07/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jailhouse Lawyer "Jerry The Jew" Dies In Prison

Jerome Samuel Rosenberg spent 46 years in New York State prison. He had the dubious distinction of being the state's longest serving inmate, but more importantly, he was the greatest "jailhouse lawyer" who ever lived. He died Monday at age 72.

Many of those who knew him, or knew of him, do not mourn his passing. He was convicted of a 1962 murder of two police detectives in a botched robbery in New York City. And he wasn't just a good kid who fell into the wrong company. At the time of the murders, he was on parole after serving a four-year bid at Comstock State Prison for an armed robbery. Not the nice Jewish boy suburban moms of the 1960s dreamt their daughters would marry. He was sentenced to death.

But "Jerry the Jew"--the prison nickname that he wore with pride--was not going quietly. He never did. This was before the days of prison libraries, and decades before prisoners had much access to counsel, so his family obtained law books for him. Jerry studied. He took a law correspondence course from the Blackstone School of Law in Chicago, an accredited law school that was part of a much older American tradition of legal study. Of course, he was never admitted to the bar. A double murder conviction won't get you past the Character and Fitness Committee.

His legal education, though, was more than sufficient for his own purposes. He spotted a loophole in New York's death penalty law, and won executive clemency from then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Spared the death penalty, Jerry was doing life.

He began reviewing cases for his fellow prisoners, finding errors made by attorneys who were incompetent, diffident, or both. He began writing writs for others behind bars, sometimes securing their freedom, sometimes reducing their sentences. He became the only jailhouse lawyer in history to be permitted to formally represent another prisoner in open court, demonstrating his skill in 1981 before Judge Albert M. Rosenblatt, who himself would go on to a distinguished career on New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Jerry played a pivotal and controversial role in the Attica rebellion. A die-hard capitalist (after all, he was an armed robber), he was widely respected by the inmates in D-Yard. When the prisoners were given a court order promising amnesty to end the uprising, it was Jerry who ripped up the document, correctly noting that it was not worth the paper it was printed on. It was a fateful decision. Jerry was ready to die, but he was not ready to be fooled. The very Governor Rockefeller who spared Jerry the death penalty called in the State Troopers, who murdered prisoners and hostages alike.

For close to four decades, Jerry was the only "lawyer" many prisoners had. He helped thousands of people navigate their way through the legal maze that imprisoned them. After the legal battles of the 1970s began to secure rudimentary law libraries for prisoners, Jerry became a jailhouse law professor. He called upon prisoners to use their minds, to use words instead of bullets. He was an inspiration to those who had given up all hope.

But for all of his skill, he could never free himself. He argued an appeal before the very judge who had originally sentenced him to death. The judge commented "When I send them away, they never come back....Not only did [Rosenberg] come back,....he came back as a lawyer." Jerry's original conviction, though, was reaffirmed time and time again. Eligible for parole in 1982, Rosenberg was turned down every two years until his death.

On the back cover of Jerry's biography, Doing Life, my late mentor, the great William M. Kunstler, said, "But for a cruel twist of fate, [Jerry] might well have been one of the country's foremost criminal lawyers." The "cruel twist of fate," of course, was Jerry's role in the murder of two policemen. He brought his "fate" upon himself. Yet he paid for that crime with close to half a century of devotion to his fellow prisoners, and to the law. People will disagree as to whether the scales balance, or on which side they tip. But no one can deny that Jerry the Jew made a remarkable contribution to the life of the law. L'chaim, Jerry.

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