Languishing in prison for 26 years, denied attendance to his father's funeral, Jonathan Pollard still fights for his freedom.
Exclusive interview with Eliot Lauer, the Lawrence lawyer who battles for him daily.
David F. Nesenoff - The Jewish Star [Long Island NY] - June 28,2011
This week Jonathan Pollard was denied permission to pay a final hospice visit and to attend the funeral for his father Morris Pollard, 95. Pollard was given an unprecedented life sentence and has been in prison for 26 years despite pleas from congressmen, senators, and community and world leaders for his release. The Jewish Star spoke with his present attorney Eliot Lauer of Lawrence to learn of the present situation and what can be done to right this American injustice.
David F. Nesenoff: What took place this week with trying to get Jonathan to the hospital and the funeral?
Eliot Lauer: While we were in contact with the White House, and other people were in contact with various political leaders, at the end of the day, the decision on all of these matters is not a political issue; this is a Bureau of Prisons issue. Beginning on June 14 it became clear that Jonathan's father was gravely ill. My partner, Jacques Semmelman, and I wrote a formal letter to Thomas Kane the acting head of the Bureau of Prisons requesting that Jonathan could visit his father who was gravely ill, was in a hospice situation and that Jonathon should be permitted to attend the impending funeral. We obviously did not get a positive response. We got no response. We, and others, continued to press all various circles. Over the weekend, when Morris Pollard passed away we then worked furiously and feverously throughout Sunday and well into Sunday night speaking with the White House, speaking with the Department of Justice, communicating with Thomas Kane and followed it up with a late night letter requesting the release of Jonathan with an escort and we would make all the necessary arrangements for transportation with a private jet with any governmental travel needed. We made it clear that we would be prepared to underwrite all the expenses. After the funeral occurred I received an email stating that our request had been denied.
DFN: Is there precedent for people leaving prison to visit a loved one in the hospital or to attend a funeral?
EL: Sure, there are all sorts of accommodations made. Clearly there are many people let out on a furlough basis unsupervised or escorted with one or more prison officials who accompany them. It is clearly not unprecedented for nonviolent criminals.
DFN: What's going on here?
EL: I cannot speculate but I can simply say that it is very hard to justify at this stage in the game, in his 26th year of imprisonment, the treatment that he is receiving in terms of this short term request of compassionate leave or the more substantive request that he have his sentence commuted for time served. He clearly has served a multiple now of anyone in the history of the United States sentenced by similar facts. He does not in any way present any kind of security risk nor does he have any information that the government is not fully aware. During his period of cooperation, this goes back 25 years, he was interrogated over a period of many months through a polygraph system which the government satisfied itself that they knew every detail that he knew. The information is between 26 and 30 years old anyway..
DFN: Can the commutation of his sentence only come from the President?
EL: It is exclusively in the domain of the President of the United States.
DFN: Is Jonathan entitled to parole?
EL: Jonathan was sentenced under the rules that applied in 1987 or more technically correct 1984 and 1985 during the period of his activity. Even though he was sentenced for life in prison, he is presumptively entitled to parole in November 2015.That does not mean he really has a chance of being granted parole at that point.
The government has the right and ability to oppose parole if they so choose. I hope that long before that the issue will be totally mooted by President Obama doing the right thing, which is to commute his sentence immediately. It is a great injustice and it is a question mark in the American justice system.
DFN: Is there something that you are actively doing on a monthly or weekly or even daily basis?
EL: On a daily basis we are doing things. Rome was not built in a day. Each president is different, so all the efforts we made cultivating the White House under President Clinton with his close advisors and colleagues were not particularly useful in approaching President Bush and the same is true with President Obama. We are dealing with an entirely new group of individuals, different relationships, different motivations and frankly different foreign policies and domestic issues. We are working on a daily basis trying to work with people till we get to that moment when President Obama actually writes the note.
DFN: Is it always the wrong time, or are we seemingly on the cusp of peace in the Middle East and Pollard's release would somehow upset the precarious balance?
EL: The way I look at it, this is not necessarily a Middle Eastern issue, although from one perspective clearly Pollard is considered a national hero in Israel and there is tremendous support within Israel and in the Zionist community outside of Israel for Pollard to be released. More fundamentally the issue is an American issue. I took the case not as a Zionist but as an American lawyer. I took the case because I felt that Pollard had received inadequate and incompetent legal advice by a lawyer who currently represents Palestinians. There were serious miscarriages of justice. I look at it as an American lawyer trying to right a series of faults, the way the American judicial system and the penal system applied. I would hope that the President would look at this as a constitutional lawyer in America, as someone who can appreciate in terms of fundamental fairness inherent of the judicial system.
Jonathan has more than adequately served his time. He has expressed tremendous remorse. His adult life has been spent in prison and he has served his time. The President, as an American lawyer and as an American leader, should commute the sentence. Our sense is that it transcends politics and Middle Eastern issues. The need to right this wrong is needed to repair the injustice in the system.
DFN: What can Americans do to help get Jonathan out of prison?
EL: I think we need to encourage our leaders, whether in Congress or in communal organizations, to understand that this issue is an extremely important one for us in that we need all of our leaders to make it a priority beyond signing letters, to make it a true priority to speak up to the president. People have written letters and others have signed them, but that is not as salient as the need for our congressmen, our senators and our community leaders to raise the issue with the President. And not in front of 50 other people publicly so they can say they raised it, but to genuinely raise it with him in those private meetings. Obviously not every leader has that kind of relationship, but Americans should press upon those people who have that kind of relationship with the President or with his trusted circle of advisors to make this a true issue, not a check the box issue for show to their constituents, but a true issue to actually sit down with the circle of advisors and bring Pollard council to those meetings so the pitch can be made directly.
DFN: With all the issues out there, why is this issue important? With the economy and the wars, why is it important for this one guy to get out of jail?
EL: It defines exactly the kind of system that we have. It's like an open wound that bleeds on an ongoing basis. The judicial system is not just if community political leaders allow an unjust system to continue. Letting an immoral indifference to injustice could be representative of a bigger malaise. If you can look the other way at this injustice, and not be bothered enough to change it, what does that say about us as a civilization? Sure you can say it is only one person. You can say that about one person being tortured or assaulted, but at the end of the day, what captivates people's attention on a daily basis are these anecdotal personal interventions. Statistically, it's insignificant and in a certain way we can ignore it. It won't create more jobs it will not remove Kadafi. On the other hand, our civilization has come to recognize that it is precisely the individual account that makes our society different than the types of regimes that exist in China or Syria. The preoccupation in the American media with the fate of the individual, in a way, is a very glorious one. So here you have the fate of one individual, the system has failed this individual, he should have been released many years ago, he is languishing in jail. He is suffering physically and emotionally and there is no do-over in this system. Unless there is a very powerful moral outcry that gets the attention of the President, this lingering soul remains. I think it is a fundamental issue even though it involves only one person. That's precisely the point. That's what America is all about. We care about the individual. We can empathize with the tragedy befallen this man that is suffering in jail because of an injustice. He should have been released many years ago.
Eliot Lauer and his partner Jacques Semmelman have been Jonathan Pollard's pro-bono lawyers since 2000.