In life, Joe James committed a crime so heinous it led to the naming of a Rikers Island jail.
In death, James’ family and prisoner advocates hope his unsuccessful struggle to convince a parole board to release him will lead to sweeping changes in how the state handles elderly and sick criminals.
He died in Wende Correctional Facility on July 15 at age 70, weeks after his 10th bid at gaining parole was denied.
James’ death is no aberration.
Each year, more than 100 prisoners die locked up in state facilities. Prisoner advocates argue that the Cuomo administration must totally revamp the parole system to make it easier for elderly prisoners to gain release.
They point out that statistics show older prisoners rarely commit new crimes when they are released.
“The Board of Parole sees thousands of applicants every year who have done incredible work and are objectively low to no risk to public safety,” said Dave George, the associate director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign.
“And yet the board denies them over years and decades for something that will never change,” he continued. “The result of that is mass aging, death and despair behind bars.”
James was 27 on Sept. 9, 1975, when he fatally shot city correction officer George Motchan, 45, in the back during an escape from Kings County Hospital.
In a Hollywood-inspired setup, James’ ex-wife, Patricia Singleton, hid a revolver behind a toilet in the hospital’s dental clinic where he was having stitches removed. James, who was in the city’s Brooklyn lockup facing a separate murder charge, also wounded Motchan’s partner and a woman in the waiting room.
His violent dash to freedom was aided by friends in a car outside the hospital.
Motchan, a grandfather and father of two, died six days later in the same hospital.
Hours before his funeral, police apprehended James three blocks from the scene in his girlfriend’s apartment, where he was hiding out.
A year later, it took a jury just three hours to convict James of first-degree murder. The conviction carried a mandatory sentence of death in the electric chair.
That ruling was overturned two years later when the New York’s top court concluded the state’s death penalty violated the Constitution. Instead, James was resentenced to 25 years to life. He never walked free.
He came up for parole for the first time in 2000.
James cited his extensive work on a suicide prevention squad where he was charged with making sure vulnerable inmates didn’t harm themselves. In one long-ago incident, he spotted a prisoner with a bedsheet tied around his neck, hanging from the bars. James got him down and screamed for help, saving the man’s life.
He also told his friends, and the board, how he deeply regretted his crimes and wished he could change that one day in the hospital.
In prison, he was known as a peacemaker.
He once blocked an officer from hitting another prisoner in the head with a club. The officer later thanked James and admitted he had lost his cool.
To the board, none of this made any difference.
All told, the board rejected him 10 times, citing the serious nature of his offenses.
James’ health deteriorated and by the time he was his mid-60s, he had lost 90% of his vision and had several toes amputated due to diabetes. He needed a wheelchair and was eventually transferred to a medical unit at Wende Correctional Facility.
Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
But the outside oncology unit in charge of his treatment delayed a course of action, claiming he needed to undergo further testing, his friends and family and family say.
“He used to call me and complain how he wasn’t getting his (pain) medicine,” said Bernard Robinson, a retired city correction officer and James’ childhood friend.
The pain was sometimes so intense he’d have to cut phone conversations short, Robinson recalled.
But he always tried to remain positive.
“Maybe God is getting me back,” he told Robinson.
Due to his murder conviction, he was ineligible for medical parole or any form of compassionate release. His only way out was through the parole board, to which he was scheduled to plead his case one last time on June 20.
Before the meeting, his lawyer, Michelle Lewin, submitted a letter on his behalf, detailing his accomplishments in prison and a brief summary of his medical condition. She also said he was eager to convey his heartfelt remorse.
But for reasons that remain unclear, James was never brought before the board for that hearing. A prison spokesman says he declined to attend, an assertion his lawyer strenuously denies.
“What would be Joe’s incentive to refuse his interview?” Lewin asked. “He was dying and desperately wanted to return to his family. The parole board was his only way out.”
His final rejection letter came eight days later, while he was on the phone with Lewin. The letter specifically highlighted “his refusal to appear before the board” as one of the factors of the denial.
Shortly afterward, his condition worsened and he was no longer able to make phone calls.
The oncology team still had not come up with a basic treatment plan despite multiple biopsies and a litany of tests, Lewin said.
“Nobody would treat a dog like they treated Joe on his last days on this Earth,” Robinson said.
Twenty-five days after the parole hearing, James died inside the prison’s hospice ward surrounded by other incarcerated men in the unit.
A friend called his lawyer and Robinson to tell them the news.
“For a brief moment, I thought Joe might still be alive,” Lewin recalled.
“Joe was a warm and kind person, with a wonderful sense of humor,” she added. “Even after 42 years of incarceration, he remained close with his family and his best friend.”
Before his death, he asked to be buried near his friends in prison where he spent the last 42 years of his life. He was cremated and his ashes were spread at a cemetery on the grounds of Elmira Correctional Facility on Aug. 2.
“He posed no risk to public safety,” Lewin said, referring to James. “He was basically blind and in a wheelchair.
“The only purpose his prolonged incarceration served was punishment,” she added.
The number of seniors in prison is on the rise, costing taxpayers up to $240,000 a year for medical care, according to a report by the Osborne Association, a criminal justice reform organization.
In March, Gov. Cuomo suggested reforming the parole system to make prisoners at least 55 years old with health ailments who have served at least half their sentences eligible for parole. But the proposal stalled in the GOP-controlled state Senate.
Even if the geriatric parole measure had passed, James would not have benefited; the bill excluded convicted murderers.
As for Motchan, the city Correction Department named a facility on Rikers Island in his honor on June 12, 1989.
His widow told reporters that her husband was not supposed to be working the day he was killed. He had an upset stomach but had just returned to work after a cruise the couple took to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
“He even took another officer’s shift, and that’s when it happened,” Dolly Motchan said. “I was called to the hospital not really knowing why, or how I got there.”