by Peter Wagner, May 22, 2012
Photo of Jon E. Yount reprinted from Doing Life © by Good Books (www.GoodBooks.com). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Sometime in the early morning of April 26, in his cell in a remote Pennsylvania prison, a 74-year-old jailhouse lawyer serving a life sentence took his own life. He was a quiet man who avoided taking credit for his work, so many people in and outside of prison don’t know about the debt they owe to Jon E. Yount.
I knew Jon well, although not as well as I’d have liked. We corresponded a few hundred times, with him writing more than me, and I visited him four or five times. A careful reader of this blog might recognize Jon’s name from the Prison Policy Initiative advisory board, but very few people know that Jon was the first person to recognize how the Census Bureau’s prison miscount could distort state legislative redistricting.
In the late 1990s, Jon and filmmaker Tracy Huling, working independently, linked the Census Bureau’s practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the prison location to negative political and economic effects. Tracy and Jon’s efforts started people talking about it, and it was this “rumor” that I initially set out to debunk. I was skeptical that the prison system was large enough for census counts of correctional populations to distort the federal budget or congressional districts. It turns out that the Census Bureau’s prison miscount did have only a very tiny effect on the distribution of federal funds, but it was Jon’s work that first drew my attention to the distortion on state legislative districting.
I didn’t know it until after I had completed my first report, Importing Constituents, Prisoners and Political Clout in New York, but Jon had written a thesis about felon disenfranchisement that mentioned the Census Bureau’s prison miscount, and he was also working on a lawsuit about these issues. But that’s getting ahead of the story, a story about a man who experienced the transformation of America’s criminal justice system from the inside and who relentlessly fought to remedy the injustices he found.
The offense and the trials
Jon Yount committed a horrible murder in 1966 when he was 27 years old. In a few moments, a young woman’s life ended forever; and in the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, those moments were to define the rest of Jon’s life. He rejected the state’s view, and spent the rest of his life showing to himself and those who were watching that he was much better than his worst act.
After his death, I re-read some of the court decisions from his case. The experience was a stark reminder of how trials used to be conducted in this country. Jon’s first conviction was thrown out because the police had violated his constitutional rights. (The Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda case protecting defendants from unconstitutional interrogation techniques came down after his arrest.) At his second trial, 77% of the jury pool in the small rural community was familiar with the case and had already formed an opinion against him. Worse, 8 out of the 14 jurors stated their bias and were kept on the jury anyway. The Judge refused to move the trial.
A federal magistrate thought that this trial, too, violated the Constitution. The district court disagreed, but a three judge panel on the Third Circuit found that Jon,
… has shown that the pretrial publicity caused actual prejudice to a degree rendering a fair trial impossible in Clearfield County. After examining the totality of circumstances, we hold that petitioner’s [second trial] was not fundamentally fair.
Yount v. Patton, 710 F.2d 956, 972 (3d Cir. Pa. 1983)
Unfortunately, by a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s positive decision. The Supreme Court’s word was final, but Jon, ever cognizant of vote totals and trends once summarized the point in a letter that “Thus, by a narrow 7-6 margin, the federal judges who reviewed my case let the conviction stand.”
The sentence and the escape
Even though the top court in the nation had upheld his conviction, Jon still had a realistic chance of seeing freedom again. Decades ago, a life sentence didn’t necessarily mean a person would die in prison. When Jon was convicted, lifers served an average of about 12 years prior to commutation. He was a model prisoner and was recommended for a commutation after he had served 7 years. He didn’t receive that commutation, nor did he receive any of the others he was recommended for in the first 20 years of his sentence.
Frustrated, and with the number of commutations granted by the governor in free fall, Jon had enough.