[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
In January of 1992 Joseph Melton was stabbed so many times with a butcher knife that the handle finally broke off. But he didn't die. He fought, screaming and shrieking while his attacker tried to finish the job with a mop handle. By the time police arrived, Melton was drowning in his own blood. But before taking his last breath, he was able to identify his killer: a longtime friend named Ronaldo Ligons.
Three months later Ligons was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison--nearly double the usual penalty for such a crime. The harsh sentence was warranted, said Hennepin County District Court Judge Thomas Carey, because the crime was "sadistic" and Ligons showed no remorse.
To this day, Ligons--who resides at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater--maintains his innocence. "It was obvious I didn't do it," the 46-year-old explains over the phone. "They said blood had pooled on my clothes in the same way they said it had with O.J. [Simpson]. But there was no blood on my shoes or my white socks."
In hopes of facilitating an appeal, Ligons has spent the better share of seven years scouring dusty legal tomes, reviewing case law in the prison library. He reads magisterial how-to books and whatever else he can get the librarian to have sent over from the Minnesota State Law Library. He says his first lesson, courtesy of the Simpson trial, was that it's possible to manipulate the system. And to that end, the convict concludes, access to legal counsel is invaluable. So whenever he has a question, whenever an opportunity presents itself, Ligons asks for permission to call an attorney.
As Ligons's requests for phone access increased, his quest for justice hit a snag. The courts have established that an inmate's Sixth Amendment right to counsel includes the privilege of using unmonitored phone lines when speaking to an attorney. But at Stillwater prison, inmates must submit a written request for an unmonitored phone line when they want to talk with an attorney. Otherwise, all calls are monitored by staff. Requests to use the phone are decided on a case-by-case basis. "In situations where phone contact is necessary, the inmate shall send a [memo] to his Case Manager 24 hours in advance of the requested call," the facility's policy reads. "Approvals are at the discretion of the inmate's Case Manager."
By early 1998 the bulk of Ligons's requests were either denied or returned with notes written by Warden David Crist asking that he "be more specific as to the extraordinary circumstance" necessitating a call. Ligons had no problem with putting his requests in writing. But on Sixth Amendment grounds, he refuses to divulge what he and his attorney are planning to talk about.
Ligons traded memos with the warden for a few months. Then his self-styled legal education paid off. He dug up Minnesota state statute 481.10, on the books since 1887. "At all times, reasonable telephone access to the attorney shall be provided to [an inmate] at no charge," the statute reads. "Every officer or person who shall violate any provision of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall forfeit $100 to the person aggrieved." Armed with this bit of legal arcana, Ligons sued the Department of Corrections in Washington County Conciliation Court, charging that Crist had violated state law by not providing reasonable telephone access. And he won. The DOC was ordered to pay him $100 and prison officials would have to grant his requests to use the phone.
The ruling turned out to be about much more than petty cash. The court determined that the statute's current wording was too ambiguous, and further stipulated that "reasonable telephone access must be granted within three days."
Ligons, who had acted as his own attorney in the matter, was a jailhouse hero. Other inmates began filing claims, and suddenly the corrections department was faced with the prospect of forking over hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prison officials, who had previously balked at the cost of upgrading their archaic telephone system, spoke publicly about the possibility of installing a more advanced telecommunication system. This new technology, already in use in many county jails around the state, allows inmates to access their attorneys using a special code, without asking permission or explaining their reasons.
But a year and a half later there are no new phones at Stillwater. In January the conciliation court's decision was overturned, and Ligons--still hoping to someday collect his $100--is mired in an appeal. In the meantime, just to salt the wounds, a new state law made its way through the Legislature last month, granting the Department of Corrections full discretion as to what constitutes "reasonable phone access."
The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) got involved in the phone fracas when a Washington County District Court threw out the lower court's judgment. St. Paul attorney and William Mitchell College of Law professor Peter Erlinder has also been preparing briefs for Ligons's appeal, which is scheduled to be heard by a three-judge panel at the Minnesota State Court of Appeals next Wednesday, June 7. The state will be represented by the Attorney General's Office.
Erlinder says he intends to argue that statute 481.10 gives inmates using the telephone to contact their lawyers the same rights to confidentiality and availability as those prisoners who have arranged in-person consultations. In briefs filed with the court last month, Erlinder challenges Washington County District Court Judge Mary Carlson's January ruling, in which she determined that Ligons had been given reasonable phone access under the law and threw out the three-day access rule.
"The statute regarding inmates' rights to access to their attorneys has been on the books since the 1800s," declares Erlinder, who vows to appeal the case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court if necessary. "It's changed over the years, but it has essentially stayed the same. It plainly violates an inmate's rights, to offer phones only in 'extraordinary circumstances.'"
In the end, though, the fate of Ligons's case will make little difference to inmates waiting for permission to call their attorneys. While Erlinder and the MCLU were filing their appeal, Department of Corrections officials were at the state capitol, lobbying for a new bill governing future prison phone access. They found a sympathetic ear in Republican Sen. Arlene Lesewski, a 64-year-old independent insurance agent from Marshall who was easily persuaded by the argument that state prison inmates are abusing their phone privileges. "When I read through the listing of the bills that we got, I thought, 'Gee, this is something that interests me.' So I called over to the DOC and asked to have someone come over and explain it to me in more detail," Lesewski recounts. "They said this new law puts a little bit of common sense into how [the prisoners] are allowed to use the phone."
Lesewski's bill, which goes into effect August 1, turns the DOC's position in the Ligons case into state law. The language regarding inmate phone access to attorneys remains vague, and the $100 penalty has been eliminated. Phone access will be provided "in accordance with policies adopted by the Institution that meet constitutional requirements." It remains unclear how those "constitutional requirements" will be interpreted.
Teresa Nelson, an MCLU attorney, is appalled by the DOC's political maneuvering and believes the legislation is nothing more than a strategy to circumvent the judicial system. "The new law specifically exempts the DOC from actions such as the one we're bringing against them now," Nelson declares. "I can't see any other reason why they would have gone to the Legislature like they did to try and change the statute."
Lesewski doesn't buy Nelson's righteous rage. "People who commit crimes against society should not have the exact same rights as regular society," she argues. "That's what prison is all about."
On the phone from Stillwater, Ligons deems the new law "a spineless compromise." He says the $100 penalty was the only incentive for prison officials to do the right thing. The only good to come out of the whole mess, he jokes, is that for now his requests to use the telephone are being rubber-stamped. "My case manager's office isn't really private. It's just got those cubicle dividers between people, so I sometimes get comments about what I say on the phone, like, 'Hey, you're not supposed to talk about that,'" he says. "But at least they get me a phone within three days now. Months used to go by, before I went to court."
Nelson says that privilege seems to be reserved for Ligons alone and probably has everything to do with his lawsuit. "We still get lots of letters saying, 'I was denied telephone access to my attorney,'" says the MCLU lawyer. "So I think they're applying this only to him. It's extremely difficult to talk to an inmate over there when I call."
For now, she and Erlinder are concentrating on Ligons's appeal. They have no plans to challenge the new law, though they believe it is unconstitutional. But that fight, Erlinder promises, will be waged on another day, in a higher court: "One of the hallmarks of repressive regimes in history is to lock people up and not let them talk to their lawyers. That's the one way to make sure that conditions in our prisons and the treatment of the people in there goes unwatched. No agency is really paying attention to what goes on inside those places."
Correction published 7/12/2000:
Owing to an editing error, this story incorrectly stated that Joseph Melton was stabbed in the chest. According to the autopsy report, Melton bled to death after being stabbed 19 times in the neck, back, arms, hand, and leg. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.