Jailhouse Lawyers: Jerry Rosenberg

Jerry Rosenberg holds the record for the longest incarcerated inmate in the State of New York. He is also the first New York inmate to earn a law degree in prison.

Rosenberg spent 46 years in prison before he died in 2009 of natural causes. After his conviction for the murders of two police officers in New York, he had an appointment with the warden of Attica Prison to die in the electric chair.

He escaped death, however, when he discovered a legal loophole that compelled Governor Nelson Rockefeller to commute his sentence to life in prison. The law in New York State had recently been amended in the first moves towards the abolition of the death penalty.

Within four years of his imprisonment he attained a law degree from Blackstone School of Law, an accredited correspondence law program founded in 1890 in Detroit, Michigan. He was, of course, never admitted to the bar as a practicing lawyer, but that did not get in his way.

During the Attica prison riot of 1971, Rosenberg tried to restore peace and became chief legal advisor to the leaders of the uprising, which took 43 lives, including ten prison guards.

He also worked with famed lawyer civil rights lawyers William Kunstler and his partner Ron Kuby in defence of several Attica inmates charged with murder.

After the riots he was transferred to Sing Sing Prison, thirty miles from New York City, where he assisted thousands of inmates with their post-trial appeals and motions, often focusing on errors made by incompetent or indifferent trial counsel. He frequently succeeded in sentence appeal applications, with reductions from 3 to 10 years.

After the prison upheavals of the 70′s, Rosenberg was able to convince the authorities to establish small law libraries in prisons and thereafter, he operated as a law professor teaching inmates to learn the law for themselves. He encouraged inmates to use their “minds and words” and not bullets.

In 1981 Rosenberg was the first inmate allowed to formally act as counsel in court during a fellow-inmate’s court hearing. He appeared before Judge Albert Rosenblatt, who later became a jurist on the Court of Appeal of New York.

He was not able to free himself though, and was never granted parole, despite his applications every two years.

Jerry Rosenberg stole the lives of two fathers, husbands, and brothers when he committed double murder. Lawyer William Kunstler once remarked: “But for a cruel twist of fate, Jerry might well have become one of the country’s foremost criminal lawyers”.

In my view he did not fall victim to fate, he created the circumstances that suppressed his enormous potential. However, at the end of his life, there was no question that he contributed to the betterment of the lives of inmates across the United States.

Young Lawyer Thrown in Jail For Protecting His Client’s Rights

Michigan attorney, Scott Millard, had been practicing law for less than two months when he ran into Judge Kenneth Post earlier this month. Today, he is a folk-hero for standing up to an overbearing judge while representing his client on a bail application.

Millard’s client was seeking bail having been charged as a minor in possession of alcohol. During the hearing Judge Post asked Mr. Millard’s client when he had last used drugs. Millard believed it was not in his client’s best interests to answer that question and invoked the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution regarding self-incrimination. The following exchange took place next:

Lawyer: I’m his attorney your Honour.

Judge: I’m encouraged.

Judge: I’m not interested in what you think. Haven’t you gotten that yet?

Lawyer: I have gotten that and I…understand that, and your Honour, the Court fully, certainly has the right not to care what I say. How…

Judge: Thank you. Then be quiet.

Judge: When was the last time, the date that you last used controlled substances?

Lawyer: (attempts to interrupt)

Judge: One more word and I’m going to hold you in contempt.

Lawyer: (continues to fight for his client and invokes the Sixth Amendment regarding the right to have counsel)

Judge: (lawyer is cited for contempt and fined $100.)

Lawyer: (again attempts to interject)

Judge: Counsel, I’m holding you in contempt of court. Remand him to the jail.

Mr. Millard spent four hours in jail before his law firm colleagues brought the matter to a senior judge who released him. Judge Post had intended to hold Mr. Millard in jail throughout the weekend. A complaint has been made to the judicial council and Millard is reaping the positive publicity of his polite, but unrelenting attempts to represent his client.

Not surprisingly, fellow members of the bar in Michigan are applauding Millard’s stance and decrying Judge Post’s bullying behavior, for which he is apparently well-known.

For a lawyer who practiced for only two months, Scott Millard’s resolve is extraordinary.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang