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The Passing of a Drug Reform Hero: Retired Judge Jerome Marks

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There are heroes and then there are heroes. My good friend Judge Jerry Marks, a former New York Supreme Court Justice, was a hero's hero. On March 9, he died at age 95. Judge Marks had a long and distinguished career as a New York elected official and jurist. He served as state representative for six years beginning in 1963, and later as a Supreme Court Justice until he retired in 1992. In his retirement, Marks devoted his life to change New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws and helped secure clemency for prisoners rotting away in prison for their roles in minor drug crimes.

I knew Judge Marks from my work as a Rockefeller Drug law activist and the tireless work he did to help Rock Law offenders receive their freedom. Both as a friend and a mentor, Judge Marks influenced me to follow his path to become a freedom fighter and to fight for justice for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

In 1999, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a beautiful piece titled "Angela's Champion." One of the cases that caught Justice Marks's attention in The New York Law Journal was that of Angela Thompson, who was arrested in 1988 at age 17 for selling two ounces of cocaine to an undercover cop. She had no previous record and was acting at the direction of her uncle and legal guardian, who was a drug dealer. Nevertheless, under the strict terms of the Rockefeller drug laws, Ms. Thompson was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. When Judge Marks read about the case he knew it was a case of injustice and immediately began the process of successfully launching a campaign to acquire executive clemency for Angela from former New York Gov. George Pataki.

His close friends called him "The Judge." He had a quick wit, even in his late years. He was also a poet and from time to time, especially in front of an audience; use to love to recite his often politically laced poetry. Political comedian, Randy Credico, who recently ran against Sen. Charles Schumer, and I were honored to have dinner with The Judge every Friday night for years. We often discussed the concept of justice over a martini, and he schooled us well. Credico, in remembering The Judge, told me, "Judge Marks used his power to save rather than destroy lives and was the embodiment of the word justice. He was a servant and not the master of concept of justice. Unlike the men and women who wear robes who hypocritically pass judgment of the poor, the disaffected and the hopeless in the current base, corrupt and Kafkaesque world of criminal justice. Judge Marks served God's natural law rather than man's artificial law."

Terrance Stevens' case was another that Judge Marks took on. The Judge helped Stevens, who at the time of his arrest was paralyzed from muscular dystrophy, secure clemency from Gov. Pataki. But being confined to a wheelchair did not stop the State of New York from sentencing him to 15 years to life. The judge in Stevens' case did not want to sentence him under the mandatory provisions of the law but he had no choice. While serving his sentence at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville N.Y., an article appeared in the NY Times detailing Stevens' plight. Judge Marks wrote him and a friendship developed, leading Marks to champion his cause.

Judge Jerry Marks had a great impact, not only on the people he helped but also the hundreds of lives that were saved through the Rockefeller reforms he advocated for. He is gone but his good deeds as a procurer of justice will let his spirit live on forever.

Judge Marks was the loving husband of Julie and the devoted father of Gail and the late Lorna and dear father-in-law of Neil and Joseph and cherished grandfather of Kyle, Kane and Casey. Funeral services will be held at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Avenue (81st St. NYC) on 3/13/11/ at 3:30pm.