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The Scandal Hidden Inside a State’s Porn Email Scandal

(Part I of II)

Obscured by a current scandal involving pornographic emails currently rocking the top reaches of Pennsylvania’s state government, a scandal that has cast a shadow over embattled Pennsylvania Governor and former state’s attorney general Tom Corbett and the state’s judiciary, including a state Supreme Court member, is another explosive scandal.

That hidden scandal involves the persecution of Lorenzo ‘Cat’ Johnson. a Pennsylvania inmate, by prosecutors from the state’s attorney general’s office -– the same office that has exposed the chain of pornographic emails dating from Corbett’s tenure as AG.

The Johnson had won a court-ordered release from a deeply flawed murder conviction after having wrongfully served 16-years of a life sentence. But he was nonetheless forced to return to prison due to actions by state’s current Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, a Democrat who succeeded Corbett in that office.

Gov. Corbett had headed the state AG’s office when that office handled initially handled Johnson’s prosecution in this badly tainted murder trial. Corbett later served as AG when that office vigorously opposed Johnson’s appeal of that his verdict and sentence..

This hidden scandal exposes a pattern of state government officials who blithely tolerated this and other outrageously unjust criminal convictions. This hidden scandal also exposes the penchant of prosecutors to fight to preserve convictions they know to have been tainted by official misconduct.

Too many false convictions in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the US involve documented misconduct by police and/or prosecutors –- misconduct often covered-up for decades by courts and prosecutors. This misconduct includes authorities improperly withholding evidence of innocence at trial –- a gross violation of constitutional fair trial rights as well as professional conduct standards. Withheld evidence is a core issue in the case of this particular inmate persecuted by the AG’s office.

The porn scandal, initiated by AG Kane’s office, and now rocking state government in Pennsylvania, involves emails containing sexually explicit images (often accompanied by raunchy commentary by email senders and recipients) exchanged over state-owned computers by then ranking members of the state’s Attorney Generals office as well as several state judges, including one member of the state’s Supreme Court.

Conservative Republican Gov. Corbett headed the AG’s office when ranking subordinates in that office engaged in enthusiastic exchanges of those pornographic emails. (No evidence released to date links Corbett himself to the pornographic emails.)

Fallout from this porn email scandal has forced the resignation of former AG office prosecutors, including a few who held top posts in Corbett’s gubernatorial administration.

Those resignations included one man whom Corbett appointed to the state’s Parole Board –- the body that determines prison release for inmates, including those convicted of sex crimes. One former AG prosecutor, who was also serving as a part-time county prosecutor, has resigned. And another former AG prosecutor resigned from the upscale law firm where he worked. However, a third former AG prosecutor identified in the porn email scandal, who currently works for the DA’s Office in Philadelphia, has so far refused to resign.

The man Corbett appointed to head the Pennsylvania’s State Police, Frank Noonan, was identified as having received over 300 of those pornographic messages. But Corbett accepted claims from Noonan, a former AG criminal division chief turned state’s top cop, that he had neither opened nor forwarded the emails. Yet, as a Philadelphia Daily News columnist noted, “Noonan apparently also never told Corbett he received” the explicit emails, nor, clearly, did he try to put a stop to their being sent to him by, for example, relegating them to spam, or by going after the senders in the office.

A spin-off of the investigation into misuse of state computers to exchange pornography revealed that Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCafferty had sent sexually explicit emails this year to his brother, a Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia, according to published reports. AG investigators have informed this the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice that other judges and court personnel also shared sexually graphic emails.

The scandal hidden within this porno email scandal involves the man Corbett appointed to head the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Chris Abruzzo, who resigned recently from that post after his public identification as a participant in the email scandal. (A top Abruzzo aide at the DEP, who was also in the AG’s office earlier, has also resigned after being caught up in the email scandal.)

The scandal involving Abruzzo is aside from the more serious issue of his scandalous elevation as a career criminal prosecutor to a top post in environmental protection, where he had no background.

There was a brief stir when Abruzzo, on the eve of his confirmation to head the DEP, testified that he was unaware that climate change can cause environmental harm. Abruzzo’s stated ignorance on an issue fundamental to environmental protection did not stop the state’s Republican-controlled State Senate from approving him to the top state environmental post.

This other scandal surrounding Abruzzo involves his role as lead prosecutor in the controversial 1997 murder conviction of Johnson. The state AG’s office, during Corbett’s first term as state AG, handled the prosecution of Johnson as well as a co-defendant in a 1995 murder in Harrisburg, the state’s capital city. No physical evidence or confession connected Johnson to that murder.

Documentation withheld by state authorities during Johnson’s trial confirm Johnson’s alibi. The once-suppressed documentation showed that police had coerced witnesses, including the only witness who had testified to place Johnson near the murder scene. (Prosecutors never claimed Johnson was the killer–only that he was present when the killing occurred.)

Johnson has consistently claimed he was in New York City at the time of that 1995 fatal shooting. His supporters have also insisted that he was arrested only after he rejected months-long police pressure to be an informant about drug dealing in Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania AG’s office under Corbett, constantly battled against Johnson’s appeals in state and federal courts despite the mounting (and previously illegally withheld) evidence of misconduct by police before Johnson’s trial and by prosecutors during his murder trial. Abruzzo himself, for example, failed to disclose to Johnson’s attorneys and to the courts a plea deal his office made favorable to a witness against Johnson, according to withheld evidence that is now included in Johnson’s appeals.

In October 2011 the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Johnson’s conviction, stating in part that the “evidence simply does not permit any reasonable fact-finder to find Johnson guilty on charges of aiding and abetting first degree murder.”

Johnson left prison on bond in January 2012. He returned to his family in New York City, got a job and even engaged in public speaking about wrongful convictions including at law school classes.

But a last minute appeal by state’s AG’s office to the U.S. Supreme Court produced a reversal of that Third Circuit release. The Supreme Court ruling came without the standard procedure of permitting response from the defense before and after that ruling.

Current AG Kane has pursued the anti-Johnson/keep-a-conviction stance of her predecessors Corbett his Republican predecessor Mike Fisher, who is now a judge on the federal Third Circuit Appeals Court.

The May 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced Johnson’s return to prison in June 2012, after he had experienced six months of freedom. Johnson continues his appeals to confirm his innocence and win his release.

A year after Johnson’s voluntary return to prison in 2012, the state’s Innocence Project issued a statement condemning his re-imprisonment. The organization, in that statement, concluded with the observation that “This tale of cruel tease of freedom is a heartbreak many would be unable to fathom.”

Lorenzo Johnson is not alone in being abused by police, prosecutors and the judiciary.

A little-known death-row case Corbett’s AG office fought also spotlights the defend-the-indefensible stance that prosecutors too take.

The AG’s office in Pennsylvania has opposed new trial appeals from inmate Roderick Johnson, who challenges his conviction on the basis of previously withheld official documents showing that police and prosecutors in Reading, Pa coddled the drug dealer whose testimony secured Johnson’s first-degree murder conviction. (Rod Johnson and Lorenzo Johnson are not related.)

Those Reading Police Department documents, improperly withheld by Reading police and prosecutors for nearly a decade, describe the drug dealer central to Johnson’s conviction as smoking marijuana with a Reading detective. Documents detail how the detective was actually supplying the dealer with drugs. Documents also detail how Reading detectives even returned that dealer’s stolen safe despite its containing crack cocaine, cash and guns. Additionally, documents reveal that Reading’s then top prosecutor allowed that dealer in question to keep his gun permit, despite knowing that his guns had been involved in numerous shooting incidents –incidents that never led to the dealer’s arrest.

These disturbing documents unearthed in the Rod Johnson case provide ample evidence of improprieties by police and prosecutors. The documents should have at least led state authorities to agree to a new trial –- thus fulfilling their duties to ensure justice. But the state AG’s office that prosecuted Rod Johnson has battled to block appeals for a new trial under Corbett and now Kane.

Sadly, in Pennsylvania, too many state officials, journalists and members of the public see sideshows like the porn emails as being more important than the grave injustices endured by inmates like Lorenzo Johnson, Roderick Johnson and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The same Republican-dominated state legislature that has turned a blind-eye to resource-draining efforts by the state AG’s office to deny justice to the imprisoned just recently approved a measure to allow prosecutors to use lawsuits to silence the Free Speech rights of inmates whom crime victims claim are causing them “mental anguish” because of their public statements or their writing.

The ACLU has condemned this hastily approved legislation as a blatant violation of First Amendment rights. More on that next week.

Coming: Part II – The Pa Legislative Lynch Mob

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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