Back from the Dead, a Jailhouse Lawyer Asks Why He's Doing Life

updated 07/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Death didn't seem to have changed Jerry Rosenberg much. There he was, careering around the courtroom, the same skinny, hyperactive wise guy he used to be before he expired back in 1986. In the years he has spent behind bars since 1963, Jerry has dreamed up some pretty inventive legal arguments—even if he says so himself, and he does. But the argument he was presenting to a New York State Supreme Court justice two weeks ago had to be his pièce de résistance as a jailhouse lawyer. When his heart stopped during open-heart surgery two years ago, Rosenberg told the court, he literally died for a few moments: Ipso facto he had fulfilled the life sentence he'd been serving for a killing 26 years earlier and shouldn't be imprisoned at Auburn Correctional Facility in Upstate New York any longer.

Who else could exhibit such a unique understanding of the law? Who else but the trouble-prone son of a middle-class merchant from Brooklyn, eighth-grade dropout Jerry Rosenberg—or, as he's proud to be called in the slammer, "Jerry the Jew"? Jurisprudential creativity has earned Jerry about all the acclaim a 50-year-old con could crave. Sure, he was convicted of killing two policemen in New York City during a holdup in May 1962. But a correspondence school in Illinois has granted him two law degrees. A paperback has been written on his life, and Hollywood turned that into a TV movie titled Doing Life, which aired in September 1986. The U.S. Supreme Court has even, as Jerry puts it in his raspy Brooklyn accent, "reckanized" him as "counsel": The court ordered the release of mobster Carmine Galante in October 1978 on the basis of a brief filed by Rosenberg as Galante's petitioner. With so many fine credits, Jerry isn't even steamed about a New York law that bars those under life sentences, like him, from taking the bar exam. "The only bar I wanna belong to," he says, "is Joe's bar in Brooklyn."

Jerry looked more like a used car salesman than an attorney when, decked out in rust-colored sports coat, he came out of solitary to the Cayuga County courthouse last month to argue his most important case. Ebullient, he kissed Cynthia Mangicaro, 31, the woman he met through a friend and with whom he exchanged wedding vows over the phone last year. His case, he said, had made it to court on legal merit. Said Acting State Supreme Court Justice Peter E. Corning: "Sometimes it's easier to hear a guy present his case rather than let him go to appeal saying he didn't get a hearing. I was not unmindful of the fact that litigation is this guy's life."

For the state, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth S. Goldman argued that death is an irreversible condition. "If it was irreversible," Rosenberg countered, "I wouldn't be here arguing this case." Judge Corning observed that the heart stops for a short time during all open-heart surgery.

Rosenberg was not discouraged when the verdict went against him. "I'm goin' right to the U.S. Supreme Court with this on a habeas," he said. "This case is goin' right up the ladder." Jerry-built as his case is, it just might.

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