[Pnews] New Pennsylvania Legislation Sucker Punches Inmate Speech
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 21 13:29:30 EDT 2014
New Pennsylvania Legislation Sucker Punches Inmate Speech
Tue, 10/21/2014 - 08:54
Law Shreds Rights
by: Linn Washington Jr.
*Part II of II*
The serious injustice endured by Pennsylvania prison inmate Lorenzo
'Cat' Johnson, detailed yesterday in Part I of this series
<http://thiscantbehappening.net/node/2508> , 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 with.
Johnson served 16-years of a life sentence before a federal appeals
court ordered his release in October 2011 after ruling insufficient
evidence existed to maintain his conviction. Prosecutors never claimed
Johnson was the killer only that he was present when the killing occurred.
However, a perverse appeal by Pennsylvania Attorney General's office
prosecutors forced Johnson's return to prison in June 2012 --- following
six-months of freedom.
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 Gov.
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 is about to be 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 US 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.
A 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 featuriing 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+ 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 supercede justice then the prisoners impacted by these
decisions become political prisoners, " Holbrook wrote in a November
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. Gov. Corbett is scheduled to sign 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 some
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 briefly 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 vadated
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, Gov. Corbett was not running for reelection as he
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
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 Gov Tom Ridge. That '98
federal appeals ruling questioned why prison authorities had sent
Abu-Jamal's legal mail, which is suppposed to have protected status, to
the governors 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
subpoening 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 LAO 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
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."
*Source URL:* http://thiscantbehappening.net/node/2518
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