Appellate Practice

Convicted of Murder, High-School Dropout Researches Own Case for a Decade, Wins Release

Convicted at age 22 of a murder he says he didn’t commit, Jabbar Collins saw a bleak future ahead of him.

Although he’d been working toward a general equivalency high-school diploma and trying to transfer to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice before his arrest, he was now facing more than 35 years behind bars, recounts the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) in a lengthy article. Although he had been mystified during much of his trial, he now saw only one hope of escape–becoming his only lawyer.

So for the next 15 years, using only the materials available to him in a computerless prison law library, he educated himself about New York criminal law and criminal procedure and legal writing fundamentals and researched his case.

He filed seven requests for trial records, five appeals and a lawsuit over a two-year period before he obtained some of the materials he sought, he tells the newspaper. But that “kind of refilled the tanks” and “gave me the confidence to fight on.”

After eight years of research he struck gold–multiple witnesses provided affidavits about exculpatory evidence that had been withheld from the defense. Two years later, he had gone as far as he could go on his own, and sought help from civil rights attorney Joel Rudin.

“I was amazed,” says Rudin of what Collins accomplished from his prison cell. “I’ve never seen anything like this. There was so much documentation.”

The two fought on together for another five years, eventually trying the unusual tactic of seeking a federal-court ruling barring the Brooklyn district attorney’s office from retrying the murder case because of its alleged pervasive misconduct. Before the judge ruled, however, the DA’s office gave up, saying that it had done nothing wrong but would not retry the case due to problems with the witnesses.

However, the DA’s office still contends that Collins is guilty of the crime.

Released on June 9 at age 38, he has traded his prison greenies for eight dark suits, appropriate dress shirts and ties and a pair of expensive wingtips, the Journal reports. He now works as a paralegal in Rudin’s office, plans to sue the city and state for damages in his own case, with the lawyer’s help, and dreams of someday becoming an attorney himself.

He lives in a room in his mother’s home. It is decorated with a framed copy of the ruling granting his release. A Wall Street Journal video provides further details about his case and follows him on his daily commute to work.

Although some might be bitter about the 15 years in prison, during which his three sons grew up without him, Collins says every day is now beautiful to him because he’s no longer behind bars.

Additional and related coverage: “Superb Skills as Jailhouse Lawyer Put Ex-Inmate in Position to Help Top Attorneys”

Wall Street Journal (sub. req.): “Attorney Drops Attempt At Retry”

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