A voice from the inside: District Attorney’s office past and present

Jerome Coffey has been wrongly incarcerated for 28 years. He is an exceptional Pro-Se litigator, that is, representing himself in legal actions. He filed and won a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and a civil suit. In both these cases, he successfully defended himself. His next Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) hearing is April 9. Miller conducted the following interview with him in February. 

Jerome Coffey

Cindy Miller: On April 9, 2021, Attorney Martha Conley is submitting your initial PCRA application to Judge Bronson? Why is this your first challenge in 27 years?

Jerome Coffey: Many of the records and transcripts from my original 1994 trial were lost or altered. We have agreed to go on without them. Keep in mind that this was the administration of District Attorney Lynn Abraham, who was notorious for wrongful convictions and disrespect toward Black defendants.

My case parallels those of Charles Diggs, Edward Sistrunk, Robert Mims and Mumia Abu-Jamal among others, who all had a disproportionate number of Black jurors struck from their juries. My trial prosecutor Hugh Colihan used the same dirty tactics — striking Black jurors from the jury — that prosecutor Barbara Christie did to Diggs and Sistrunk, and prosecutor Joseph McGill did to Mumia Abu-Jamal. Because of this, my case will also cite the Batson Decision [that prosecutors cannot disqualify a juror based on race].

CM: Could you explain the important developments of your PCRA court proceedings?

JC: In August 2019, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office finally released discovery material to my attorney. This material had been lost or held back for years. There were four problematic issues: 1) jailhouse informants; 2) prosecutorial misconduct; 3) police misconduct; and 4) judicial misconduct. These are the standard troublesome issues of many exoneration cases from the 1980s and 1990s.

The Philadelphia Police Department inserted my name into the death investigation of Johnny Moss using jailhouse informants. Years ago, I read an article in Rolling Stone magazine (March 12, 2015) about the injustices done to Anthony Wright by the PPD using former Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo’s methods. Wright had assaulted a Philadelphia police officer years prior to his arrest and conviction, and so was vindictively retaliated on — the PPD pinned an unsolved murder on him.

When I was 16 years old, I assaulted a police officer and received probation. Nine years later this murder was pinned on me by the same detectives who had arrested me as a 16-year-old! The detectives were under pressure from their bosses to “solve” this case by any means.

Back in 1968, a lawsuit challenging Frank Rizzo’s police brutality was filed by Mary Rouse, Mattie Humphrey and others from the Council of Organizations on Philadelphia Police Accountability and Responsibility. They sued the department to expose Frank Rizzo’s police brutality and the practices being used. Rizzo’s saying was: “Get the confession by any and all means, and I’ll back you if you go over the line.” Under Rizzo’s leadership police brutality was out of control, and it has carried through to today, as we see in my case.

On Dec. 20, 1985, Officers Warren Larkins and Peter Scallatino from the 23rd District arrested me as a juvenile. They are also the ones who nine years later put my name in as a suspect in the Johnny Moss slaying.

McMahon’s racist jury training tape

CM: How did the infamous Jack McMahon training tape influence your trial? After all, it was seven years old by then.

JC: In 1997 District Attorney Lynne Abraham was running for reelection against former prosecutor Jack McMahon. She found and released a decade-old video training tape showing McMahon teaching prosecutors how to violate defendants’ Constitutional rights during jury selection — namely, how to choose white jurors over Black ones.

Much of this scandal was documented in a Philadelphia Magazine article in 1998 called “I, the Jury.” As far back as 1935, the Scottsboro Brothers’ case had ruled that “The systematic exclusion of all African American citizens from jury rolls violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.”

Even though the McMahon tape was seven years old, the practices in it continued in the Philadelphia “Justice” system, and I was found guilty by a jury trial on June 17, 1994.

Many Black defendants’ cases are given less attention to details or careful record keeping. Often trial records are lost or unaccounted for. My entire voir dire (jury selection) transcripts are missing from stenography records from early June. Even though the records are “lost,” I can recall that only 4 of the 12 jurors at my trial were Black. Prosecutor Colihan routinely used preemptive strikes to eliminate Black jurors.

In the case of Commonwealth v. Scarfo, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated: “We are especially concerned that prosecutorial misconduct seems to arise in Philadelphia County more so than in any other County in this Commonwealth. We merely state this in order to alert the District Attorney that a more thoughtful approach to the prosecutor’s role in our society may be in order.”

CM: What do you think about Krasner’s administration and his exonerations?

JC: The exonerations under District Attorney Larry Krasner’s administration are a beautiful thing, but we still need to look back at the legacy of his predecessors: F. Emmet Fitzpatrick, Edward G. Rendell, Ronald D. Castille, Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams. Castille was the main instigator behind the former prosecutor Jack McMahons’ video training tape.

In the Terrance Williams case, we saw how Castille gained an unconscionable advantage by deceptive means. Castille was the original judge in the case and then refused to recuse himself as a PA Supreme Court judge during William’s PCRA hearing.

District attorneys are often chief prosecutors. The evidence my attorney Martha Conley unraveled found at trial Colihan’s accusations to be overreaching and untrue, especially during jury selection, when he struck Black jurors and bullied witnesses. Who holds these prosecutors accountable when they destroy innocent peoples’ lives through their misconduct? 

CM: Did Krasner bring transparency to the District Attorney’s Office?

JC: Two of Krasner’s reforms were releasing discovery to defense attorneys and not overcharging defendants. For years, the Philadelphia DA’s Office routinely overcharged and exploited African American defendants specifically. Krasner also decriminalized weed possession and some prostitution offenses.

But how can Krasner publicly preach against the death penalty when he lets these death-by-incarceration (life without parole) cases stand? And what about Mumia?

Eighteen exonerations are great, but there are hundreds of us buried alive in here.

Miller is a prison abolitionist and organizer with Food Not Bombs Solidarity and Mobilization4Mumia.

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