They were showing "Angels With Dirty Faces," the old hoodlum picture in which Cagney goes begging and kicking to the electric chair, on that day 17 years ago when Jerry the Jew was scheduled to fry.
Jerry wasn't so famous then, just another troublemaker with law books in his Sing Sing cell, and a guard couldn't resist giving him a little shot.
"That gonna be you soon, Jerry."
A little while later, with 11 hours to go to his execution, another guard brought a telegram to his cell that read: "Your sentence has been commuted." Only on a technicality, as it happened; because of a clever legal mind. The clever legal mind, as Jerry the Jew would be the last to conceal, belongs to that eighth-grade dropout; that convicted cop-killer; that legend in the New York Penal System and Elsewheres; Soon to Be a Major Fil-lum; Brooklyn's own Jerry Rosenberg, or as he's proud to be called in the slammer, Jerry the Jew.
A good legal mind, some say, is hard to find, but for 24 years it has been no problem finding Jerry. Take the New York State Thruway; follow it up the river; and get off at whichever joint is housing Jerry--Dannemora, Clinton, Attica, Eastern Correctional, Sing Sing. With more than half of his life spent in prison, Jerry has been around. Also, as the premier Jailhouse Lawyer in the country, he has a rep: the first guy to argue another guy's case before the New York courts without being a member of the bar; the first con to represent a guy on the outside. He claims to have won 90 out of 140 cases, and even with his gift for hyperbole, there may be some basis for the claim.
Paul Goldberger, of the Manhattan law firm of Goldberger, Feldman, Dubin and Weissberg, said he couldn't guess how many people Jerry had aided in prison, but the inmates who needed help and could no longer afford to pay for outside counsel often sought Jerry Rosenberg. Retired New York Supreme Court Justice Frank McCullough, before whom Jerry had argued a case for another inmate, recalled, "He was a very clever guy . . . he used to write excellent briefs . . . I remember once I said to him, 'Have you been to law school?' . . . He told me he had done it from a correspondence course . . . I was very much impressed . . . sometimes fellows who go to law school don't do half as good a job . . ."
Learning that Jerry was representing the prisoners at the Attica prison riots some years ago, attorney William Kunstler--something of a showman himself--came out of the yard with a statement designed to create drama. "I'm up against the best," he said. "I'm up against Jerry the Jew."
Rosenberg's record, both criminal and legal, is extensive. Twenty-seven arrests by the time he went up the river the last time, at age 24, sentenced to death for shooting two cops. Three law degrees, all through correspondence courses, including, he notes proudly, an LL.D., "the highest there is." A promised job, should he ever be released, with a law firm in Manhattan. Release, however, is not imminent. The parole board, last month, turned down a bid, leaving Jerry unable to apply again for two years.
It would be inaccurate to say Jerry, a skinny, hyperactive guy with a Brooklyn accent unblemished by contact without the outside world, considers himself beaten. The only case he is working on now is the suit he will bring, momentarily, against the parole board.
"They're crazy what they did," steams Jerry. They violated his "fith, foist, un fawteenth amendments." Unbelievable what they tried. To mess with Jerry?
"Hook or by crook, I'm gonna get 'em," says Jerry. "I tole 'em to their face, they're finished."
A spring morning and Jerry is in his current incarceration, Eastern Correctional, a maximum security prison in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York. Many prisoners, particularly lifers, languish lonely in the pen, but not Jerry. His visiting card, he says, has 180 names, many of them show people; he has been busy, of late, checking the galleys of the book a Hollywood screenwriter has done about Jerry ("Doing Life," by Stephen Bello, published this month by St. Martin's Press). Jerry, who's already appeared on "What's Happening America?," is thrilled, though in proper modest hoodlum fashion.
Proffering the book jacket in a visiting room, he says, "It's got big reviews from big people . . . Me, I can't be enthused about it, 'cause it's my life."
Jerry's life, out of the mouth of Jerry, should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Now serving a life sentence for the shooting death of two police officers 20 years ago, Rosenberg has insisted throughout the years he is innocent. But some time ago, during the Attica prison riots, Jerry apparently told a reporter he was guilty of the crime, and seemingly took pride in the act.
"He said, 'Haven't ya ever heard about me? I killed two cops in Brooklyn?,' something like that," says Jon Margolis, now with the Chicago Tribune.
The story of Jerry's life, at any rate, by Jerry, is this:
He was born, the third son of a middle-class family, in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood not unknown to the mob. His father had a novelties business; his two older brothers, who would go into the business, were good students, and are now--as Jerry puts it--"legitimate guys."
Jerry was not. He "stood wid the tough kids," he says; was thrown out of school in the eighth grade. At 14 he held the only job he'd hold in his life, selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners. They fired him on the second day for running a scam. From there, he says cheerfully, he was arrested 26 times, "homicides, robberies, burglaries, everything, y'know, but sex crimes." Along the way, running in a mostly Italian gang, he picked up his street name, Jerry the Jew. At 20, charged with armed robbery, he got sent away for four years. "Only time I ever pleaded guilty in my life," says Jerry, laughing. "I got caught right in the act, couldn't say I was innocent on that one."
Six months after he was released from prison, he became involved in the double homicide case that was one of the most notorious local crimes of the year. The facts of the crime are these:
On a Friday afternoon, in May 1962, two police officers interrupted a robbery-in-progress at a Brooklyn wholesale tobacco shop. It wasn't a nickel-and-dime robbery--customarily, there were several thousand dollars in payroll money on hand. One masked robber, later identified in court by one witness as Jerry Rosenberg, age 24, herded eight employes to the back of the store, where they were unharmed; the second bandit, identified in court as Anthony Portelli, shot the police officers, who died. Portelli was apprehended by the police; Jerry, "on the lam in the Bronx," after consultation with his father gave himself up to the Daily News, where his father had a friend.
In court, Rosenberg insisted on his innocence. It did no good. On Feb. 18, 1963, he was sent to Sing Sing, sentenced to die in the electric chair. Portelli was also sentenced to the chair.
The Winning Strategy --
Jerry on death row: "They had this U-shaped yard, up at Sing Sing. You could look across the yard, they'd leave the window shade open, and you could see the execution chamber . . . I had three execution dates in three years, I seen two people burn, Freddie Woods and Eddie May . . . Freddie Woods, he was an elderly guy aged 52, he locked next to me, he didn't know law . . .He went with a lot of dignity. He said to me, 'What can I do to make it a joke?' I give him my handkerchief and said, when you go in dust off the chair."
Jerry on his motivation for learning law: seeing Freddie Woods go to the chair.
Jerry on his winning strategy: "They abolished capital punishment in 1965, but it didn't apply to cop-killers; so they didn't commute me and my partner's sentence. I filed a loophole in the law. See, when they drew it up it was for premeditated murder of a cop; we were convicted for felony murder, there was no premeditated murder involved . . . I beat it . . . I made the whole state senate go back and change the law."
Learning the Law
The bare-bones version of the tale, of course, leaves out many things. It disregards the legal fight that Jerry claims he had to threaten in Sing Sing merely to be permitted to get a correspondence degree in criminal law; it disregards the prison atmosphere of the '60s, a time, according to Jerry, when a prisoner could go to the "hole" (solitary confinement) for merely helping another prisoner with his case. (Jerry claims that while at Attica, he went to the hole 22 times for helping other inmates with legal work.) The story, does, however, bring to light a curious thing: In prison, with law, the rebellious spirit of Jerry Rosenberg found the perfect career.
He armed himself with a certificate in criminal law from Boston University while on death row, and later with two more degrees from Blackstone College, a correspondence school in Illinois.
All the while--without actually being admitted to the bar--he was granted dispensations by judges and represented himself and other inmates.
Serving as his own attorney, in July 1972, he filed a suit against the police chief inspector who had been head of the detective squad that had arrested him. He claimed the detective issued false reports, and had--by declaring him a killer before television cameras--violated his civil rights. "Here is the bastard killer. He will burn," the detective said. Rosenberg won a $7,500 judgment in federal District Court, though the decision was later overturned.
In November, the same year, he represented a fellow inmate at Sing Sing, believed to be the first time a nonlicensed lawyer appeared in a New York court on behalf of a defendant. Two years later, he made legal history again as the first jail-house lawyer to represent a client on the outside--one John Rizzo, whom Jerry had known at Sing Sing. Arguing that his client had not received proper medical treatment after a fall, Rosenberg won $8,000 in damages before being led back to prison. "Verdict for Client, Cuffs for Counsel," the headline in the New York Post read, the story noting that when the verdict came in, Jerry's smile was "nearly as bright as the handcuffs snapped on his wrists."
He did not always, however, get good press. At the prison riots at Attica, serving as house counsel to the inmates, he tore up an injunction because--he says--it failed to guarantee amnesty and lacked an official seal. "This injunction is garbage," he hollered. Some reporters covering the riot thought that accurate. Others, like Tom Wicker of The New York Times, would call it grandstanding, an attempt--in the yard--to gain the inmates' respect.
Jerry, who would later be beaten in the yard for his activities, looks back on the moment proudly.
"They were tryin' ta get slick," he says.
Fighting the System
The reputation of Jerry the Jew, in legal circles, is not bad these days. Herald Price Fahringer, who recently defended Claus von Bu low and had some correspondence over the years with Jerry, says Rosenberg has "a tremendous command of criminal law."
And yet--and "eee-ronically," as Jerry would say--the man Jerry has been unable to spring from prison so far is himself. A bid for parole was denied this past April; Jerry will be unable to apply to the parole board again until 1984. And so, until then, he contents himself with litigation. He has battled against the New York State Berkowitz law, which prevents a criminal from benefiting financially from a crime--like Jerry, who has received money for his life story-- and, he claims, found a loophole in the law and won. ("They cried like uh bastid," he says.) He is fighting, continuously, with the prison system, regarding his physical health. (He still suffers from the injuries received from Attica, he says.)
Nor is he discouraged by the parole board. 'Cause he's not gonna apply again to the parole board. He's going to sue them, instead. He's gonna give 'em a writ of habeas corpus. Here he'll spell it out.
"The top of this here, where they talk about the seriousness of the crime, they cannot use that to hold you with, the law of New York State has already established that it is illegal and improper to use the nature of your crime to hold you in prison after you receive the minimum sentence," he says, rattling along. "That part about how I absconded from parole, there, that's bull----, don't mean nuthin'. The only key of their reason is that I claimed innocent and therefore show no remorse of crime . . . well how you gonna show recognition of guilt, when you claim you're innocent? . . . The whole key to this issue is can a parole board, a quasi-legal body, do something a judge can't do and the cops can't do . . . I'm gonna raise an angle that's never been raised before. I wouldn't be surprised, this one goes all the way to the Supreme Court . . ."
"Crazy what they did," says Jerry the Jew.