Lifelong drifter and frequent non-violent criminal, Clarence Earl Gideon, was charged with breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, a felony, in Florida in 1961. At trial, he asked the court to appoint him a lawyer because he couldn’t afford one. The trial judge refused, saying Florida law only called for court-appointed counsel for capital offenses. At trial, Gideon represented himself and he didn’t do half-bad for a man who’d only completed the eighth grade, making an opening statement, cross-examining witnesses, and presenting his own witnesses. Despite his best efforts, the jury found Gideon guilty and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment. And that’s when Gideon’s fight really started. My name…
If you know the case of Gideon vs Wainwright, you have a sense of what we’re talking about today – people who have taught themselves the law and prevailed in a battle so slanted, it’s basically straight up and down. And there are a lot of people fighting that fight from inside a prison cell. In New York, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office released a report examining how and why the special Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in Brooklyn exonerated 25 wrongly convicted people in the five-year period between 2014 2019. Prior to being exonerated, these 25 wrongly convicted persons had served an eye-watering 426 years in prison. To the sad surprise of no one, 24 out of 25 were Black and/or Latino. Those 24 served an average of over 17 years in prison; the one white exoneree had served no prison time. The report forthrightly addresses the grievous errors, including cases of deliberate misconduct, by both police and prosecutors. Prosecutorial misconduct, 84% of the 25 cases. Police misconduct, 72% of the exonerees’ cases. Failure by prosecutors or police to disclose favorable evidence to the defense, taken as its own separate stat, 40%. False or unreliable confessions, often the only direct evidence, 36%. And good old-fashioned eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in the wrongful convictions of 20%. It gets a bit worse, I’m afraid. There’s one important rule of statistical analysis that we need to confront — retrospective investigations of official misconduct will always come in *under the true count.
I’m not the only one who thinks a convict-turned-lawyer makes for a fascinating story. Apparently, rapper 50 Cent agrees, since he produced a TV series based on one such story. For Life is two seasons in, though I only just learned about it when researching this. We don’t “have TV,” ya know? We’ve got Netlfix and Hulu, which I had to sign up for after I exhausted all the Forensic Files on Netflix, but mostly we watch our favorite YT channels. Anyway. For Life is based, sometimes loosely, on the real and fairly recent events in the life of Isaac Wright Jr.
Wright’s life was going okay for most of the 80’s. He worked as a music producer for The Cover Girls, a pop and urban contemporary musical group that featured his then-wife Sunshine Wright as a vocalist. (The name was familiar, but none of their songs rung any bells.) Wright was arrested in 1989, in New Jersey, for buying a kilo of cocaine from a co-defendant. In 1991, he was convicted by a jury on 10 drug charges involving the sale of cocaine, and in 1991 he was sentenced to mandatory life in prison under New Jersey’s drug kingpin laws. Wright had represented himself, an inauspicious start to where you know this story is going. I had to go through a few sources before I could find out why he chose to do that, which Wright himself described as “insane.” “I wasn’t going to pay somebody to send me to prison,” he said.”I might as well strap up the boots and put on the gloves and get into the fight myself.”
With nothing but time on his hands now, Wright studied law to appeal his conviction. Along the way, he became a paralegal to help other men with their cases. And Wright was *effective. He was able to get the sentences of over 20 others overturned or reduced, some of them from life sentences. He wasn’t flailing blindly and getting lucky. Some of Wright’s legal arguments actually influenced, and continue to influence, other practicing lawyers. In the appeal for a fellow prisoner, State v. Alexander, Wright developed a legal strategy to attack the king-pin instruction that was given to the jury, which he was then able to use to have his own kingpin conviction reversed. He was also able to get the drug evidence excluded for illegal search and seizure. Then Assistant Somerset County Prosecutor Gilbert G. Miller, appointed to oppose Wright’s court actions, himself said: “I found Mr. Wright to be highly intelligent and…a better brief writer than most attorneys I have encountered. I was most impressed with Mr. Wright’s ability as a legal strategist.”
In addition to his legal prowess, there was a second leg to the overturning of Wright’s conviction, and that was Somerset County head prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell Jr. Of all the unlikely things Wright accomplished, one of the most remarkable things was getting a confession of misconduct out of a veteran police officer. During a 1996 evidentiary hearing, Wright cross-examined detective James Dugan and was able to convince Dugan to confess to what essentially amounted to a massive conspiracy to fuck up as many peoples lives as possible.
Dugan was just the beginning of unravelling this itchy sweater of corruption. Dugan pled guilty to official misconduct in order to escape prison. Judge Michael Imbriani, who oversaw the trial, was removed from the bench and would find himself in prison on theft charges. At the head of it all was Nicholas Bissell. Bissell directed police officers to falsify reports; he personally dictated the false testimony witnesses would give; he made secret deals with defense attorneys to have their clients testify that Wright was their drug boss. Imagine sitting in a courtroom, fighting for your freedom, and someone you’ve never laid eyes on before is telling the jury you’re their boss. These witnesses also said they had pled guilty and were facing prison time, but none of them were ever in any real danger.
Wright’s case wasn’t the only chicken that came home to roost for Bissell. In 1990, one James Giuffre was arrested on cocaine charges. Bissell agreed to drop the charges if Giuffre forfeited two plots of land, valued at $174,000, to the prosecutor’s office. You see, Bissell specialized in civil forfeiture. At one point, the value of the assets he seized were the highest in the state, even though Somerset County is the eighth-smallest of 21 counties in New Jersey. Giuffre’s land was sold at auction below their appraised value to a friend of Bissell’s chief of detectives. Giuffre filed a civil suit against Bissell, and contacted both the FBI and the IRS, because if the G-men don’t get you, the tax man will. Bissell was dirty-dealing left, right, and center. IRS forensic accountants found that Bissell skimmed cash from a gas station of which he was part owner, and the FBI discovered that Bissell had threatened to frame his gasoline wholesaler for cocaine possession.
In September 1995, Bissell was indicted on 30 federal charges of mail fraud, tax evasion and abuse of power, and was promptly fired by the governor, appropriately. The following May, he was convicted on all charges and was facing 6-10 years in federal prison. He was released pending sentencing — less appropriate in this reporter’s eyes — under the condition that he wear an electronic bracelet. That fall, he cut the tracker off and fled to Nevada, though he was easily tracked by his cell phone. US Marshals descended on Bissell’s hotel room, where Bissell had no intention of being taken alive. [sfx gunshot]
After 7 years in prison, Wright’s charges were dismissed. The next 7 years of his life were spent getting his law degree and got an undergraduate degree. His law school, Saint Thomas University School of Law, renamed its cafeteria in his name. That’s just as cool as the University of Colorado naming their dining hall after famed cannibal Alfred Packer, though for very different reasons, of course. Wright passed the New Jersey Bar in 2008, but spent the next nine years being investigated by the New Jersey Bar’s Committee on character before being granted admission to the bar by the New Jersey Supreme Court on September 27, 2017, where he was officially sworn in as a licensed attorney. “I went to law school for one reason and one reason only, to slay giants…And if the giant is big enough and the cause is important enough, I’ll do it for free, especially when it involves helping those who cannot help themselves.”
Shortly after midnight on January 4, 1991, 26-year-old Nathaniel Cash was fatally shot at his apartment building. His girlfriend, Jewel Smith, had gone to the store and when she came back, she found him dead on the floor. However, Smith changed her story and implicated 25-year-old Derrick Hamilton in the shooting. She would later say that Detective Louis Scarcella told her that if she *didn’t accuse Hamilton, he’d charge *her with the murder. Remember that name, Scarcella; it’s going to come up again. That March, police arrested Hamilton two hours away in New Haven, Connecticut, at the hair salon he jointly owned with Alphonso White.
At Hamilton’s trial, Smith identified Hamilton as the gunman, spinning a tale of Hamilton shooting Cash and Cash chasing after Hamilton before he collapsed. The defense had listed two alibi witnesses, but neither were called. What about Hamilton’s business partner? According to Alphonso’s wife, police in New Haven, for whom White had acted as an informant in the past, threatened to arrest him if either of them testified on Hamilton’s behalf. That’s especially bad, because she had tangible proof that Hamilton was at a New Haven hotel at the time of the crime. On July 17, 1992, a jury convicted Hamilton of second-degree murder. Between the conviction and sentencing, Smith recanted her testimony, and the defense learned for the first time about her first statement to police that she wasn’t even present when Cash was shot. But their motion to vacate the conviction was denied and Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The reality of Hamilton’s situation set in quickly, but he didn’t take it lying down. He immediately began to avail himself of the prison library, reading every last law book, and taking a writing course to be able to express himself well in filing motions with the court. Over the next two decades, Hamilton filed a series of motions attempting to overturn his conviction, but all were denied. In 1994, he sought to vacate the conviction on the basis of an affidavit from a witness who said that two other men shot Cash. The judge said the witness was not credible and denied the motion. While that motion was pending, two more witnesses came forward and said Hamilton was at a party at that New Haven hotel, which was, ironically, a going away party for someone who was going to prison. One of those witnesses would go on to become a decorated police officer in New Haven, but the judge refused to take their statements into account because they hadn’t been on Hamilton’s alibi witness list.
In 1998, another hearing was held with testimony from an additional witness who said someone else shot Cash; that witness also was not believed. In 2009, in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing witnesses to testify to actual innocence if they had not been previously allowed to testify, Hamilton filed a motion seeking a new hearing to allow the two witnesses from 1994 to testify. The prosecution opposed that motion as procedurally barred. While the motion was still pending, two more witnesses came forward to corroborate the first two witnesses’ statements. In August, 2011, the motion for a hearing to allow the witnesses to testify was denied. In December 2011, Hamilton was granted parole. He’d been eligible for it early, but wouldn’t express remorse for a crime he hadn’t committed.
Earlier that year, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes created a Conviction Integrity Unit and invited defense attorneys to present cases in which innocent defendants may have been convicted. One case the unit learned about was that of David Ranta, who was convicted of murder based on an investigation by Detective Scarcella. The Conviction Integrity Unit’s investigation found that one witness had been *told to pick Ranta out of a lineup, and that two prosecution witnesses—both convicted felons—were allowed to leave jail, smoke crack and patron sex workers in return for implicating Ranta. What, the hell. Ranta’s conviction was vacated.
A few months later, The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella of misconduct in many investigations: fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that Gomez had somehow testified as an eyewitness in six separate murder cases. The report prompted the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit to begin to re-investigate over 50 cases in which Scarcella was involved.
In January 2014, the Appellate Division of the Kings County Supreme Court, in an unprecedented ruling, reversed the trial court in Hamilton’s case. The appeals court eliminated a procedural barrier to criminal appellate claims to allow an assertion of “actual innocence” to be heard. Hamitlon’s case was remanded to the Kings County Supreme Court for a hearing. In January 2015, Kings County District Attorney Kenneth Thompson concluded, of the basis of a re-investigation of the case, that Hamilton was innocent. The re-investigation showed that the medical evidence contradicted Smith’s claim that Cash was shot in the chest and then pursued his assailant. According to the ME, Cash was shot in the back and the wound would have been instantly fatal. In addition, ballistics showed that more than one gun was used in the shooting. Hrmm, more than one could be two, like the two men that multiple witnesses were willing to testify had killed Cash.
On January 9, 2015, the motion to vacate Hamilton’s conviction was granted and the charge was dismissed. Hamilton subsequently filed a claim for compensation with the New York Court of Claims and in 2016 received $3.75 million. In 2015, Hamilton filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. In November 2019, he settled the lawsuit against the cities of New York and New Haven for $7 million.
By July 2018, 14 convictions based on Scarcella’s “detective work” had been overturned, of the 70+ cases he worked on that were, and in some cases still are, under review. Scarcella has consistently maintained that he did nothing wrong. One of those people whose conviction was overturned had an extra connection to Hamilton. Shabaka Shakur was serving time in the same prison, sent there by the same detective.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on January 11, 1988, two men were shot and killed outside the Brooklyn building where they sold drugs. Police brought in 23-year-old Louis Shakur for questioning after a witness said he had beef with the victims over a debt. Shakur said that he was in Queens with his girlfriend at the time. However, Scarcella claimed he interviewed Shakur and Shakur confessed that he killed the two men before they could kill him, but he had no notes from during the interrogation, only a report that he said he typed up after. Another witness claimed that he heard Shakur admit to the crime, but he was never called to testify at the trial, and they later recanted, saying he was trying to get leniency from the police on his own charges.
At Shakur’s trial, the brother of one victim testified that he saw Shakur chase the victim, but admitted on cross-examination that he had told police he didn’t actually witness the shooting, making him not actually much of a witness. A gun found in a trash can near the scene was linked to the murders, but there were no prints on the gun and it was not linked to Shakur. Shakur’s girlfriend and her best friend testified that Shakur was at the girlfriend’s home from 9pm until he left for work the next morning. Nonetheless, the jury convicted Shakur of two counts of second degree murder and he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In 2012, a motion was filed seeking a new trial for Shakur, claiming that a witness would testify that Young was inside the building at the time of the crime and could not have seen the shooting. [[In 2013, The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella, who retired in 1999, of fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that one witness, Teresa Gomez, a drug addicted sex worker, had somehow testified as an eyewitness in six separate murder cases. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office began investigating murder cases connected to Scarcella. ]]
Among the cases the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit agreed to review was Shakur’s, but in 2014 the prosecution concluded that the conviction was correct and that Shakur was guilty. Later in 2014, Defense attorney Ron Kuby presented evidence that Scarcella had fabricated the confession at a series of hearings on Shakur’s motion for a new trial.
On June 2, 2015, New York Supreme Court Justice Desmond Green granted the motion for a new trial and vacated Shakur’s conviction. Green ruled that there was “a reasonable probability that the alleged confession of (Shakur) was indeed fabricated.” The judge said that Scarcella’s version of obtaining the confession was “particularly troubling and causes serious doubts.” The judge also said he believed the testimony of the Shakur’s alibi witnesses. The District Attorney, while pointing out that the judge didn’t actually address Shakur’s innocence, declined to retry him. What was that extra connection I hinted at at the top of this section? One of the many challenges Shakur and Hamilton faced when they got out was finding work, so used part of their settlements to open a restaurant, right across the street from a police precinct.
Not every legal autodidact is fighting for their freedom, some fight for their way of life and the health and safety of themselves and their neighbors. And of course there’s much more to the world than America. For Wang Enlin, of Yushutun, China, working as a farmer was a foregone conclusion. It was not only what his family did down through the generations, but since Wang had left school at age 10 to help his family in the fields, he didn’t have enough education for most other jobs. It wasn’t that Wang wasn’t interested in education and in fact he continued to read with what spare time he had. Becoming a farmer, while probably inevitable, didn’t mean that Wang was not a man with drive, either.
Farming life is hard enough, but for Wang’s family and neighbors, it started getting noticeably harder about twenty years ago. Their yields were steadily diminishing because their land was being contaminated by the nearby Qihua Chemical Group (also known as Heilongjiang Haohua Chemical), a company with an asset exceeding $300 million and the backing of the Chinese government. On the eve of the lunar new year in 2001, Wang was with his neighbors preparing for the big holiday, when the house they were in began flooding. This wasn’t an overflowing river, it was wastewater from Qihua, which also flooded some of the farmland, rendering it completely unusable. The dumping wasn’t exactly a secret, but Qihua continued with impunity for more than five years because, as Wang would later say, “behind every case of pollution is a case of corruption.”
Many people would have abandoned their farms, if they could, but Wang wasn’t going to let this multi-million dollar company continue to dump upwards of 20,000 tons of chemical waste every year. Qihua has also reportedly created a 71-acre wasteland with calcium carbide residue and a 478-acre pond with its liquid waste. Hiring a lawyer was out of the question for the farmers, so Wang, with his third-grade education, decided he’d just have to do it himself. He wrote a letter to Land Resources Bureau of Qiqihar, but they demanded concrete evidence proving their plant had dumped the waste and it was that waste that damaged their land and that the land was really damaged.
The whole scenario is like a more lopsided version of Erin Brokovich, where the chemical company is more flagrant in its malfeasance and the injured locals didn’t have a law firm helping them out. They had one of their own, who couldn’t afford to buy the books he needed on the law. Instead, Wang made a deal with a local bookstore where the shop owner let him read as much as he needed to in the store, in exchange for bags of corn. Sources don’t mention if it was corn grown on the contaminated land or not. Some of the books he needed were in other languages, so Wang had to translate them with a dictionary. I hardly need to tell you, this was not a speedy process. As subsistence farming became harder and people, including Wang, got sicker, free time was a precious resource, but what time Wang had, he spent studying. Also, sometimes the local police would show up and try to intimidate him. For the next 16 years. Things got a boost when Wang was able to find a Chinese law firm that specialized in fighting pollution-related cases. They didn’t take on his case, but they did provide him with free legal advice and helped him file his petition to the court. That was in 2007, six years into the poisoning of their land. Prominent environmentalist Ma Jun told AFP that while the litigation process has been streamlined since 2015, pollution lawsuits can still take years to be heard partly because “local governments give some degree of protection to polluting companies”.
The petition wasn’t processed until 2015 and then it took a further 2 years to be brought to a conclusion, meaning it required 16 years since that Lunar New Year eve when Wang played card and made dumplings with his neighbors. That’s 16 years of industrial waste dumping, but it was also 16 years worth of chances to gather evidence about the industrial waste dumping. Angangxi District Court ruled that people in Yushutun village should receive compensations amounting 820,000 yuan, around $125,000, 104k euro. [sfx cheer] Unfortunately [sfx disappointment] the case was overturned on appeal and world media seems to have lost interest in covering the case, as so often happens, but I doubt Wang and his self-styled “Senior Citizen Environmental Protection Team” would give up that easily.
And that’s… Gideon studied the law in prison, and began to appeal his case, starting with a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Florida Supreme Court. His primary argument was that the trial judge’s refusal to appoint counsel violated Gideon’s constitutional rights. The Florida Supreme Court denied Gideon’s petition. Gideon next filed a handwritten petition in the Supreme Court of the United States. The High Court agreed with Gideon, that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right and not subject to state laws otherwise. Gideon got a second trial, with a lawyer, and was acquitted by the jury in an hour. Remember…Thanks…