Pollard hearing arouses prayer and hope

WASHINGTON — Jonathan Pollard's lawyers scored some important points in a Washington courtroom on Tuesday, but even several supporters of clemency for the convicted spy said that they did not expect a surge of support from the mainstream Jewish groups that have given only lip service to his appeals for clemency.

In his first courtroom appearance since 1987, Pollard listened raptly as his attorneys appealed for resentencing based on the alleged incompetence of his original lawyers. The Pollard attorneys also appealed to U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan to allow them access to the still-secret documents that reportedly were responsible for Pollard's unusually harsh sentence.

Those documents could provide a boost to Pollard's request for executive clemency.

Hogan's insistence that Pollard be present touched off speculation the judge could directly question the 49-year-old inmate of a North Carolina prison, who spied for Israel between 1984 and 1985.

"It was not clear why Jonathan Pollard was asked to come up," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a clemency supporter who attended the hearing. But Weiner said the judge seemed to express sympathy when he asked if Pollard was still being held in solitary confinement. "That is something that was unprecedented in the Pollard case," Weiner said.

At Tuesday's dramatic hearing Pollard backers were out in force. Some expressed the hope that a favorable ruling could trigger a new clemency effort by Jewish leaders.

"I hope there will be a change," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice-president of the National Council of Young Israel. Lerner has been one of Pollard's most vocal supporters in recent years. "There was a lot of press there; the hearing got a lot of attention. In recent days I've had calls from people around the country who have seen it on the news."

Even mainstream Jewish groups that have been reluctant to call for clemency for Pollard, he said, may be swayed by the new legal push — especially if Judge Hogan rules in favor of Pollard and allows his appeal to proceed.

But Morris Pollard, Jonathan's father, had a less upbeat assessment.

"I'm always hopeful," he said. "But the situation has changed; the movement we once had disintegrated years ago."

The elder Pollard is estranged from his son and his second wife, Esther. Morris Pollard said he has not spoken to Jonathan in seven years, but said "I felt I had to come town and witness what happens here."

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a longtime backer of clemency, said that despite the effective presentation by Pollard's lawyers, mainstream Jewish groups will continue to hold back from active support.

"The community may continue to remain aloof," he said, "because there is no drive within the Pollard camp to enlist organizational activity."

Instead, the free-Pollard effort has emphasized "remonstrations against U.S. and Israeli leaders, which I don't think help Jonathan at all," said Reich, who attended the hearing.

There were no representatives of mainstream Jewish groups in the courtroom on Tuesday.

Pollard's primary attorneys, Jacques Semmelman and Eliot Lauer, "did very well in representing his best case at this point," said Kenneth Lasson, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school and a consultant to the defense team. "And I thought the government continued to miss the forest for the trees — the great green forest of justice for the trees of legal complexities."

Lasson said the defense team scored important points in their appeal to be allowed access to the documents that were critical factors in Pollard's sentencing, including a critical memorandum written by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

In that document, Weinberger reportedly described the damage Pollard did to U.S. security interests; Pollard's current lawyers have been denied access to that and other documents.

Misrepresentations in the Weinberger memorandum could boost Pollard's request for executive clemency, Lasson said.

But Steven Pelak, an assistant U.S. attorney, argued that "the defense has simply not shown the need to know."

The hearing also involved charges that Pollard was poorly represented by his first lawyer, Richard Hibey. Lasson said that Judge Hogan semed more skeptical about that argument.

"On the competency of counsel issue, I thought the government had a stronger case, and the judge seemed to recognize that," Lasson said. "The competence of counsel issue is much more difficult to prove."

Indeed, at one point Hogan hinted that a favorable ruling on that motion could trigger a flood of similar appeals from long-incarcerated convicts.

Pollard, dressed in a green prison suit and wearing a tan kippah, looked intently at the judge throughout the proceeding, mostly ignoring the courtroom full of supporters, family and media.

Also in attendance: Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, formerly Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, who led a prayer service outside the courthouse as Pollard's lawyers were conducting a rain-drenched news conference.

Lasson said that a decision is likely "within six weeks."