Dan Morain

Dan Morain: The real story behind hunger strike

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

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Philip Cozens has spent three decades representing murderers, gang leaders and other outlaws.

But the criminal defense attorney never ran across anyone more dangerous than Todd Ashker, his former client, a killer and a leader of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.

"The word they use is sociopathic," Cozens said in his downtown Sacramento office. "He has an agenda. He goes after that agenda, no matter what."

From his cell in the most isolated tier of California's most faraway prison, Ashker's current agenda is to orchestrate a hunger strike to force the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to let him and other gangsters out of the security housing unit, called the SHU, and into the general population at Pelican Bay State Prison.

More than a month into the action, almost 200 inmates are refusing meals, and lately have gained succor from Jay Leno, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson and 60 other celebrities and civil libertarians and prisoner-rights attorneys who declared in a letter:

"We stand together against these shameful practices and consider them extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. In defense of the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we, the undersigned, call on Governor Jerry Brown to end this torture at Pelican Bay and all California prisons immediately."

What blinders they wear in their rarefied world. Ashker, 50, went to prison at age 19 for burglary, after many crimes committed as a juvenile. On the inside, he has killed one inmate, assaulted other prisoners and guards, has been caught with weapons and drugs, and tried to escape four times. He and other gang leaders fomenting the hunger strike want out of security housing because their isolation limits their ability to conduct gang business, prison officials say.

"They have no idea how dangerous this guy is," Cozens said of Ashker's outside supporters.

The attorney rolled up his sleeve to show the scars from an attack 23 years ago when he was defending Ashker against a first-degree murder charge for the 1987 stabbing death of "Dirty" Dennis Murphy at New Folsom Prison.

Ashker attacked Murphy in his cell, stabbing and cutting him 26 times for the transgressions of failing to tithe to the Aryan Brotherhood from his methamphetamine business and employing African Americans to rob dope dealers.

At Ashker's request, Cozens called Paul "Cornfed" Schneider to testify at his trial. A massive tattooed hitman, Cornfed arrived at the Sacramento courthouse in March 1990 with his arms and legs shackled, and a knife hidden in his rectum.

After conferring with Cornfed in a hallway outside the courtroom, the lawyer stood to leave, and the hulk produced the 9-inch blade fashioned from a soup ladle, its grip made of tightly wound string adorned with finely drawn Runic lettering. Cornfed stabbed Cozens four times.

Cozens believes Ashker orchestrated the attack so the judge would declare a mistrial. It didn't work. Cozens recovered fast, and did his duty by calling Cornfed to the stand. Cornfed, who since has renounced his Aryan Brotherhood membership, told jurors that Ashker was a "good white dude," and that "Dennis got what he had coming to him."

Damning though the evidence and testimony was, Cozens eked out victory when the jury returned a verdict of second-degree murder. Ashker received a life sentence and was sent to Pelican Bay, just south of the Oregon border.

Ashker immediately was placed in the security housing unit, a prison within the prison reserved for 1,000 to 1,500 inmates who are the "worst of the worst."

Two decades ago, in the first few years of Pelican Bay's operation, there were terrible abuses. In 1990, the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which has filed most of the major cases against California's prison system, brought a class-action suit alleging that conditions in the security housing unit were unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who has overseen California prisons for more than two decades, issued a withering order in 1995 about Pelican Bay's security housing unit.

Guards snapped one inmate's wrist, knocked out four front teeth of another inmate, and hammered a third on the head with the butt of a gun so hard that he lost consciousness, Henderson wrote.

The judge detailed the sickening case of Vaugh Dortch, a mentally ill inmate who ranted that he was a killer bee and was left to wallow in his own feces for 10 days in 1992, until the stench became so overpowering that officers forcibly extracted him from his cell.

They marched him in shackles to the infirmary and forced him into a bath filled with water so hot that his skin peeled off. A nurse overheard one of the officers quip: "Looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through."

Henderson appointed a special master to oversee the prison and didn't lift the order until 2011, when he concluded the Department of Corrections complied with reforms he had ordered.

Though Pelican Bay is a super-maximum security prison, there were construction flaws, as Ashker proved shortly after he arrived in September 1990. He kicked open his cell door – a defect costing $8 million to fix – and tried to kill another inmate.

A guard broke up the fight by shooting Ashker in his wrist. Though he was the aggressor, Ashker filed a suit accusing the officer of excessive force and prison doctors of malpractice – and won. A federal jury in Oakland awarded him $225,000.

Ashker has little formal schooling, but has used time in prison to learn the law. He filed a writ in 2001 seeking to have his conviction for murdering "Dirty" Dennis overturned.

As part of the case, Cornfed filed a declaration adding detail to the attempt on Cozens' life. He had hoped to kill the prosecutor, then Deputy District Attorney William Portanova, but realized he might not get the chance, and turned his attention to Cozens.

"I didn't like his attitude, his smart-aleck remarks, nor his demeanor. So I stabbed him," Cornfed wrote.

Cornfed faced trial in 1991 for stabbing Cozens, and called Ashker to Sacramento from Pelican Bay to testify. With Ashker in court, Cornfed pleaded guilty, on condition that he receive two pepperoni pizzas and 2 liters of Pepsi. He and Ashker shared the feast.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal aid organization in New York, has taken up Ashker's cause, claiming in a suit brought on his behalf and other inmates that leaving individuals in security housing for a decade or more is unconstitutional.

Corrections officials last year altered their policy and are reviewing cases of inmates to determine whether they should remain in SHU. People who know Ashker say he is exactly where he belongs.

"Things are never what they appear to be on the surface," Cozens said. "There is always a second and a third agenda. With the Aryan Brotherhood, you better be prepared to play on all levels. And I wasn't."

Now, he realizes there are people who walk this earth who are cunning and manipulative in ways the rest of us cannot imagine, least of all the pampered elite of Hollywood.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.