Incarceration Nation

Conviction to Convict

By Linn Washington, Jr.

Part I: The scandal hidden inside Pennsylvania sex scandal

Hidden inside the scandal involving pornographic emails currently rocking the top reaches of Pennsylvania’s state government that has cast a shadow over PA Governor Tom Corbett and the state’s judiciary including a state Supreme Court member, is another explosive scandal.

That hidden scandal involves the persecution of a PA inmate by prosecutors from the PA Attorney General’s office—the same office that exposed the pornographic emails.

This inmate won court ordered release from a deeply flawed murder conviction after serving 16-years of a life sentence. But this inmate was forced to return to prison due to actions by PA’s current Attorney General.

PA Governor Corbett headed the state AG’s office when that office handled this inmate’s tainted murder trial. Corbett later served as AG when that office vigorously opposed appellate relief for this inmate.

This hidden scandal exposes the pattern of PA state government officials blithely tolerating outrageously unjust criminal convictions. This hidden scandal also exposes the penchant of prosecutors to fight to preserve convictions obviously tainted by official misconduct.

Too many false convictions in PA and elsewhere involve documented misconduct by police and/or prosecutors—misconduct often covered-up for decades. This misconduct includes authorities improperly withholding evidence of innocence at trial—a gross violation of constitutional fair-trial rights. Withheld evidence is a core issue in the case of that persecuted PA inmate.

The sex-tinged scandal now rocking state government in Pennsylvania involves emails containing sexually explicit images (often accompanied by raunchy commentary) exchanged over state-owned computers by then ranking members of the state’s Attorney Generals office.

Conservative Republican Governor Corbett headed the AG’s office when his ranking AG office members engaged in eager exchanges of those pornographic emails. (No evidence released to date links Corbett to pornographic emails.)

Fallout from this sex email scandal has forced the resignation of former AG office prosecutors, including a few who held top posts in Corbett’s gubernatorial administration.

Those resignations included one man who Corbett appointed to the state’s Parole Board—the body that determines prison release for inmates including those convicted of sex crimes. One former AG prosecutor, who was serving as a part-time county prosecutor, has resigned. And another former AG prosecutor resigned from the upscale law firm where he worked. However, another former AG prosecutor identified in the sex email scandal, who currently works for the DA’s Office in Philadelphia, has refused to resign.

The man Corbett appointed to head the PA State Police—Frank Noonan—was identified as receiving 300-plus of those pornographic emails. But Corbett accepted representations from Noonan, a former AG criminal division chief turned PA’s top cop, that Noonan neither opened nor forwarded pornographic emails. Yet, as a Philadelphia Daily News columnist noted, “Noonan apparently also never told Corbett he received” the explicit emails.

A spin-off of the investigation into misuse of state computers to exchange pornography revealed that PA Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCafferty sent sexually explicit emails this year to his brother, a judge in Philadelphia, according to published reports. AG investigators have informed the high court’s Chief Justice that other judges and court personnel have shared graphic emails.

The scandal hidden within this porno email scandal involves the man Corbett appointed to head the state’s Department of Environmental Protection—Chris Abruzzo—who resigned from that post after his public identification as a participant in the email scandal. (A top Abruzzo aide at the DEP—who was also in the AG’s office—also resigned due to the email scandal.)

The scandal involving Abruzzo does not involve the scandalous elevation of this career criminal prosecutor with scant qualifications in environmental protection.

Abruzzo had caused a brief stir on the eve of his confirmation to head the DEP when he testified that he was unaware that climate change can cause environmental harm. Abruzzo’s stated ignorance on an issue fundamental to environmental protection did not stop PA’s Republican controlled State Senate from approving Abruzzo, who had served as Corbett’s deputy chief of staff.

This other scandal surrounding Abruzzo involves his role as lead prosecutor in the controversial 1997 murder conviction of Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson. The state AG’s office, during Corbett’s first service as state AG, handled the prosecution of Johnson and a co-defendant for a 1995 murder in Harrisburg, the capital city of Pennsylvania. No physical evidence or confession connected Johnson to that murder.

Documentation withheld by PA authorities during Johnson’s murder trial confirm Johnson’s alibi. Once suppressed documentation has confirmed that police coerced witnesses including the only witness who said Johnson was near the murder scene. Prosecutors never claimed Johnson was the killer only that he was present when the killing occurred.

Johnson has persistently claimed he was in New York City at the time of that 1995 fatal shooting. Supporters of Johnson claim he was arrested only after he rejected months-long police pressure to be an informant about drug dealing in Harrisburg.

The PA AG’s office constantly battled against Johnson’s appeals in state and federal courts despite the mounting (previously withheld) evidence of misconduct by police before Johnson’s trial and prosecutors during his murder trial. Abruzzo failed to disclose a plea deal favorable to a witness against Johnson according to withheld evidence now included in Johnson’s appeals.

In October 2011 the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Johnson’s conviction, stating in part that the “evidence simply does not permit any reasonable fact finder to find Johnson guilty on charges of aiding and abetting first degree murder.”

Johnson left prison on bond in January 2012. He returned to his family in New York City, got a job and even engaged in public speaking about wrongful convictions including at law school classes.

But a last minute appeal by PA AG’s office to the U.S. Supreme Court produced a reversal of that Third Circuit release. That U.S. Supreme Court ruling came without the standard procedure of permitting response from the defense before and after that ruling.

Current PA AG Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has pursued the anti-Johnson/keep-a-conviction stance of her Republican AG predecessors, Corbett and Mike Fisher, who is now a judge on the federal Third Circuit Appeals Court. Kane is the AG who released information about the pornographic emails involving Corbett associates and PA state court judges.

That May 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced Johnson’s return to prison in June 2012—after Johnson had experienced six months of freedom. Johnson continues his appeals to confirm his innocence and win release.

A year after Johnson’s voluntary return to prison in 2012, the PA Innocence Project issued a statement condemning his re-imprisonment that concluded with the observation that “this tale of cruel tease of freedom is a heartbreak many would be unable to fathom.”

Lorenzo Johnson is not exclusive in mistreatment from police, prosecutors and the judiciary.

A little known death-row case Corbett’s AG office fought also spotlights the defend-the-indefensible stance prosecutors too often pursue.

The AG’s office has opposed new trial appeals from inmate Roderick Johnson who challenges his conviction by using previously withheld official documents showing that police and prosecutors in Reading, PA coddled the drug dealer whose testimony secured Johnson’s first-degree murder conviction. (Rod Johnson and Lorenzo Johnson are not related.)

Those Reading Police Department documents, improperly withheld by Reading police and prosecutors for nearly a decade, describe the drug dealer central to Johnson’s conviction as smoking marijuana with a Reading detective. Documents detail that detective supplying that dealer with drugs. Documents also detail Reading detectives returning that dealer’s stolen safe despite it containing crack cocaine, cash and guns. Additionally, documents reveal Reading’s then top prosecutor allowing that dealer to keep his gun permit, despite that dealer’s guns being involved in numerous shooting incidents…incidents that never led to that dealer’s arrest.

The disturbing documents unearthed in the Rod Johnson case provide amble evidence of improprieties by police and prosecutors. Those documents should have at least led state authorities to agree to a new trial—thus fulfilling their duties to ensure justice. But the state AG’s office that prosecuted Rod Johnson has battled to block appeals for a new trial under Corbett and now Kane.

In Pennsylvania, too many state officials see sideshows like the sex emails as more important than injustices endured by inmates like Lorenzo Johnson, Roderick Johnson and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The same Republican dominated state legislature that has turned a blind-eye to resource draining efforts by the state AG’s office to deny justice to the imprisoned recently approved a measure to allow prosecutors to use lawsuits to silence Free Speech rights of inmates that crime victims deem as causing those victims “mental anguish.”

The ACLU has condemned this hastily approved legislation as a blatant violation of First Amendment rights.

Part II: The PA legislative
lynch mob

The serious injustice endured by Pennsylvania prison inmate Lorenzo “Cat” Johnson, detailed in Part I (above) is the subject of a website and numerous other postings on the Internet. Those Internet postings detail gross misconduct by police and prosecutors that have kept Johnson imprisoned for a murder that evidence indicates he neither committed nor had anything to do with.

Those websites supporting Johnson’s release, which contain documents and other evidence detailing Johnson’s wrongful conviction, are in danger of being wiped under terms of legislation recently approved by Pennsylvania’s Republican-dominated House and Senate.

That legislation, fast-tracked through the legislature in an election-timed attempt to boost the hugely unpopular Republican Governor Corbett’s flagging re-election bid, allows victims of crime to go to court for an injunction against the conduct of convicts “which perpetuates the continuing effects of the crime on the victim.” This new law applies to all convicts: those currently incarcerated and even those who have completed their sentences.

This law gives prosecutors (state and country) the power to act on behalf of victims who simply claim they are suffering “mental anguish.”

In the case of Lorenzo Johnson, the state AG’s office whose misconduct perpetuates his unjust incarceration is empowered under this new law to silence the websites that detail the misconduct of AG office prosecutors.

Pennsylvania’s new free-speech suppression law was signed into law by Corbett. “Nobody has the right to continually taunt the victims of their violent crimes,” he says.

However, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has blasted this bill, noting that it “completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech” found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

While this hastily conceived and passed bill gives unusual new powers to victims and prosecutors to limit the voice and activities of the incarcerated and those who have completed their prison terms, the bill’s stunning lack of specifics creates further problems for its “fair” implementation. The lack of objective standards provided in its language for proving “mental anguish” leaves enormous latitude for abusive implementation, critics contend.

The state ACLU’s letter urging rejection of the law noted, victims of crime “have existing legal avenues available when they are truly being harassed and abused by an offender.” That ACLU letter also noted that the new law could curtail activities by inmate advocacy groups, like the 200-year-old Pennsylvania Prison Society.

The PPS is an organization founded to monitor issues related to prisons and prisoners including ex-offenders. The PPS work of exposing problems inside prisons and also persons released from prison is ripe for target by a crime victim claiming to suffer “mental anguish.” Imagine the irony of this new law silencing the PPS—a venerable organization actually founded by some of the very people who drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution!

The same day that the state’s lower chamber approved this speech-curtailing bill, thousands of high school students in Philadelphia had their dreams of attending college assaulted by lack of funding arising from deep public school funding cuts initiated by Corbett, who has been pouring money into the state’s prison system.

The cash-strapped Philadelphia School District did not provide money for most high school students to take a prep test for the PSAT until hours before administering that test. That late notice of the test date left students unprepared and/or unavailable to take that test. The PSAT is a critical test that helps students prepare for the formal SAT. Most universities require high SAT scores for admission.

Over one-third of the 51,000-plus inmates in state prisons come from Philadelphia. Most of those Philadelphia inmates come from neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment and now featuring schools closed by Philadelphia officials due to lack of funds. Many of the students caught in the PSAT fiasco live in neighborhoods that feed into the state’s overcrowded prison system.

Public education advocates in Philadelphia link Corbett’s public education funding cuts directly to the state’s notorious classroom-to-cell pipeline. Those advocates could now have even their advocacy silenced by the new bill should some crime victim or alleged crime victim claim such advocacy causes him or her “mental anguish.”

The bill known as the “Revictimization Relief Act” would impact state inmate activist/authors like Robert Saleem Holbrook.

Holbrook is one of the 500-plus teen-lifers languishing in Pennsylvania prisons. Pennsylvania imprisons the largest population in the U.S. of persons sentenced to life terms for crimes committed while a teen. Like most teen-lifers, Holbrook did not commit the murder that took place on his 16th birthday, which led to his life sentence. (In Pennsylvania life means in prison until death with no possibility of parole.)

Issues related to teen-lifers—from the penal propriety of permanently imprisoning children, to the enormous costs of caring for elderly inmates—are hotly debated nationwide. This is the very essence of free speech. But under Pennsylvania’s draconian new law, an expert on that form of injustice, like Holbrook, can be silenced.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed sentencing teens to mandatory life in 2012, but in October 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that teen-lifers sentenced before that federal high court ruling are not entitled to any relief from their life sentences—a ruling Holbrook has condemned in his writings.

“When judges and politicians allow the politics of injustice and vengeance to supersede justice then the prisoners impacted by these decisions become political prisoners,” Holbrook wrote in a November 2013 essay.

Pennsylvania prison authorities placed Holbrook in solitary confinement in early September 2014 despite their having no documented infractions by him to justify this action. That solitary confinement, curiously, came in the wake of a federal judge rejecting attempts by prison authorities to kill a lawsuit Holbrook filed against prison authorities for their censorship of human rights literature.

Philadelphia’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, spearheaded the speech suppression law as part of its incessant campaign to silence activist/author Mumia Abu-Jamal. Governor Corbett signed this bill into law at the downtown Philadelphia site where Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was killed in 1981—the incident that put Abu-Jamal in prison.

The FOP exploded in late September when news circulated that students at Goddard College in Vermont had selected Abu-Jamal as the speaker for their early October 2014 commencement ceremony. Abu-Jamal had attended Goddard in the early 1970s and he later graduated from that institution in 1996 via a correspondence course completed while he was on death row (Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was later vacated by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and he is now serving a life sentence without chance of parole.)

Curiously, Abu-Jamal delivered a Goddard commencement address in 2008 without much of a ruckus from the FOP or politicians like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Tea Party Republican who has castigated Goddard about Abu-Jamal. But in 2008, brutality by police was not generating bad publicity nationwide. Now, thanks to incidents like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and a growing number of phone videos documenting an epidemic of police brutality, the issue of police militarization and brutality is on the front burner. Furthermore, in 2008, Governor Corbett was not running for re-election as he is this year, where he currently trails in the polls by double digits.

The FOP and other conservatives have for decades unleashed lynch-mob-like onslaughts designed first to get Abu-Jamal executed, and then, since that was no longer possible, aimed at squelching this incarcerated journalist’s free speech, fair trial and other constitutional rights.

A mid-1990s effort to block book writing by Abu-Jamal resulted in a federal appeals court ruling confirming that Abu-Jamal and all prisoners have a First Amendment right to write. One of the three judges in that unanimous appeals court ruling was Samuel Alito, who now serves on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he is staunchly in the court’s conservative camp.

That mid-1990s campaign also evidenced a gross assault on Abu-Jamal’s constitutional trial rights.

Pennsylvania prison authorities, under FOP pressure during that book publishing attack, opened Abu-Jamal’s correspondence with his attorneys and forwarded that mail to the office of then Governor Tom Ridge. That ’98 federal appeals ruling questioned why prison authorities had sent Abu-Jamal’s legal mail, which is supposed to have protected status, to the governor’s office.

Ridge issued an improper death warrant on the eve of a critical 1995 appeal hearing for Abu-Jamal based on information gleaned of Abu-Jamal’s illegally opened legal mail. While that official interference helped sabotage Abu-Jamal’s appeal hearing, by giving the biased Judge Albert Sabo an excuse to push the hearing forward and not allow delays for subpoenaing important witnesses, state and federal courts have refused to rule that deliberate disruption as an improper rights-robbing violation.

This history of depriving Abu-Jamal of his constitutional rights began at an early age.

In October 1968 Philadelphia police beat Abu-Jamal to a pulp when he was among hundreds exercising protest rights violations during the Philadelphia appearance of then presidential candidate George Wallace—the staunch segregationist governor of Alabama.

A news account of that Wallace rally stated that Philadelphia police had made the Alabama segregationist candidate feel “right at home” as police “wrestled and man-handled black and white protestors outside” the Wallace event. Wallace supporters assailed the protestors. But, that news article noted, horse mounted Philadelphia police only attacked the protestors as local Wallace’s supporters “roared their approval.”

That news account in The Philadelphia Tribune stated that when 14-year-old Abu-Jamal was hauled into court on false charges filed by the police who had beat him “his face was a mass of bruises.” Those charges were withdrawn in exchange for Abu-Jamal’s parents promising not to sue the Philadelphia Police Department for the assault on their son.

Philadelphia’s then FOP president, who also headed the national FOP, had endorsed the candidacy of Wallace. That Wallace endorsement outraged black Philadelphia police officers. Tribune news articles detail the protests by black police against the FOP and its president. Black Philly cops in 1968 also battled the FOP over that organization’s reflexive backing of officers accused of police brutality—a battle that is still being fought today.

This latest speech suppression law, which was introduced by Mike Vereb, a Republican legislator from a Philadelphia suburb, has ignited widespread criticism.

One critic is Tony Norman, a columnist for the conservative libertarian Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, who, it should be noted, is convinced of Abu-Jamal’s guilt.

“One can sympathize with the outrage generated by Abu-Jamal’s invitation to speak without supporting [Vereb’s] goofy effort to shred the First Amendment,” Norman wrote recently. “Taking away anyone’s right to free speech in a knee-jerk attempt to silence Abu-Jamal is a threat to us all.”

This Can’t Be Happening, October 20/21, 2014

Part I:

Part II: