The Fight to Free Avis Lee Continues Despite the Denial of Appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court


Last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied our Petition for Allowance of Appeal in the case of Commonwealth v. Avis Lee. The Appeal would have allowed people given life without parole sentences while young and with their judgment/impulse control still developing (but were over 17 years at the time of their offense) to apply for resentencing, like many juvenile lifers who were given that chance and are now thriving outside prison walls in our state.

Despite the scientific consensus on brain development indisputably supporting our argument, the Court denied the Appeal without explanation or justification; we’re disappointed since we believe that an honest, science-based review of Avis’ death by incarceration sentence would’ve found it unconstitutional and void, but we also have no illusions that the Superior and Supreme Courts serve the interest of justice.

For centuries, the higher courts have given legal cover to our country’s and state’s most appalling class- and race-based oppression, and only on rare occasions (and under intense public pressure) have they set aside the interests of money and power and ruled in the interests of justice. We have always seen legal strategy as one part of a larger movement of people most impacted by the justice system to challenge power, and we know that meaningful changes in the justice system will come from people organizing and resisting—and not from the morality and reason of judges or legislators.

While we will keep the legal fight up with three other litigation plans that challenge DBI sentences for those 18 as well as those serving DBI for second degree murder, we urge everyone to continue to organize, gather, lift up voices, and commit to dismantling this system brick by brick. We look forward to working with Avis on her commutation packet and know that she will be home one day.

At this time we are also reminded that our comrades at the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) are convening in Harrisburg this Wednesday, the 23rd, in support of SB942. We stand in solidarity with CADBI and echo the call of the Superior Court for the legislature to end death by incarceration. No one is free until we all are.

In Solidarity Always,

The Abolitionist Law Center

Third Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Argument in Challenge to 33 Years of Solitary Confinement on Death Row

On Tuesday, October 22nd at 10:00 a.m. in The Albert Branson Maris Courtroom, (19th Floor, U.S. Courthouse, 6th & Market Sts., Philadelphia, PA), a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Federal Court will hear argument in Ernest Porter v. Pennsylvania DOC, a case challenging 33 years of solitary confinement on death row as violating the 8th and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Porter has been held in solitary confinement since 1986 despite having a perfect disciplinary record in DOC custody. His death sentence was overturned in 2003, but he has yet to be resentenced due to ongoing appeals by the Commonwealth and himself regarding his death sentence and guilt-phase claims in his criminal case. The PA DOC is arguing that his ongoing appeals require his being buried in conditions that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to as a “penal tomb.”

In 2017, the Third Circuit held in Williams v. Secretary, that incarcerated people whose death sentences have been vacated had a liberty interest in removal from solitary confinement that entitled them to due process rights to challenge their isolation and be released to the general population of the prison. Despite that ruling, Porter remains in the capital case unit.

Porter filed suit in 2017 arguing that his indefinite solitary confinement which began in 1986 constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and that the Third Circuit’s 2017 ruling entitled him to due process protections under the 14th Amendment. The Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted defendants summary judgment, throwing out Porter’s suit and leading to his appeal to the Third Circuit.

Porter is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law. Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, will be arguing for Mr. Porter.

The Abolitionist Framework Must Combat Ableism in Order To Ensure the Freedom and Equity of Those Behind Bars

The Abolitionist Law Center is proud to announce our Board President, Jamelia Morgan has published a journal article calling for the abolition of ableism while fighting back against mass incarceration. REFLECTIONS ON REPRESENTING INCARCERATED PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: ABLEISM IN PRISON REFORM LITIGATION explores the intersections of disabilities and abolition while tasking legal advocates to combat ableism with holistic representation of clients and a raising of a multidimensional consciousness. While the conditions in prisons and jails are often discussed, what is often overlooked is how these inhumane facilities often target and mistreat those living with mental and physical disabilities. Disability Justice is important part of the abolition framework as those with disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal system as a result of failed health policies and systematic disparities. Due to the fact prisons and jails are not inherently designed to treat people in humane ways, those who enter into incarceration with a disability or develop a disability while incarcerated, face a lack of services and programming which leads to debilitation and trauma. What is even worse is that many lawyers lack the requisite training and understanding to represent clients who have disabilities and often perpetuate ableism.

lawyers representing people with disabilities are forced to represent their clients as physically, mentally, and emotionally damaged. In the typical, wellpleaded Section 1983 complaint brought on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities, the weaknesses and challenges of disability are on full display, not because of any individual plaintiff’s inability to overcome obstacles or challenges in carceral settings (as is often the nature of ableism reflected in rhetoric about people with disabilities in free society) but, rather, because prisons inherently were not built to meet the needs of people with physical or mental disabilities.

In combating ableism and amplifying disability justice as a practice, lawyers and advocates must not simply create an awareness of the issues impacting those living with disabilities but must also change the culture of the abolition framework to recognize the negative and often violent implications that arise as the result of ableist legal practices. As such, abolitionist may move to using better language in fighting for freedom and can use court filings to highlight the inherent structural injustices in the designs of prisons and jails.

As prisoners’ rights advocates, we must strategically and consciously resist ableist discourses and ideologies that present our clients as deserving of constitutional protection only where physical or psychological damage is readily apparent or diagnosable. Advocates must acknowledge structural disablement within carceral spaces and use language that affirms the humanity of people with disabilities locked up behind bars or steel doors.

Due to current systems, those living with disability while incarcerated are often from marginalized populations. In order to effectively advocate for this population of individuals, intersectionality dicates that abolitionists examine their complicity in ableist behaviors and ensure they are including impacted peoples in developing strategies and policies for transformative change.

Citation: Morgan, Jamelia, Reflections on Representing Incarcerated People with Disabilities: Ableism in Prison Reform Litigation (July 22, 2019). Denver Law Review, Vol. 96, No. 4, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3424341 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3424341

Media Alert: In Celebrating Juneteenth, We Must Remember Those Who Are Still Caged

The Abolitionist Law Center is honored to join in the celebration of Juneteenth. Juneteenth marks the ending of chattel slavery in the United States of America as it is commemorating when the last known individuals who were enslaved were notified of their freedom. Juneteenth is a momentous occasion to celebrate freedom and determination, but it is also a moment to pause to remember the thousands who are still enslaved today. After the civil war, the Black codes and vagrancy laws were passed to steal the freedom and protections away from Free Black folk. This resulted in what we know today as felony disenfranchisement.

Chain gangs and indentured servitude sentencing saw thousands of Newly Freed Black persons introduced into a new type of bondage made permissible by the exception clause of the 13th amendment.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

So as we celebrate the end of chattel slavery, we understand that the stain of the original sin has spread and permeated every fabric of our society. By some estimates, there are more Black people who are impacted by mass incarceration then under chattel slavery.

In Pennsylvania, the disparate racial impact is evident in the death by incarceration sentences all the way down to the pretrial resources. The legacy of slavery is kept alive through race and class-based incarceration as evidenced by the racial disparities in sentencing, arrests, and detainments are a continuation of enslavement practices. The slave patrols are now in charge of ensuring more people are cycled into the system. Today is Juneteenth. It also the anniversary of the murder of Antwon Rose II. None of us are free, until all of us are.

Media Release: Emergency Petition Filed For Young Woman Placed In Solitary Confinement During Her Birthday

On Monday the Abolitionist Law Center along with the law office of Timothy P. O’Brien and attorney Jules Lobel, filed an emergency petition against the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to remove a young woman from solitary confinement housing after spending more than 70 days – including her birthday – in the restrictive housing unit at ACJ since February, resulting in severe mental health crises and three suicide attempts.

The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.

For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.

 

The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.

 

She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.

The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed

Federal Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Activist Who Was Assaulted and Arrested at North Versailles

May 8, 2019
PITTSBURGH, PA (May 8, 2019) – The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien is filing a federal lawsuit against Christopher Kelly (“Kelly”) and Phoenix Theatres Entertainment, LLC (“Phoenix Theatres”) for assaulting and arresting Melanie Carter for recording Kelly—a police officer for the North Versailles Police Department, who was in full uniform at the time of the incident—with her cell phone. The Abolitionist Law Center has also joined as co-counsel. Ms. Carter began recording an incident at Phoenix Theatres where its employees, along with Kelly, were targeting a group of young African American children at Phoenix Stadium 18 at 1701 Lincoln Highway, North Versailles, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania 15137. Ms. Carter filmed the episode because she thought the young African American children were being treated unfairly because of their race after she witnessed Kelly and Phoenix Theatres forcibly remove some of the young children from Phoenix Stadium 18 and overheard them calling the girls “animals.”

Because Ms. Carter recorded the incident, Kelly arrested her by using his larger size to throw her to the concrete, push his body weight into her back with his knee, and shove her face into the concrete multiple times. The next day, Kelly charged Ms. Carter for numerous false criminal charges. All the criminal charges were dismissed at various stages of the criminal process prior to a criminal trial through the assistance of Bret Grote, Esquire and Quinn Cozzens, Esquire of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Ms. Carter—like any other member of the public—has a constitutional right to record police officers conducting official police activity,” said Alec B. Wright, Esquire. “If and when police officers like Christopher Kelly retaliate against members of the public like Carter for recording their activities, then they must be held accountable. That is what this lawsuit seeks to accomplish.”

According to Timothy P. O’Brien, Esquire, “Ms. Carter exercised her right of free speech and did the right thing by recording an abusive police officer. For that, she was violently attacked and falsely arrested and charged for crimes she did not commit. This lawsuit stands up for Ms. Carter and for every other citizen who may speak freely without fear of retaliation. We need more citizens like Ms. Carter and fewer police officers like Christopher Kelly who willingly abuse the powers that we entrust to them.”

Press Contact :
The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien will be holding interviews on Wednesday, May 9, 2019 at The Law Offices of Timothy P. O’Brien to discuss this important case. Attorney Wright may be reached at (412) 260-1662 or abw@obrienlawpgh.com.  Attorney Bret Grote may be reached at bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

Action Alert: Rally Against Family Separation in Allegheny County Criminal Courts

For Immediate Release
April 23, 2019

(Pittsburgh, PA) Rally to  support Joss Deuerling being permitted to seek treatment- not prison – and remain with her newborn baby

Speakers: Representative Summer Lee; Bethany Hallam, plus speakers from ALC, ACLU-PA, Let’s Get Free: Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, FAMM, SWOP Behind Bars, PA Institutional Law Project, and Americans for Prosperity.

A rally and press conference will be held on Friday, April 26 at 12:00 noon in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to speak out against the criminal legal system’s role in separating families and punishing substance abuse disorder. #BringJossHome #TreatmentNotJail 

On February 5, 2019, 31-year-old Joss Deuerling – already a mother of three and 9 months pregnant – was taken to Allegheny County Jail because of a technical probation violation. She had tested positive on a random drug test.

Two days later she gave birth in West Penn Hospital without her partner or any family, not permitted to tell anybody where she was at or that she was in labor, and with an officer from the Sheriff’s Department insisting on staying in the room throughout her birth. She was told by the officer that her partner would be arrested if he tried to come to the hospital. The officers then deprived her of showers for two days after she gave birth and severely restricted the amount of time she was permitted to hold her newborn baby.

After spending the next 6 weeks in ACJ, separated from her 4 children and her partner for a technical violation caused by substance abuse disorder, a medical condition, Court of Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani has decided to revoke her probation and separate her from her family by sending her to state prison.

This is an injustice and we are calling on the community to rally in support of allowing Joss to remain with her family and seek the treatment she wants – and deserves – in her own community.

Relapse is a common part of recovery. Over the last three years Joss has been in treatment. She has been improving and wants to stay drug-free and with her family. A loving environment, family and community support is essential for successful recovery.

Substance abuse disorder should not be criminalized any longer, and the courts and other officials are called upon to handle these cases in therapeutic and medically appropriate ways.

Join us as we rally in support of Joss and her family, protest family separation, and advocate for treating substance abuse disorder as the medical condition it is.

Media Contact: 
Miracle Jones 
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (Google voice)
Abolitionist Law Center 
communications@alcenter.org

Media Release: PA Superior Court Urges PA Supreme Court to Review Whether Avis Lee can Challenge Life-Without-Parole Sentence Imposed at 18 years-old

For Immediate Release

Friday, March 1, 2019: The Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a unanimous en banc decision today disallowing Avis Lee the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of her life without parole sentence, which was imposed for her role as a lookout in armed robbery 39 years ago that resulted in a homicide. The Superior Court held that it was “constrained to affirm” the lower court’s dismissal of Ms. Lee’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Petition on the basis that only the Pennsylvania or United States Supreme Court could permit a consideration of the constitutionality of Ms. Lee’s sentence. In reaching this conclusion the Superior Court wrote: “We would urge our Supreme Court to review this issue in light of the research [on adolescent social and neuro-development] available even since Batts II was decided in 2017.”

Ms. Lee brought this challenge to her decision in March 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the right established in the 2012 decision of Miller v. Alabama that prohibited mandatory life- without-parole sentences for children younger than 18 years of age applied retroactively to older cases. In Montgomery, the Supreme Court found that the right in Miller was substantive, not merely procedural, and that it prohibited a sentence of life-without-parole – commonly referred to as “Death by Incarceration” – upon any defendant whose crime “reflected the transient immaturity of youth.”

In the Superior Court, Avis was arguing for the right to make an argument, to be heard on the merits on this issue for the first time, as she has never had the chance to argue that her sentence is unconstitutional under the new constitutional standards of Miller and Montgomery. On October 23, 2018, counsel for Avis argued in front of a 9-judge en banc panel that she deserves at least that one opportunity to challenge her sentence under current law, and there is nothing in state or federal law to prohibit that. The Philadelphia courthouse was packed to overflowing with the family members of those serving DBI sentences.

The offense Ms. Lee is currently serving a death-by-incarceration sentence for occurred in November 1979, when she agreed to serve as a lookout in an armed robbery. When the victim attempted to resist her co-defendant and older brother shot him, resulting in his death. Ms. Lee was convicted of 2nd degree felony murder, which in Pennsylvania is defined as a homicide that occurs in the course of another felony. The offense does not require any intent to kill on the part of the defendant, and it carries one penalty – death by incarceration.

Ms. Lee’s 2016 PCRA petition argued that a sentencing court should be required to consider the factors identified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery in order to determine if her sentence amounted to disproportionate punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The petition contained extensive discussion of the poverty, trauma, and violence that Ms. Lee had been exposed and subjected to since she the very first years of her life. The petition also included copious examples of her exemplary prison record, including going without any prison misconduct for more than a quarter of a century, and her involvement in numerous volunteer and service projects.

Ms. Lee is also widely known and admired for her irrepressible optimism, which she maintains in spite of her circumstances. When informed of today’s opinion, she said: “Thank you for standing by me and continuing to stay strong, because I will [too]. Eventually we will prevail.”

The Abolitionist Law Center represents Ms. Lee, along with Duquesne Law School Professor Tiffany Sizemore and University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Jules Lobel. ALC legal director, Bret Grote, said

We are not surprised by this outcome and have always recognized that ultimately it is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that will determine whether the PCRA statute should be read consistent with its text and purpose and permit Ms. Lee the mere opportunity to argue this issue on the merits. It is beyond dispute that Avis, beloved and respected by all who know her, is serving a sentence that lacks any social or penological purpose. To read the law in such as a way as to keep the courthouse doors forever closed to meritorious claims against permanent punishment is to enshrine a tortured and incorrect formalism over substantive justice. We intend to appeal.

Abolitionist Law Center Communications Director, Miracle Jones, added:

When it comes to fighting against Death-by-Incarceration at the ALC defeat is not an option. We are part of a powerful and growing movement that will not rest until every person sentenced to DBI has the opportunity to return to their families and communities, until the right to redemption becomes the North Star of the justice system.

#FREEAVISLEE


Press Contact:

Miracle Jones
(She/Her/Hers)
412-346-6537 (google voice)
Director of Communications
Abolitionist Law Center
communications@alcenter.org

ACTION ALERT: HEARING SCHEDULED FOR LEGAL MAIL INJUNCTION

The preliminary injunction hearing in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, challenging the PA Department of Corrections new legal mail policy, which involves the photocopying of all attorney-client mail, will begin this Tuesday, February 19 and last through the following Tuesday, February 26.

Plaintiffs are the PA Institutional Law Project, Amistad Law Project, ACLU of PA, Abolitionist Law Center, and Davon Hayes. The hearing seek to compel an injunction of the current legal policy that has essentially prevented attorneys from communicating with their clients.

The hearing is open to the public and is in Judge Jones’s courtroom.

Please be advised, while this hearing is open to the public, there are limited seats available, and communication devices are prohibited during court. 
Additionally, any disruptions or outbursts will not be tolerated during the sessions.

When the government insists that we go along with constitutional violations so they can fight a drug war we have to just say no. Next week we will be in court fighting to take those rights back. ~Bret Grote

Media Alert: Community Pre-Trial Press Conference for Blak Rapp Madusa on January 10 to Highlight the Disparities and Injustices Facing Black Women and Girls.

 

For Immediate Release

January 08, 2019

(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Over the last couple of weeks, the national discourse has been on highlighting the realities that Black Women face. From #survivingrkelly to #jasminebarnes to #metoo,Black women have asked the community at large to stand up and protect Black women and that discourse is true right here in Allegheny County from #JadeMartin to the women incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail.

But what happens when one protects or tries to defend Black women? Well, if you are Blak Rapp Madusa (Melanie Carter), you get violently taken to the ground and arrested for standing up for black girls. In a viral video,  Blak Rapp intervened on behalf of young Black teen girls who were being violently removed by a local officer. After hearing the girls being dehumanized and called “animals”, Blak Rapp tried to intervene on their behalf. Blak Rapp stood up for Black girls and is now fighting for their freedom. Blak Rapp was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, defiant trespassing and failure to disperse even though the manager was fired, and the district attorney admitted the incident “does raise concerns.” These charges are indicative of the barrier’s individuals face while trying to protect Black women and girls from violence and injustice. Blak Rapp is being represented by the Abolitionist Law Center.

On January 10 at 9:30 AM BLAK RAPP MADUSA will go on trial at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas with Judge Cashman presiding. Prior to the trial, a press conference is scheduled for 8:30 AM. Per Blak Rapp’s request (due to the violent threats they continue to receive), the press conference will not only include brief remarks about their case but also the plight of Black women and girls in Allegheny County. In highlighting the injustices facing Black Women and girls the press conference will include remarks from the following:

Blak Rapp Madusa: Survivor of violence, Community organizer and artist. Blak uses their talent to highlight injustices and inspire creativity.

Kelli Shaker: Survivor of violence and Founder of FroGang an organization that seeks to inspire and encourage young black girls to love themselves and accomplish their goals.

Jade Martin: Mother and survivor of violence. She made headlines last year after being assaulted in a pizzeria.

Brandi Fisher: President of the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) is dedicated to criminal justice reconstruction and putting an end to police brutality and racial profiling through advocacy, education, and policy.

Nicky Jo Dawson: Community organizer and founder of BLAQK OPS an organization that seeks to empower and educate the local community on their history and their rights.

Miracle Jones: Director of Communications for the Abolitionist Law Center a Pittsburg based legal nonprofit that works to end mass incarceration.

Additionally, supporters of Blak RAPP will be wearing purple and red to show support as they go on trial and will be using the hashtags #JusticeforBlakRAPP, #protectblackwomen, #rehumanizeBlackwomen to show their support.

JUSTICE FOR BLAK RAPP
Thursday JANUARY 10, 2019
8:20 AM Press Conference
9:00 AM Pack the Court
Administrative Judge David Cashman’s room
308 Allegheny County Courthouse
436 Grant Street 15219

Press Contact:

Miracle Jones, Director of Communications, Abolitionist Law Center, Communications@alcenter.org.

Melanie Carter Habeas Corpus petition – Filed

Melanie Carter – Preliminary Hearing Transcript