Via Prison Legal Assistance Project
Recently, Tabitha Cohen JD ’18 argued the appeal of a lawsuit, Crowell v. Massachusetts Parole Board, filed by the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, formally known as the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). The suit was originally brought in the state Superior Court, but was dismissed on the motion of the defendant, the state Parole Board.
The plaintiff, PLAP client Richard Crowell, is a septuagenarian prisoner who, in 1987, suffered a disabling traumatic brain injury. He was originally arrested in 1962 as a teenager for a convenience store robbery in East Boston. He was recruited by several older men to drive a getaway car. During the robbery, one of the older co-defendants shot and killed the storekeeper and as a result, Crowell and his co-defendants were charged with first degree murder under the felony murder theory of culpability. To avoid the death penalty, which Massachusetts had at that time, Crowell pled guilty to second degree murder and received a life sentence in prison. In 1974, his sentence was commuted from life to 36 years to life. He was then paroled and spent several years successfully living in the community, with the exception of some minor parole violations that were not serious enough to prevent re-parole. However, after he was attacked and suffered his brain injury in 1987, his behavior worsened. Since 1990 he has remained in prison, except for a few brief weeks while out on parole and then returned to custody, and has otherwise been repeatedly denied parole.
PLAP’s Mike Horrell, JD ’14 represented the plaintiff in his 2012 parole hearing that led to PLAP’s later lawsuit. During that hearing the Board strongly suggested it considered the plaintiff impossible to parole because of his disability, a decision which would effectively consign Crowell to prison for the remainder of his life. After the client was again denied parole, Horrell helped to draft a complaint filed in the Superior Court seeking to reverse the Board’s decision and obtain a new hearing for Crowell. The central claim in PLAP’s Complaint was that the Parole Board had discriminated against the plaintiff because of his disability. In addition, PLAP argued the plaintiff was entitled to annual parole reviews, rather than reviews every five years as contended by the Parole Board.
After Horrell’s graduation, another PLAP student attorney, Tucker DeVoe, JD ’15, briefed and argued the case in the Superior Court, but PLAP’s lawsuit was subsequently dismissed. After DeVoe’s graduation, Erin DeGrand, JD ’16 worked on PLAP’s appeal to the state Appeals Court, including coordinating the drafting of the appellate and reply briefs while working with Keke Wu, JD ’18, Beini Chen, JD ’18 and Ethan Stevenson, JD ’17. After the briefing was concluded in the Appeals Court but before the case was scheduled for oral argument, the SJC took the case for direct review and solicited amicus briefing on the disability rights issue raised by PLAP. In response, civil rights and advocacy rights groups including the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, Massachusetts Prisoners’ Legal Services, the Center for Public Representation and the National Disability Rights Network filed a consolidated amicus brief in support of PLAP.
After DeGrand’s graduation in June 2016, Tabitha Cohen, JD ’18 picked up the baton of PLAP representation and argued the case before the Supreme Judicial Court on January 6, 2017.
“Tabitha was superb.” said John Fitzpatrick, JD ’87, one of PLAP’s two supervising attorneys in attendance that day along with Joel Thompson, JD ’97. Fitzpatrick added that “Her poise and the content of her argument, along with her ability to comprehensively answer every of the many questions put to her by the SJC justices, was equal to or even better than many experienced appellate attorneys arguing before the court.”
Tabitha said that “It was a tremendous honor and privilege to represent Mr. Richard Crowell in his prisoners’ rights and disability rights appeal before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Thanks to the tireless work of my amazing supervising attorney, John Fitzpatrick, and all of my predecessors at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project who worked so diligently on Mr. Crowell’s case, Mr. Crowell was able to make his voice heard in the state’s highest court. Arguing before the justices as a 2L has unquestionably been the highlight of my law school experience, and I cannot thank PLAP and everyone who worked so hard on this case, especially John, enough for this opportunity, and for entrusting me with this profound responsibility.”
Fitzpatrick said the oral arguments “went very well. Though that never predicts the eventual outcome of an appellate case, it is certainly better than the alternative.” He added that the SJC could issue its decision in the case during the next several months.