U.S. Capitol Building

On Jabbar Collins and Other Jailhouse Lawyers

Jamison KoehlerEvidence, Law Practice

I have only seen one “law library” at a prison, and I have to say I was not at all impressed. A converted broom closet with a broken chair and a rickety metal bookshelf, the library consisted mostly of an outdated version of the criminal code, a dog-eared hornbook or two, and, because someone apparently decided they might lend an air of authority to the library, assorted volumes of the Federal Register.

The products I have seen coming out of one of these libraries are equally unimpressive:  handwritten motions on crumpled pieces of notebook paper. You can imagine the inmate who drafted the motion sitting in the cramped space, filling the motion with legal mumbo-jumbo and citations while enjoying the brief respite from the ruckus outside. If there is a common theme to every such motion I have ever read, it is the feeling of helplessness combined with anger. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands. They also have an almost visceral distrust for the public defenders appointed to represent them.

Given this experience with prison libraries, I was both surprised and pleased to read – through Max Kennerly – the story of the defendant in New York whose jailhouse lawyering on his own behalf eventually resulted in the overturning of his conviction for murder.

Collins was found guilty of murder in 1995 and sentenced to 35 years in prison.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Collins says he felt completely mystified during the trial – “like a child” – with “everyone talking over my head.”  But, he says, hearing the sounds of his mother wailing as he was led away in handcuffs suddenly cleared his head.  “You have a life of misery head of you,” he remembers telling himself.  “The only way you’re going to get out is to become your own lawyer.”

With this resolve, Collins headed back to apparently adequate law libraries first at Rikers Island and then at Green Haven, a prison north of the city, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, began “pouring himself” into the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York, and the Legal Research Manual.  A book for paralegals — Case Analysis and Fundamentals of Legal Writing – became his bible.  He devoted two months to “mastering the intricacies of federal and state law on access to public records.”  He also “pried documents from wary prosecutors, tracked down reluctant witnesses and persuaded them, at least once through trickery, to reveal what allegedly went on before and at the trial.”

With some help later in the process from civil rights attorney Joel Rudin, Collins was ultimately able to get the conviction overturned basically by beating the government into submission.  “I was amazed at Mr. Collins’s file,” Rudin told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve never seen anything like this.  There was so much documentation.”

After his first request for trial records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law was denied in 1995, Collins filed six more requests, five more appeals and a lawsuit before a judge granted him access to some of the records two years later.  The 239 pages of documents and 94 audio tapes he received as a result of this ruling “emboldened him,” giving him the confidence to fight on.  Over time, writes the Wall Street Journal, Collins “would file a dizzying number of records requests. If they were denied, he appealed. If he lost, he’d add his requests to those he prepared for other inmates.”

Collins was ultimately successful in raising so many questions about the prosecution’s conduct throughout the process that the government finally decided it wasn’t worth the fight. It therefore dropped the case last June and Collins walked out of prison after serving 15 years. Writes Kennerly:  “Collins’ story is one of losing, and losing, and losing again, and still fighting back, through every means available until, finally, his opponent, the government itself, cowered in fear.”