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.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang