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Media frenzy over Rockefeller drug law reforms
Lies told in the "drug war"

February 24, 2006 | Page 6

ANTHONY PAPA, a former prisoner under the Rockefeller drug laws, is the author of 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom, and a critically-acclaimed artist whose work has been exhibited in New York's Whitney Museum.

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NEW YORK'S two leading daily tabloids recently crossed the line of ethical reporting in their attempt to limit the application of recent Rockefeller drug law (RDL) reforms. Through misleading editorials and stories, these newspapers are trying to influence the application of two recent changes in the law and stop further reform efforts.

In 2005, the New York state legislature imposed changes that would make about 900 drug war prisoners eligible for resentencing under the Drug Law Reform Act (DLRA). The law provides for determinate sentencing for felony drug offenders and permits people who were convicted under the old law to apply for resentencing.

The New York Post reported in its typical sensationalistic fashion that, through these changes, many murderers were being released. What the Post failed to report was that the limited reforms regarding the drug sentences in no way give a judge the authority to change a sentence for a violent felony offense such as murder.

The reality, which must be known by even the New York Post, is that people convicted of these offenses are not being released.

Bill Gibney of the Legal Aid Society, who recently published a report detailing the limited relief of the new Rockefeller reform changes said, "The article is misleading because the people convicted of murder are not going to get out of prison under the Rockefeller drug law reforms. If someone is serving time for another crime, especially a violent crime, they'll have to serve that time. The small reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws will not enable them to get out early."

Following the lead of the Post, its tabloid cousin, the New York Daily News, released news that contained misleading facts and unproven allegations in an attempt to influence the outcome of the recent RDL hearing of drug war prisoner John McCaskell, who was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in 1992 for the sale of four ounces of cocaine.

Despite the negative publicity, he was resentenced on January 26 to 20 years by the Honorable Marcy Kahn in Supreme Court in New York County. Mr. McCaskell has been in prison for almost 15-and-a-half years. Under the new law, McCaskell was eligible to receive a determinate sentence of 12 to 24 years. Under his new sentence, he will be released in about a year and a half.

Mr. McCaskell's motion for resentencing resulted in the longest hearing to date under the DLRA. The prosecution rigorously opposed resentencing, and presented evidence and witnesses in hearings that lasted over nine months. The prosecution hoped to convince the court that McCaskell was connected to the sensational 1991 murder of police officer Edward Byrne, as well as several other murders.

Judge Kahn ruled that the evidence presented to support these claims was too unreliable to be considered by the court. The prosecution presented uncorroborated information provided to police by a confidential informant who was not called to testify. Judge Kahn held that because some of the information provided by the informant was proven to be false and because of the lack of corroboration by other evidence or sources, the information was inherently unreliable.

Furthermore, Judge Kahn excoriated the Manhattan District Attorney's office for prosecutorial misconduct in the case, stating "I am troubled by the fact that, throughout these proceedings, the people at times veered close to losing their ethical compass," and that "the people's conduct fell below the professional standards I would expect from their office."

Specifically, Judge Kahn criticized the prosecution for turning over material late on "more than one occasion," for misleading the court and for miscasting evidence." In support of the resentencing, Judge Kahn cited Mr. McCaskell's age at the time of the crime, his "exemplary" efforts at rehabilitation, his institutional record, his demonstrated remorse and acceptance of responsibility, and his strong network of family support.

Margaret Ratner Kunstler, an attorney and president of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, represented Mr. McCaskell along with attorney Elizabeth M. Fink. According to Ms. Ratner Kunstler, "The court's ruling was a fair one, and I am gratified that Judge Kahn had the courage to criticize the New York County District Attorney because the county has been notorious in its opposition to resentencing."

Judge Kahn should be applauded by her decision to have the courage to apply justice as seen fit in the case at hand. It is this writer's opinion that she should have also publicly condemned the media that poured out stories that contained potentially damaging hearsay that somehow was leaked out to them.

In November, I sat in Judge Kahn's courtroom and thought I was listening to a murder trial instead of a DLRA rehearing motion with the assistant district attorney almost quoting verbatim the hearsay that appeared in the Daily News editorial.

The recent flurry of yellow journalism in regards to Rockefeller reform is nothing more than an attempt to take away the much-needed changes that have so far been made and to curb further efforts by activists.

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