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Celebrity inmates cite coronavirus pandemic to seek release from prison


Fears of the novel coronavirus spreading wildly among prison populations have caused some inmates jailed in the U.S. and abroad to be released from custody earlier than expected.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that he plans to free some 300 nonviolent inmates jailed at Rikers Island who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the coronavirus, while New Jersey’s chief justice indicated upwards of 1,000 vulnerable individuals could soon be released from state custody.

Overseas, meanwhile, the Iranian government has said that tens of thousands of prisoners have been temporarily released already in response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to surge, here are some of the more high-profile inmates who have asked to be released from prison because of the pandemic.

1. Julian Assange



Julian Assange, the founder and publisher of the WikiLeaks website, asked through his attorneys Wednesday to be released on bail from Belmarsh Prison in London, where he has been jailed since April amid ongoing efforts by the Trump administration to have him extradited from the U.K. and put on trial for charges including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act. Lawyers for the Australian native argued that he should be released because he suffers from health conditions that place him at a higher risk from the virus, but a British judge noted that he jumped bail before and denied their request.

2. Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal attorney, sought a reprieve last week from the three-year sentence he is currently serving in a New York prison as a consequence of pleading guilty to crimes including campaign finance violations. Ten months into his term, a lawyer for Cohen said his client has pre-existing health problems that make him particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus and should be allowed to finish his term from home. That request was rejected Tuesday by a federal court judge, however, who ruled that it appeared the president’s longtime lawyer was merely trying to “inject himself into the news cycle.”

3. Bill Cosby

A spokesman for disgraced comedian Bill Cosby said in a statement Wednesday that lawyers for the comic are considering filing a court motion requesting that he be released from prison early and allowed to finish his sentence under house arrest. Cosby, 82, was convicted in 2018 of sexual assault and currently serving a prison sentence of between 3 and 10 years at a Pennsylvania state correctional institution, SCI Phoenix, where his spokesman indicated the prisoner is at the mercy of other inmates. “Those inmates could fall victim to the Coronavirus and easily spread the disease to Mr. Cosby as they wheel him around in a wheelchair,” Cosby’s spokesman Andrew Wyatt said in the statement, Fox News reported.

4. Michael Avenatti

Convicted attorney Michael Avenatti, who found fame representing a porn star who alleged to have had an extra-marital affair with Mr. Trump prior to him becoming president, recently asked to be freed on bail while awaiting sentencing for defrauding Nike. “Avenatti is vulnerable because his cell mate was removed from the cell due to flu-like symptoms, and he is part of the general population incarcerated under unsanitary and disease-prone conditions,” a lawyer for the attorney argued last week, adding that Avenatti also contracted pneumonia last year and is therefore particularly susceptible to lung infections. U.S. District Court Judge James Selna ultimately denied the request on Saturday, noting that there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan where Avenatti is being held.

5. Tekashi 6ix9ine

Daniel Hernandez, a Brooklyn-born rap artist better known by the stage name Tekashi 6ix9ine, has been serving a two-year prison sentence since December after pleading guilty to charges including racketeering. Lance Lazzaro, a lawyer for the rapper, recently said his client is scheduled to be released early as soon as this summer. Hernandez has asked to finish that sentence under home confinement, however, arguing through his attorney that he suffers from asthma and is accordingly at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if he contracts COVID-19 in custody. That request was ultimately rejected Wednesday by a federal court judge in Manhattan, who said the matter was better suited to be settled by the Bureau of Prisons.

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