Larry Mendte and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
These are two names you won’t see in the same sentence in most newspapers for obvious reasons.
One is a disgraced TV news anchor in Philadelphia and the other is a death row inmate from the same city – seemingly different as left-&-right, black-&-white, and…well, you get the point.
Yet, in a strange but true way, Mendte and Mumia share different sides of a similar coin beyond both Philadelphia journalists being in the news during the same week in July 2008.
On July 21, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia indicted Mendte for illegally hacking into email accounts of his one-time co-anchor at Philadelphia’s CBS3 television station, Alycia Lane – a now former ‘news reader’ as Europeans more accurately identify the position Americans call anchor persons.
Beyond the alleged US Crime Code violation of intentionally accessing a protected computer without authorization – 537 emails invasions during just one few month period – something particular put federal prosecutors into a peculiar froth about Mendte’s mendacious efforts to dig dirt on a declared rival.
Mendte’s [alleged] invasion of Lane’s email accounts included piercing something lawyers deem important: privacy of attorney-client communication.
Mendte’s [alleged] invasion pried into communications Lane’s lawyers sent her via email in civil and criminal matters. Mendte not only personally perused these private attorney-client communications – he [allegedly] leaked the contents of the pilfered emails to a local reporter who published the information.
According to the federal indictment, these attorney-client emails involved matters related to Lane suing CBS3 for wrongfully firing her months ago…after a series of headline generating scandal incidents by her including fighting with a New York City policewoman where she [allegedly] slurred that cop with a derogatory sexual-orientation reference.
These attorney-client emails, the indictment states, involved matters related to a sweet-heart plea deal NYC prosecutors gave Lane arising from that December 2006 arrest where Lane [allegedly] scuffled with that NYPD policewoman. And these emails Mendte [allegedly] read and leaked involved legal action Lane planned against NYC for that arrest…where she received an arrest record-clearing, wrist-slap six months probation program for [alleged] conduct that has led NYPD officers to kill non-whites.
Concerning email leaks related to that plea deal, the federal indictment of Mendte declared, “it was important to the completion of those negotiations that the discussions…remain confidential.”
One news account of the press conference announcing Mendte’s indictment noted that a top federal prosecutor referenced the importance of privacy protections for attorney-client communications four times in the first four minutes of her presentation.
Three cheers for the feds standing up for safeguards under-girding the legal system.
However, there’s a not so small problem here.
For some people, authorities willfully toss aside legal safeguards like the sanctity of attorney-client privacy when advancing schemes to sabotage legal rights. And designated protectors of the legal system – like prosecutors and judges – turn blind eyes to these assaults.
Enter Mumia Abu-Jamal – a case that provokes criticisms internationally because it is riddled with sabotage schemes by police, prosecutors and judges.
Shortly before a critical 1995 court proceeding for Abu-Jamal, a bevy of Pennsylvania authorities including ranking members of the Pa Governor’s Office willfully violated his attorney-client privacy right by illegally opening mail from his lawyers.
This improper mail opening alerted then Gov. Tom Ridge to the date lawyers planned to file an appeal thus enabling Ridge to use this improperly obtained information to issue a death warrant a few days before that filing.
Ridge’s warrant torpedoed the legal safeguard of fairness in that appeal proceeding by, among many things, forcing Abu-Jamal’s lawyers to fight the sand-bagging execution date instead of focusing solely on finalizing preparations for that important hearing.
That warrant enabled a notoriously pro-prosecution judge to further decimate Abu-Jamal’s rights by unnecessarily rushing the hearing – claiming he had to expedite the hearing because of the pending execution warrant. (The warrant itself was illegal because Pa law permits death row inmates to exhaust all appeals before an execution can take place.)
That ’95 appeal hearing ended with that bigoted judge rejecting all of Abu-Jamal’s evidence – incredible proof destroying core elements of the prosecution’s case.
An August 1998 Third Circuit federal appeals court ruling declared Pa authorities invaded “the privacy” of Abu-Jamal’s protected legal mail “thus directly” interfering with his ability to “communicate with” his lawyers.
Unlike the Larry Mendte email invasion, however, no prosecutor or judge took any action against Ridge or offending Pa state lawyers for violating Abu-Jamal’s attorney-client privacy rights.
Remember, attorney/client privacy violations against Abu-Jamal occurred during a death penalty case – not some ego spat between pampered, highly paid TV personalities. Apparently, federal prosecutors are more moved by privacy invasions against a self-destroyed damsel than invasions against a self-declared radical facing the death penalty.
When the Third Circuit upheld Abu-Jamal’s murder conviction earlier this year, that ruling blithely brushed off numerous instances of outrageous skullduggery during that 1995 appeal hearing as lawful grounds for a new hearing.
The day after Mendte’s indictment – July 22 – the Third Circuit rejected a request to reconsider its rejection of Abu-Jamal’s request for a new hearing. That earlier rejection chucked existing legal standards by creating new, stricter standards exceeding those ordered by even the US Supreme Court.
That initial rejection, for example, faulted Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial attorney for not following legal standards that the US Supreme Court did not create until 1986 – four full years after that trial. That rejection faulted Abu-Jamal’s 1995 lawyers for not presenting certain evidence of jury selection discrimination that the ’95 hearing judge blocked lawyers from presenting even to the point of briefly jailing one lawyer for objecting to this judge’s obstruction.
Interestingly, the Third Circuit recently ordered a new hearing for a member of a murderous drug gang that robbed drug dealers to buy guns to rob other drug dealers. This new hearing resulted from that Circuit Court scrupulously adhering to legal standards…which courts are supposed to do.
But hey, courts’ scrupulously adhering to legal standards except in the case of Abu-Jamal is the ‘standard’ in the Abu-Jamal case. And, perhaps a further wrinkle here, the murder victims of this gang were not whites like the policeman in the Abu-Jamal case
Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Robert R. Bryan, commenting on the Third Circuit’s rejection said it’s “naïve not to realize that this case continues to reek of politics and injustice.”
Now before contending that combining Mendte and Mumia is mixing apples-&-oranges, consider some double standards of justice issues.
Consider the fact that federal prosecutors in Philadelphia quickly indicted a young man earlier this year weeks after Philadelphia police badly beat this man in an unprovoked attacked. The police who brutalized this young man claimed he had a gun – a charge he and eyewitnesses deny. The feds indicted this young man as a convicted felon illegally possessing a gun using the specious hook of this young man’s year-old conviction for a minor gun related incident that netted him a probationary term…a term he was serving successfully.
The prison time faced by Larry Mendte – who is expected to plead guilty – is far less that the mandatory five-year sentences federal courts routinely uphold for non-violent/first-time offenders convicted of simply smoking crack cocaine. Mendte faces only six months in prison for cracking into Alycia Lane’s email – not once but more than 500 times…and perhaps more but the feds could not reliably document those additional invasions.
Note that standard practice leans towards Mendte never seeing a prison cell for his [alleged] offense…but if Mendte was Mookie from down-the-way, well…
Linn Washington Jr. is a Yale Law Journalism Fellowship graduate who is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune newspaper.