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.

2 thoughts on “Jailhouse Lawyers: Jerry Rosenberg

  1. It is always interesting to read about other people and what they do in these circumstances. I agree with you that we create our own circumstances. – our actions have consequences these can be good or bad. Sometimes these take a long time to mature and give us the impression of fate .. ( just my 2pence worth)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s