In this edition: Death Row Exonoree Speaks in Pittsburgh; Life-sentenced prisoner seeks new trial in 27-year-old homicide case; Another lawsuit filed against Nicoletti and other SCI Pittsburgh Officials and more…
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Death Row Exonoree Speaks in Pittsburgh:
Juan Melendez, who served 17 years on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit, spoke in Pittsburgh last week on behalf of himself and the Witness to Innocence Project
. This was the project’s second speaker to come through Pittsburgh in a month, after Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first person to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Both events were put together by Pittsburgh Hands of Faith in Action and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Melendez was picked up for a murder in Florida in 1985. He spoke little English, and had a lawyer who patted him on the back and told him everything would be all right. He was convicted and sentenced to death in one week, based on the testimony of a police informant and a co-defendant who took a plea bargain for a two year sentence. There was no physical evidence that Melendez was at the crime scene. The Florida Supreme Court upheld his death sentence three times on appeal. He was released in 2002 after a transcript of a taped confession by the actual killer was found. It was later discovered that 16 people, including the prosecutor, knew of the actual killer’s confession at the time of trial and withheld exculpatory evidence.
According to Pennsylvania Alternatives to the Death Penalty Death Row Support database
, 223 people in Pennsylvania are currently on death row. The Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people nationally with the help of DNA evidence lists 11 people in Pennsylvania
who have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1994. Four of those people had life sentences and one had been sentenced to death. The Innocence Project lists the major causes of wrongful conviction as eyewitness misidentification, bad scientific evidence, false confessions or admissions, government misconduct, police informant testimony and bad lawyering.
Melendez’s trial story echoed the case of Terrell Johnson
who was sentenced to life in prison in 1994, with no physical evidence against him, a lawyer who did not call his alibi witnesses, and a conviction based on the testimony of a police informant. Johnson was awarded a new trial in 2009 and is still waiting for adequate legal representation to proceed with his trial which is scheduled for May.
The Innocence Project outlines basic state laws that assist and protect against wrongful convictions or provide relief to those wronged by the judicial system. PA currently has a DNA Access Law, which allows prisoners to apply to the court for post conviction DNA testing. The state also has an Innocence Commission, a group of attorneys, judges and corrections officials who examine cases and make recommendations for corrective measures. The state lacks however, Compensation Laws which allow monetary relief from the state for a wrongful conviction, Preservation of Evidence Laws, which would require the state to hold evidence for an extended period of time, and Recorded Interrogations Laws, which would require police officers to record interviews they carry out with defendants.
To watch videos of Melendez’s story go to Youtube
Life-sentenced prisoner seeks new trial in 27-year-old homicide case: A habeas corpus hearing in the United States federal district court in Pittsburgh began this Monday, April 2 in the case of Ronald Williams, a Pennsylvania state prisoner serving a life sentence based on a 1985 homicide conviction. Williams and his brother, Raymond, were convicted in the murder of Archie Bradley at a truck stop in Butler County.
The first day of the hearing included testimony from Sallie Lane, a witness for the prosecution at the original trial, who testified that she witnessed a juror remark to another man in the courthouse parking lot during the trial that “One of the niggers is guilty, but I’m not sure about the other.” In addition to this statement being offered as evidence of unconstitutional racial bias amongst a juror, it also, if believed, establishes that a juror engaged in deliberations on the question of guilt prior to the presentation of all the evidence, which is a constitutional violation as well.
Two of the jurors at the original trial also testified Monday. Paul Bowser, a retired steelworker, testified that the use of the racial slur “nigger” was common in Butler County at the time. He also testified that fellow juror and his co-worker Robert Hancheck had always referred to black people as “niggers”, both before and after the trial, and was known to remark to other Euro-Americans, “Look at that stupid nigger,” or “Look at that dumb nigger,” when referring to a black person. Bowser also acknowledged to using racial slurs when he was younger, but claims to have stopped years before the trial. He now calls them “coloreds.”
One of Bowser and Hanckeck’s co-workers in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Thomas Bachman, compared the racial attitudes of Butler County during that time period to those he witnessed in the 1960s in segregated Texas. The only difference between the two, according to Bachman, was that in Butler there were “no signs” like the ones on public water fountains, transportation, and elsewhere in Texas. He also testified that he had heard Bowser use the N-word several times when the two of them worked together years after the trial, contradicting Bowser’s claim that he ceased using such language in his youth.
Hancheck himself testified at Monday’s hearing, and acknowledged that he regularly used racial slurs during the time of the trial. A private investigator working with counsel for Williams also took the stand and testified that Hancheck told him that while he did not recall if racial slurs were used by jurors at the trial it would have been “no big deal” if he they were, and it would not have “phased him” due to it being so common.
Another trial juror, Francis Giesler, testified that he had also referred to blacks by the N-word at the time of the trial, but not at the trial itself.
The trial lawyer for Raymond Williams also testified Monday. He stated that one of the original jurors, Judith Montgomery, came to him within days of the trial with the information that she was intimidated and threatened by other jurors who wanted to find the defendants guilty, and called a “nigger-lover.” Montgomery’s testimony may yet be barred from consideration by Judge Cercone, however, as she died in 1996 and the court may yet rule it inadmissible hearsay. The issue will be decided after the hearing.
On Tuesday the court heard testimony from Dr. Samuel Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University. Dr. Sommers testified that a “robust literature” has empirically demonstrated that use of racial slurs constitutes unambiguous evidence that the speaker harbors attitudes of racial bias.
The case will be decided after both sides submit briefs containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. HRC will provide updates on this case as they become available.
Another lawsuit filed against Nicoletti and other SCI Pittsburgh Officials: Another lawsuit related to the rape and torture scandal at State Correction Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh was filed on March 26, 2012 against prison guard Harry Nicoletti; former Superintendent, Melvin Lockett; former Deputy Superintendent, Martin Kovacs; former Deputy Superintendent, Janice Niemiec; and former Major of Guards; John Wiser.
SCI Pittsburgh is currently under investigation by the DOC Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence and by the U.S. Justice Department for claims of abuse filed by 20 former prisoners held at SCI Pittsburgh over the last few years. The plaintiff in the latest suit is only identified under the name John Doe, and is currently incarcerated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The complaint is being carried out by his attorneys; D. Aaron Rihn, Esquire, and Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C.; and Steven M. Barth, Esquire.
John Doe alleges that he was sexually assaulted on 4 separate occasions by Nicoletti in April 2010, after Nicoletti found out that Doe was a homosexual. On April 2, 2010 Nicoletti punched Doe in the face several times and forced Doe to perform oral sex on him. Nicoletti was also verbally abusive calling him a “faggot” and “the scum of the earth,” among other things and threatened to put him in “the hole” (solitary confinement) if Doe did not follow his orders. He also stated that if Doe refused, he would make sure he did not get his parole.
These incidents occurred on C Block, where Doe was housed at the time. Nicoletti was not a staff member of C Block, yet he was able to gain access to Doe’s cell and to move about C block freely without being questioned by the guards who were assigned to work that block. This raises the question of whether other guards were complicit in the actions allegedly perpetrated by Nicoletti, who knowing has been charged with 92 counts of sexual assault, simple assault, terroristic threats, and official oppression.
Doe filed 6 separate grievances regarding these incidents. Nothing was done to protect him or to investigate these matters. It is believed that the defendants listed in the suit were either aware, or should have been aware, of Nicoletti’s behavior, yet they took no action to intervene, investigate, and end the abuse. In November 2010, Doe was transferred to SCI Somerset. On September 30, 2011, over a year after the incidents occurred, Doe contacted the Department of Corrections Office of Special Investigation and Intelligence, who finally responded to his claims.
Across the Nation
Virginia plans changes in prisoner isolation process; Director of DOC says “There is no such thing as solitary confinement": Virginia is reconsidering how it administers solitary confinement at the state’s only super-maximum prison and plans to implement sweeping changes to its often-criticized practices. Nearly 500 prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, at Red Onion State Prison spend 23 hours a day in a cell, and have been kept in isolation for years, inmates and lawyers say. The state will appoint a team of experts to examine each prisoner and design personalized case plans, add more levels of review before inmates are placed in solitary confinement, and transfer some inmates to a nearby prison, the officials said.
Still, Harold W. Clarke, director of the Department of Corrections, said “segregation” is not “solitary confinement” — a practice that was once associated with inmates being stuck in a dark hole. “There is no such thing as solitary confinement — nowhere in the country,” he said. “That went out the window a long time ago.”
Supreme Court Approves Strip-Searches for Any Offense: The United States Supreme Court on Monday ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that officials may strip-search people arrested for any offense, however minor or mistaken, before admitting them to jails, even in the absence of a reason to suspect the presence of contraband.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by the court’s conservative wing, wrote that courts are in no position to second-guess the judgments of correctional officials who must consider not only the possibility of smuggled weapons and drugs, but also public health and information about gang affiliations. The procedures endorsed by the majority are forbidden by statute in at least 10 states and are at odds with the policies of federal authorities. Daron Hall, the president of the American Correctional Association and sheriff of Davidson County, Tenn., said the association welcomed the flexibility offered by the decision.
The Supreme Court did not say that strip-searches of every new arrestee were required; it ruled, rather, that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches did not forbid them. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the four dissenters, said the strip-searches the majority allowed were “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy” and should be used only when there was good reason to do so. Breyer added that there was very little empirical support for the idea that strip-searches detect contraband that would not have been found had jail officials used less intrusive means, particularly if strip-searches were allowed when officials had a reasonable suspicion that they would find something. For instance, in a study of 23,000 people admitted to a correctional facility in Orange County, N.Y., using that standard, there was at most one instance of contraband detected that would not otherwise have been found, Judge Breyer wrote.
Summarized from NYTimes
See an analysis from Supreme Court Blog Here
Listen to an audio report Here
Pelican Bay SHU Inmates Respond to California’s Proposed Prisons Reforms: On March 27 Prisoners held in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay state prison submitted a rejection of recent reforms announced by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Along with the rejection, the prisoners, writing as the Short Corridor Collective, a group of representatives from the hunger striking prisoners, also submitted a counter-proposal to the public. The proposed reforms by the CDCR would actually increase the number of prisoners placed in the Security Housing Unit by expanding people classified as “gang members”, according to attorney Charles Carbone. The reforms were a response to the five core demands laid out by prisoners who went on hunger strike in July 2011.
The rejection from the Short Corridor Collective began by summarizing the demands made by prisoners during the 2011 hunger strikes, along with their rationale as to why the department’s gang validation process needed to be abolished. They focused on the fact that prisoners were being placed in long term solitary confinement while never being found guilty of committing any criminal act or a prison rule violation, emphasizing that the current intelligence-based system targets individuals for their alleged associations with gang members rather than being a behavioral-based system that assesses an individual’s conduct. Also in the rejection were examples of how “The CDCR-OCS is asking the law makers and tax payers to allow them to continue to violate thousands of prisoners’ human rights, including the use of torture with impunity based on false propaganda scare tactics exemplified below.” One of these examples points out how the CDCR proposal simply changes “gang member” into “security threat group 1”, but maintains the same intelligence based practice of confining these prisoners. Finally the short corridor prisoners rejected CDCR’s failure to make any meaningful, substantive changes in response to the five core demands of the hunger striking prisoners.
The counter-proposal submitted by the collective outlined a program based on one used at several prisons in the 1970s and 80s in California. The proposed program would have three phases, that each included communal meals, ascending levels of access to phone calls and commissary, and a review every 90 days. The program proposed would also discontinue the “arbitrary, unfair practice of relying on allegations from confidential informant/debriefers to keep prisoners in the SHU”. This rejection would also apply to a prisoner’s ability to be released from the SHU without becoming an informant. The proposal ended with a full rejection of the practice of sensory deprivation by solitary confinement, outlining its effects on the mental and physical health of prisoners within the SHU. The proposal was signed by four representatives and ended by honoring three prisoners who had recently died in the SHU, including Christian Gomez who died this February while on hunger strike at Corcoran state prison.
No end to suicides in Solitary in Massachusetts Prisons: Five years ago, the Boston Globe found that prisoners in the state of Massachusetts were taking their own lives at a rate three times the national average–and that “most of the deaths came after careless errors and deadly decisions by Department of Correction officials and health staff, at times when inmates were obviously at risk.” The state hired a “suicide prevention specialist” but apparently ignored most of the recommendation in the specialist’s report, including warnings against placing suicidal inmates in solitary confinement.
Boston Globe reported in 2010, the “epidemic” of prison suicides has continued and earlier this month, two suicides took place in a single weekend, both of them in isolation cells.
On March 10, the Globe reported that a prisoner awaiting trial on murder charges had been found dead in his cell: “Eric J. Snow, 30, of Bridgewater, was found lying in his bed at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility with a plastic bag over his head, said … a spokeswoman for the Plymouth County District Attorney.” Snow’s former attorney, Gerald Fitzgerald, called the conditions of his client’s pre-trial detention “a shameful disgrace.” He told the Globe: “We live in a society that treats animals in a zoo more decently and more humanely than they treat men in prison awaiting trial… They broke him…Why, against their own policies, is this man in isolation for four years?”
Previous to his death, Globe reported “On February 27, Snow had written to the jail’s security
director: “All I want is to please be able to live in regular population where I’m not confined to a cell for five days a week losing my mind…I have been in the hole for so long it is eating me alive.”
On the same weekend that Snow killed himself, at MCI-Shirley, a correctional officer found Scott Rose hanging in a single cell from a bed sheet at about 8:15 p.m., Globe reported.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 7-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to
Write On! – Letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh, email: email@example.com
or call 412-654-9070.
You’ve been listening to the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!