While thirty-year old rapper Meek Mill currently remains incarcerated in a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania, he may soon be released, thanks in part to an attorney of the judge who sentenced him to prison.
Mill’s attorneys have been fighting for his release since Nov. 7, when Judge Genece Brinkley sentenced the Philadelphia native to between two and four years of prison for violating the terms of his probation. To date, his lawyers’ efforts haven’t fared well, but things are likely to start looking up for Mill. Here’s what happened.
First, the backdrop: In January 2007, Mill was arrested and charged with drug possession, carrying a firearm without a license, and other related charges. Mill pleaded not guilty, but following an August 2008 bench trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Plea, state court Judge Genece Brinkley found Mill guilty of “carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm in public in Philadelphia, possession of an instrument of crime, possession of a loaded weapon, simple assault, possession with intent to deliver, and intentional possession of a controlled substance.”
Brinkley sentenced Mill to 11 to 23 months incarceration, to be followed by five years of probation. He was paroled in June 2009, but in July 2014, Brinkley revoked his probation and sentenced him to three to six months of jail time, plus five years of probation. Mill was freed again in December 2014, when Brinkley granted his motion for early parole.
In December 2015, Brinkley found Mill again in violation of his probation. At a hearing on Feb. 5, 2016, to determine the sentence for that violation, at the request of Mill, Brinkley met in her chambers with Mill, his then-girlfriend Oneka Maraj, better known as “Niki Manaj,” Mill’s attorney, the assistant district attorney, and his probation officer. A court reporter recorded the discussions, but they were not transcribed. The court record noted the transcript of the in-chambers meeting was confidential and sealed by the court. (This in-chambers conversation proved significant later, as we will soon see).
Following this private discussion, the parties returned to open court, at which time Brinkley revoked Mill’s probation and resentenced him to six to twelve months of incarceration, plus six years’ probation, but she then immediately paroled him to house arrest with electronic monitoring.
That brings us to Mill’s most recent problems. As The Washington Post reported, in the “past year, Mill was arrested twice, first for a fight at an airport in St. Louis (the charges were later dropped) and again after he was seen on video doing dirt-bike stunts on Manhattan streets. He also tested positive for the painkiller Percocet.”
Mill appeared before Brinkley to learn the punishment for his most recent probation violations on Nov. 7, 2017. In revoking Mill’s probation, Brinkley told the rapper, “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” reported The Inquirer.
As bailiffs cuffed Mill, his lawyers took action — both in the legal system and in the court of public opinion. They filed three motions with Brinkley, one requesting Mill’s release pending appeal, one asking her to modify the two to four year prison sentence, and a final motion asking her to recuse herself from the case.
The public relations push then began. One of Mill’s attorneys, Brian McMonagle, called the sentence “excessive, unjust, unfair.” Mill’s defense attorney, Joe Tacopina, continued the assault, claiming Brinkley inappropriately “made herself fact witness as to whether Mill was following the court’s orders.”
Here, The Washington Post reports, “Defense attorneys point to a previous probation-violation hearing during which Brinkley told Mill that she went to a soup kitchen to make sure that Mill was feeding the homeless as part of his community service.”
Tacopina added that Brinkley gave “inappropriate personal and professional advice” to Mill, purportedly asking Mill “to record a version of Boyz II Men’s ‘On Bended Knee’ — and to include her name in it.” His attorneys also claim that the judge pressured Mill “to drop Jay-Z’s management company and return to Philadelphia-based Charles ‘Charlie Mack’ Alston.”
While waiting for Brinkley to rule, Mill’s attorneys also parleyed Mill’s high-profile status into public pressure to force his release. CBS News reported, “Demonstrators took to the streets in Philadelphia earlier in November to protest his sentence and Jay-Z wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and called the rapper’s sentence ‘just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.”
The Philadelphia Eagles indicated their support for Mill by choosing his song “Dreams and Nightmares” for their Super Bowl theme. And half-a-world away at the Olympics, Mill’s name reappeared, when a Slovenian snowboarder showed off his board during halfpipe qualifying. The board has “#FreeMeekMill” written on it.
“Mr. Mill is incredibly lucky because he’s got a lot of money and a lot of friends with money,” Temple University law professor, Jules Epstein, told The Washinton Post.
Yet Mill remained behind bars, even though his well-paid attorneys filed an emergency petition for a writ habeas corpus — a separate judicial proceeding challenging the legality of a person’s detention. The Pennsylvania appellate court refused to order Mill’s release, but directed Brinkley to rule expeditiously on his motion for release on bail pending appeal. Brinkley promptly denied his motion for bail and the Pennsylvania appellate court allowed her ruling to stand.
Had that been all Brinkley did, Mill would likely remain imprisoned until the appellate court heard the merits of his challenge to the two to four year sentence, which could easily take a year or more. And Mill would likely have lost that appeal, because “sentencing is a matter vested within the discretion of the trial court and will not be disturbed absent a manifest abuse of discretion.” In determining whether a sentence is manifestly excessive, appellate courts give great weight to sentencing judge’s discretion, as they are in the “best position to measure factors such as the nature of the crime, the defendant’s character, and the defendant’s display of remorse, defiance, or indifference.”
And Pennsylvania appellate courts have upheld sentences for technical probation violations where the defendant showcased an “intractable attitude and behavior,” and the continued probation violations showed that the defendant has not “put anything into” the court-imposed rehabilitation efforts and has failed “to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”
Mill’s situation easily fits those descriptors. And an appellate court would likely look unfavorably on Mill’s attorneys’ attempts achieve vigilante justice by targeting the sentencing judge.
But after initially refusing to comment on Mill’s case because, as she told the Guardian, the matter is “subject to future litigation,” Brinkley broke. Following months of being a target, with her Philadelphia home being “scouted by news vans,” and with rumors circulating that the FBI was investigating Brinkley for extortion, Brinkley hired her own attorney — a big mouth publicity hound named A. Charles Peruto Jr., who it looks like will do more harm than good for his client in this case.
Peruto’s first move? Threatening to sue Mill’s attorneys: He told The Inquirer that Mill’s legal team was making “baseless claims” about Brinkley and that “her reputation has been severely damaged within the last month. We absolutely believe she has an absolute solid [defamation] case.” He added: “What you have is an organization — extremely wealthy — who wants to attack a sitting judge. … It’s ‘How much money can you throw at a case and make your allegations stick?’”
To make matters worse, Peruto appeared in a TMZ video feed, purportedly to defend Brinkley, but in reality, incidentally seems to have exposed her judicial misconduct:
“Joe Tacopina is a circus clown. He wasn’t there. Yet he gave all sorts of interviews saying the judge had this discussion trying to coach Meek into switching managers. It didn’t happen. And as soon as I got back, and I read that transcript, I told the Judge release the transcript because it completely flies in the face of his allegations. And he is not representing Meek Mill the proper way. He should fight these things in court and not have TV and newspaper publicity surrounding how bad the judge is. This is a very ethical jurist. And he’s going to get nowhere. We’re just trying to make sure the public understands, that she’s been smeared with lies. She’s been approached by outside people to call her trying to get her to change her mind what she’s going to do, which is highly unethical. Yet she’s the one being accused of doing unethical things.”
And with the “I told the Judge release the transcript,” Peruto handed Mill a get-out-of-jail-free card, because it is inappropriate for a judge to allow an outside party — even her own attorney — to view a sealed document.
Following Peruto’s two-minute TMZ diatribe, Mill’s lawyers pounced. Mill’s legal team filed a third request Monday for Brinkley to recuse herself from the case. “Among other things, the eight-page motion references Brinkley’s decision to hire Philadelphia attorney A. Charles Peruto Jr. and contends that Brinkley may have improperly made public a key transcript in the case that had been under seal since February 2016,” reported the Legal Intelligencer.
At this point, Brinkley has no choice but to recuse herself. By hiring Peruto, who then advised her on how to handle the transcript in Mill’s case, Brinkley has created an irretractable conflict of interest. So far, Brinkley has shown no signs of stepping down, though. In fact, she has not yet ruled on Mill’s initial motion for her to recuse herself filed in November.
Mill’s attorneys aren’t likely to wait long, though, and if Brinkley doesn’t rule expeditiously, they will likely head back to the Pennsylvania appellate court to seek a Writ of Mandamus, ordering Brinkley to rule on the motion to recuse — much as they did on the unanswered motion for bail. And while the appellate court cannot direct Brinkley to grant the motion — it can compel her to rule. At that point, should Brinkley refuse to recuse herself, Mill can seek review of that decision and would without doubt succeed.
Removing Brinkley at this point may seem futile for Mill, since she already sentenced him to two to four years in prison. But in Pennsylvania, as in most states, a defendant can seek reconsideration of a sentence. And following his sentence, Mill’s attorneys immediately filed a motion to modify the sentence Brinkley handed down. Brinkley has not yet ruled on that motion, which means that once Brinkley is removed from the case, another judge can quickly modify Mill’s sentence, releasing him from prison. That’s exactly what I predict will happen, and Mill will owe it all to an attorney — just not his.