns out that these witnesses were coerced to manufacture testimony. The main witness, Carla Brown, was a suspect in the murder, and she was worked over by detectives for months until she told the story the prosecution wanted to hear. Her transcribed pre-trial interview contradicted her trial testimony, so the state simply suppressed it.
The motive witness, Victoria Doubs, was promised a lighter sentence in an unrelated robbery charge in exchange for her false testimony. Ten days after the conviction of Walker and Johnson, she got probation rather than the five-year mandatory prison sentence for the robbery. Yet in his trial summation to the jury, Deputy Attorney General Christopher Abruzzo vouched for these coerced witnesses saying they had no reason to lie.
Although the prosecution claimed otherwise, there were identifiable fingerprints at the murder scene, but they hid this evidence from the defense. After the murder, witnesses identified other men on the street with the victim, but the detectives didn’t investigate these leads. The first detective assigned to the case was the father of Corey Walker’s girlfriend; he was furious that Walker was with his daughter. The lead detective who brought the case against Walker and Johnson maintained a close family relationship with the motive witness and acted as her “protector” on the streets.
The prosecution concealed abundant evidence of Walker’s innocence from the defense in violation of legally established “Brady rules” that stipulate that the prosecution must turn over all evidence favorable to the defense. Having gotten a conviction by suppressing exculpatory evidence during the trial, the prosecutors will try to rely on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, 3rd Judicial Dist. vs. Osborn (2009), to uphold their continued suppression in post-conviction hearings. As few rights as accused have for their trial, they have even fewer post-conviction.
Prosecutors hiding exculpatory evidence from the defense (thus violating Brady rules) is standard operating procedure throughout the court system, not only in this case. Even the New York Times (January 4, 2014) editorialized against this widespread prosecutorial misconduct. The Times quoted Chief Judge Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who declared that “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land,” citing dozens of examples. The Times editorial commented, “Those are surely the tip of the iceberg. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 43 percent of wrongful convictions are the result of official misconduct.” The editorial notes the systematic failure to punish such misconduct:
“…prosecutors are virtually never punished for misconduct. According to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, multiple studies over the past 50 years show that courts punished prosecutorial misconduct in less than two percent of cases where it occurred. And that rarely amounted to more than a slap on the wrist, such as making the prosecutor pay for the cost of the disciplinary hearing.”
The liberal newspaper calls upon the courts to “stop it.” Don’t bet on it. In Brooklyn the District Attorney is investigating 70 cases out of 90 brought by one detective, Louis Scarcella. So far, six have been overturned. These convictions were based on police misconduct and lack of reliable evidence. This is a small example of the prevalence of misconduct in getting convictions in the state and federal courts. Neither the courts nor prosecutors can stop this misconduct because they, along with the cops, and their prisons, are part of the same frame-up system.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General promised to examine the new evidence in Johnson’s case back in December 2013, but a year later filed a lengthy answer unequivocally defending the cop/prosecutor frame-up. In December 2014 in response to Johnson’s claim, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, made it clear her main objection was the threat of exposure. What she found “most disturbing” in the appeals was that Johnson “has recklessly unleashed the hounds of defamatory hell, publically accusing and branding the career prosecutors and career police detective…as corrupt and malevolent.”
No lawyer for you
Because the post-conviction appeals assert police and prosecutorial misconduct, the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General has retaliated against Walker and his lawyer. Vengeance shall be mine, says the OAG. Corey Walker’s case exposes the racist mechanisms of the new Jim Crow justice system. Such exposure and publicity represent a big problem, particularly in Pennsylvania, where authorities are well-known for their relentless legal efforts —even up to the U.S. Supreme Court—to cover up the routine police and prosecutorial lying and manufacture of evidence, coercion of witnesses, and suppression of evidence of innocence.
That requires silencing Corey Walker and short-circuiting his legal appeal. As a crucial part of this strategy, the prosecution is seeking to deny him the lawyer of his choice. The last thing the OAG wants is a vigorous legal defense and publicity of the Walker case that will further reveal their criminal behavior. Thus the Corey Walker case now yields the unconstitutional political witch-hunt of Corey Walker’s pro bono attorney, Rachel Wolkenstein. First they framed him up, then they act to silence him and his attorney in an attempt to stop the further exposure of the frame-up that led to his conviction.
Rachel Wolkenstein came to the Walker case through her advocacy, support and legal assistance for Lorenzo Johnson. Wolkenstein is an attorney admitted to practice law in New York State since 1974 and a member of the United States Supreme Court bar since 1985. On the motion of Philadelphia criminal trial and appeal lawyer J. Michael Farrell, Esq., she was admitted pro hac vice by Judge Todd A. Hoover on September 19, 2014 to represent Corey Walker. Pro hac vice (Latin for “on this occasion”) is a generally accepted way for an out-of-state attorney to represent a client in a particular case.
Beginning in May 2014 Wolkenstein began assisting Walker, Johnson’s co-defendant, with investigation and his pro se post-conviction legal appeals. Walker’s new filings were based not only on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. The appeals to overturn his conviction made a forceful case that Walker is completely innocent, that his conviction was a deliberate frame-up by the police and OAG. Only a few weeks after Wolkenstein was admitted pro hac vice and formally became Walker’s lawyer, the attorney general’s office retaliated by asking the judge to deny Walker’s right to have her as his lawyer. On February 9, 2016 the evidentiary hearing concluded after the Attorney General’s office presented only one witness, Lorenzo Johnson’s lawyer Michael Wiseman, whose testimony supported that both Lorenzo Johnson and Corey Walker declared their innocence and that the state had suppressed significant favorable evidence at their 1997 trial.
Judge Lawrence Clark, who made numerous remarks during the hearing indicating his opposition to the basic right of Corey Walker to have the lawyer of his choice, ordered legal briefs to be filed 45 days after the transcript of the proceeding is received. Meanwhile, the OAG has not bothered to file a response on the substantive challenge to the frame-up conviction of Walker.
Corey Walker has made it clear that he wants attorney Wolkenstein to represent him in his appeal. In his brief autobiographical statement about the case (“A Call for Justice,”) Corey has written about the difficult hurdles he faces in his fight for freedom and exoneration, but notes hopefully: “I have the help of a lawyer, Rachel Wolkenstein, who believes in my innocence and knows my case inside and out.” The OAG intends to crush Corey’s hopes and to cover up its own malfeasance.
It is not surprising that the OAG wants to banish Rachel Wolkenstein from the courtroom. She has fought for the oppressed and for civil rights for 40 years. The Pennsylvania authorities are acutely aware of her well-known and groundbreaking work in defense of class war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. From 1975 to 2010, Wolkenstein was staff counsel for the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC), the legal defense organization founded on the principles of class struggle that initiated the first international campaigns in defense of Mumia. She was co-counsel for Mumia in his post-conviction appeal proceedings (PCRA) from 1995 to 1999. She was instrumental in discovering and bringing to light evidence that proved Mumia was innocent. And she has continued to fight for Mumia, unabashedly pointing to the thoroughgoing police corruption at the center of the frame-up against him.
Lawyer denounces racist, class-biased system
In August 1995, less than three weeks before Mumia’s date of execution, the racist hanging judge Albert Sabo had Wolkenstein dragged out of the courtroom in handcuffs and jailed. Why? Because she insisted that she be allowed to introduce evidence of racial disparities in the jury selection and in the implementation of the death penalty. That’s the nub of the problem for the OAG. Wolkenstein has forcefully denounced the inherently racist and class-biased character of the U.S. justice system.
Even those who get their understanding of the court system from TV shows like The Good Wife or John Grisham novels know it is biased against the poor, Blacks and Latinos swept up in the net of state coercion. But heaven help the lawyer, that “officer of the court,” who utters aloud such descriptive statements of reality. The no-clothes emperors of capitalist class “justice” will not have it. They will not allow their naked racism to be acknowledged for all to see. And the blindfolded lady with the scales? She doesn’t exist. In voir dire jury selection judges regularly ask prospective jurors, “Can you be fair?” They never ask if the criminal justice system can be fair.
The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General has made it clear that it is Wolkenstein’s openly expressed left-wing political views and her legal public defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal that make her representation of Walker “intolerable.” The AG’s “Motion to Vacate Order Admitting Rachel Wolkenstein to represent Corey Walker pro hac vice” listed a number of patently phony “irregularities” of professional conduct before getting to the heart of the objections: Wolkenstein’s “contempt” in Judge Sabo’s courtroom and her “intolerable” politics:
“Ms. Wolkenstein’s prior public statements and conduct reflect a disdain and repudiation of the authority, integrity, and legitimacy of the courts and the established criminal justice system, and Ms. Wolkenstein has publically communicated her conviction that the judicial system is an organ of oppression of racism controlled by, and subservient to, elite capitalists that must be overborne through a socialist revolution.”
So socialists cannot practice law in Pennsylvania? It brings to mind Gandhi’s famous quip when asked what he thought of Western Civilization after a visit to Europe: “I think it would be a good idea.” So also for the integrity and color-blindness of the capitalist courts. In fact, the racist and class nature of the “justice system” is at the heart of the persecution of Corey Walker, and an understanding of that is key to mounting a vigorous defense for him. And as a simple matter of law, Wolkenstein’s political views should be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. All lawyers and their clients should be very, very afraid of such political tests.
The attempt to bar Rachel Wolkenstein from representing Walker pro hac vice is a transparent and unconstitutional ploy. Eminent Professor Geoffrey Hazard, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, Hastings College of Law, University of California and Yale University provided a July 1, 2015 Opinion Letter, incorporated into Petitioner Corey Walker’s Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition filed on July 7, 2016, stating in part:
“In summary, in my opinion the situation does not justify termination of your pro hac vice admission.…The situation as a whole illustrates the importance of pro hac vice representation in prisoner cases. In my opinion, there is a corresponding need to avoid over-strict application of rules of professional conduct. No part of your conduct involved the core principles of professional ethics, which are maintenance of loyalty and confidentiality and, in litigation, zealous representation.”
Professor Hazard added knowingly: “I can well understand that the AG would not like having to deal with your representation of Mr. Walker, but that is not a basis for revoking your pro hac vice admission.” It’s not hard to understand why the OAG fears zealous representation. And no one understands the stakes better than the prisoner himself. Corey Walker responded to the OAG motion to disqualify his attorney:
“I am outraged that my attorney Rachel Wolkenstein’s integrity is being questioned by the AG. I’m an innocent man who’s sentenced to life in prison because the prosecution and police manufactured false evidence. That in itself tells you whose integrity should be questioned. Yes, the police and prosecution!”
Professor Hazzard’s letter highlights the OAG’s very real fear that Wolkenstein will provide her client with a vigorous defense that will expose their misconduct, perhaps even criminal misconduct. Her defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal buttresses this, revealing the racist injustice that undergirds the lies and frame-up. Although Mumia was targeted for his political views and Corey Walker is not political, just someone caught up in the “drug wars,” police corruption and the Pennsylvania frame-up justice system lies at the heart of both cases.
During the infamous McCarthy anti-red witchhunts of the 1950s, the government rounded up suspects based on the books in their libraries, dragged them through the suffocating mud of star-chamber court proceedings, and then often arrested their lawyers. It was dangerous work to legally represent those accused of the sin of communism during that period of anti-communist hysteria. But there was a certain perverse logic in the practice of threatening and terrorizing the lawyers of the victims. The vulnerable were made even more vulnerable, less able to assert their constitutional rights, and silenced in the court of public opinion.
Many now look back on that period with shame and regret, although liberals played a key role in it just as much as the Joe McCarthy reactionaries. But for the pillars of the criminal justice system, the edifice of injustice is still intact. That system targets lawyers such as Lynne Stewart, defender of the poor and marginalized, sentencing her to ten years in prison on phony charges in a government vendetta for representing the “blind sheik” accused of terrorism. And applying that logic to Rachel Wolkenstein, they seek to nail down the frame-up of Corey Walker.
Yes, we all know the statistics. But behind those statistics are living men and women whose Black lives matter. Corey Walker’s life matters. Lorenzo Johnson’s life matters. Corey and Lorenzo are what the mass incarceration looks like in the flesh: two actually innocent men behind bars for 19 years, their lives wasted in pain and prison torture, their families tormented, and yet they keep on fighting because they are innocent and need our help.
I am a man
We must insist on the humanity of our brothers and sisters in prison. Against the grain of U.S. racist history, we must demand that those Black people are entitled to democratic rights. The legacy of slavery carried forward through the brutal machinery of the capitalist state denies that humanity. The simple assertion of African American humanity has deep political resonance. That is why the Memphis sanitation workers, in 1968, carried the now iconic poster, “I AM A MAN.” Why the Attica prison rebels proclaimed, “We are men, not beasts.”
The fight for Corey Walker’s day in court with the counsel of his choice, Rachel Wolkenstein, to provide a vigorous legal defense for his freedom and for justice, is a fight for all of us. But we cannot rely on the capitalist legal system that has racism embedded in its pores and sinews. It will take nothing less than a mobilization of working class power and the oppressed to confront the machinery of the capitalist state that has locked up Corey Walker and so many other innocent men and women.
But we have the truth on our side, and when Corey walks out of that awful prison a free man at last, it will be an important victory for all of those locked away under the U.S. racist policy of mass incarceration.
Charles Brover was Co-chariman of the Partisan Defense Committee from its founding in 1973 to 1995 as it built the international campaign to save Mumia Abu-Jamal. Co-author and editor of the video, “From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal” (1990).
—Free Corey Walker, February 7, 2016