IMAGE: Kevin Mercer
A dozen musicians, mostly teenagers, gathered last Friday in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst for Pacific Crest Sinfonietta orchestra’s weekly rehearsal.
At 8:30 pm, the quiet trill of a cell phone interrupted the lilting sound of string instruments. As the ensemble carried on with practice, Jyothi Pulla rushed from her pew to take the call in the foyer.
Pulla, the mother of twin 14-year-old girls who play in the orchestra, opened the silver flip phone she jokingly refers to as “the Harun hotline.”
On the other end was one of the orchestra’s cello players, 20-year-old Harun Mustafa.
GRADUATION DAY: Mustafa got his diploma in 2008. IMAGE: Courtesy of Zakiyyah Rasheed
Months earlier, Mustafa had performed Bach and jazz tunes with the orchestra. Recently, he’d composed an original piece for the group. And on Friday night he called from Eastern Oregon to hear for the first time how his work, Moonlit Melody, sounded.
Mustafa was calling from Snake River Correctional Institution, 375 miles from Portland.
“Hello, hello?” shouted Stefana Berceanu, the orchestra’s director, after Pulla handed her the phone.
“You want to hear your new piece?”
Thirteen months ago, Mustafa was a recent graduate of Jefferson High School, a young African-American student at Portland Community College and a promising cello player with the Pacific Crest ensemble. He didn’t look the part to some. Raised in the Muslim faith, Mustafa wore his hair in long dreadlocks. “When you look at Harun, you don’t think cello,” admits Ronnye Harrison, an African-American saxophone player who helped Mustafa find a string teacher when Mustafa moved to Portland in 2004. “But he really loves that instrument.”
He was also “a really bright guy, very creative and talented, artsy,” a guidance counselor from Jeff recently recalled. He was a “philosopher” and a “great mind,” Berceanu says.
MEASURE BY MEASURE: Stefana Berceanu says, “One thing I know is he does not deserve to be in jail.” IMAGE: Darryl James
Then, on April 9, 2009, a fight in North Portland broke out between two groups of teenage boys. Mustafa pulled out a folding knife in self-defense and stabbed someone, and everything in his world changed. It was his first offense as an adult, and the victim’s wound required only a single stitch to close. Nonetheless, a judge sentenced Mustafa on Nov. 12, 2009, to 18 months in prison.
Pulla, a 44-year-old immigrant from India who barely knew Mustafa before his sentencing, was about to have her life changed as well. In the past six months, the petite, soft-spoken stay-at-home mom has spent hundreds of hours working on Mustafa’s behalf, poring over court records, listening again to audio recordings of his trial, and calling jail administrators, state lawmakers and attorneys to explore every possible legal and educational opportunity for Mustafa.
Convinced that the justice system made a serious mistake when it gave Mustafa prison time instead of probation, Pulla just finished filming a 17-minute documentary about his case, called “Young, Gifted…and in Prison.” She’s made a website and T-shirts that proclaim, “Cello Not Cells.” And this year, to mark Mustafa’s 20th birthday on April 11, she organized a benefit concert for him, raising $250 to buy Mustafa books, blank sheet music and a tiny radio, his only source of recorded music in prison.
To help keep down the cost of calls from Snake River, Pulla even bought a cell phone with a number in Eastern Oregon’s area code—the Harun hotline. He calls every Friday after 8 pm just as the orchestra concludes its weekly rehearsal, which means Mustafa speaks with Pulla more often than his own mother.
Culminating all her efforts, Pulla this month helped Mustafa complete a clemency application to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. She believes he deserves a full pardon.
And while she is so reluctant to call attention to herself that she resisted having her photo taken for this story, it would be an understatement to call her dedication to Mustafa’s case anything but extraordinary.
Speaking with WW from prison in 20-minute increments, Mustafa says he is grateful for Pulla’s attention. He is writing music in prison because of her encouragement. “She’s doing a lot,” he says. “It’s more than I would expect.”
Muttaqi Mustafa, Harun’s older brother, goes further. “There are millions of Haruns,” he says. “If there were a Jyothi for every Harun, the world would be a more equal place.”
Some crimes are senseless. What happened on April 9, 2009, wasn’t really senseless. It was just stupid.
BROTHERLY LOVE: Harun Mustafa’s older brother Muttaqi Mustafa at Northgate Park. “What happened that night,” he says, “that’s all I think about now.” IMAGE: Darryl James
It was late on a Thursday night. Mustafa, then two days shy of his 19th birthday, was at his family’s townhouse in the New Columbia public housing complex. He and two friends decided to play Street Fighter IV at the home of one of those friends, Paul Tillman, then 19.
Mustafa had moved to Portland from Virginia Beach, Va., with his mother and two of her six children five years earlier. He graduated from Jefferson in 2008 and was a full-time student at PCC, studying to be a music teacher.
It’s a 12-block walk from New Columbia to Tillman’s apartment near what Portland cops call Six Points, the cattywampus intersection of North Fessenden Street and Columbia Way. Northgate Park, next to the shuttered Clarendon Elementary School campus, sits in between the two points.
Tillman, 19, told Mustafa and the other friend, Robert Muhammad, also 19, that he had an errand to run near the park on the way to Tillman’s house. Mustafa says he didn’t know what it was.
When police arrived at the scene four minutes before midnight, after neighbors near the park reported the sound of gunshots, they found two groups of teenage boys with dirt-soiled clothing and two very different stories of what had happened.
Mustafa says he was standing in the park when a gold Jeep Liberty pulled up. Three or four young men hopped out of the Jeep and started taunting him. “One guy acted like he had a gun and like he was going to shoot us if we didn’t give him anything,” Mustafa says.
This much is clear: A fight erupted. Mustafa says he was jumped and, while pinned to the ground, pulled out his pocketknife, poking a guy he described as big, scruffy and bearded. Police later identified him as 18-year-old Zachary Nold.
Tillman was carrying a .25-caliber pistol. During the melee, he fired two shots into the ground, he says to scare off the attackers.
At 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds, Mustafa’s stabbing victim was a half-foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Mustafa. Nold eventually told police he was looking to buy pot from Tillman, who had 10 baggies of weed stashed in a purple Crown Royal sack under his clothes. Nold says he was also “pretty drunk,” according to his later testimony.
Feeling either threatened or spooked, Nold says he threw himself into Tillman, punching him four or five times. And according to him, that’s when he felt a pain in his back and spun around to see Mustafa jabbing a pocketknife into his side.
When police arrived, Mustafa, Muhammad and Tillman cooperated and answered questions. In fact, Mustafa quickly admitted to officers he had a knife and that he had used it in self-defense.
NOLD’S MUGSHOT FROM A MAY 6, 2010 ARREST (LEFT); MUSTAFA’S MUGSHOT FROM APRIL 19, 2009 IMAGE: Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office
“Harun didn’t walk there to commit a crime,” his older brother Muttaqi says. “He walked there to play video games.” Nold’s wound was 1 inch long and a half-inch deep. Doctors closed it with one stitch.
Nonetheless, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office elected to charge Mustafa with felony assault in the second degree and unlawful use of a weapon. He was released for five months of court supervision; his trial took place in September.
Kellie Johnson, the prosecutor, used the location of Nold’s wound to argue that Mustafa could not have acted in self-defense. “He’s not stabbed in the stomach,” she told the court. “He’s not stabbed in the chest. He’s not stabbed in the shoulder area. He’s stabbed in the lower back.”
She added: “There was no reason for Mr. Mustafa to pull out his handy dandy knife and stab Mr. Nold in the back.”
Even though the physical evidence also matched Mustafa’s story that he was pinned to the ground when he pulled out his knife, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Ángel Lopez believed the prosecutor’s version of events—that Nold had his back turned to Mustafa when Mustafa poked him. Judge Lopez found him guilty of both counts Sept. 23. Police found no marijuana on Mustafa when they patted him down outside the park. Yet the circumstances of the fight seemed to color the judge’s ruling, too.
“I have no doubt they were going to the park to do a drug deal,” Lopez said as court personnel prepared to take Mustafa into custody. “What a waste.”
Days later, Judge Lopez gave Tillman a 10-day sentence for firing his gun in the park. Mustafa faced 70 months.
Despite her involvement with the orchestra, Pulla knew nothing about Mustafa’s legal drama until early November when she got a call from Berceanu, the orchestra director.
“You know Harun?” Berceanu asked, according to Pulla. “He’s in jail.”
Shocked, Pulla listened as Berceanu proceeded to tell her she was gathering friends and musicians to appear at Mustafa’s Nov. 12 sentencing. The idea was that a large group of supporters might persuade the judge to give Mustafa probation—a possibility because Nold’s wound was not severe. Berceanu asked Pulla if she could go, too.
THE HARUN HOTLINE: Jyothi Pulla holds up a cell phone as the Pacific Crest ensemble plays and Mustafa listens to the music from prison. IMAGE: Darryl James
Although Mustafa was Berceanu’s assistant at the music camp Pulla’s daughters attended last summer, Pulla barely knew the young man. Their longest exchange took place at a potluck dinner for the orchestra in September right before Mustafa’s trial, Pulla recalls. “We didn’t really have long conversations,” Mustafa says.
Pulla did know Mustafa was the reason Jefferson High School—once a robust performing arts magnet school—got its extracurricular music program in 2005. And it was that class (which later expanded to Jefferson’s Young Women’s Academy) that provided Pulla’s daughters with music at their school.
Mustafa had been a cello player ever since the fifth grade. But when he arrived at Jefferson, he discovered it had no orchestra, which meant he had no instrument to play for the first time since elementary school. So he sought out a private teacher who could come to Jefferson. That’s how he eventually met Berceanu, who started a class that met before school in the mornings. Even when Mustafa briefly transferred to Grant High in his sophomore year, he continued to study music with Berceanu at Jefferson. “There are so many kids, including mine, who would not have been able to afford a music class [without Mustafa],” Pulla says. “We really owe him.”
Nov. 12 was the birthday of Pulla’s husband. He had the day off from the hospital where he is a cardiology intern, so the two of them went to the courthouse. They fully expected Mustafa to get probation. “He was a good kid,” Pulla says. “He was in college. He always volunteered, and he was a very talented musician. He’d been working. We really thought it would not be a big deal.”
Although Mustafa faced the possibility of 70 months behind bars, prosecutor Johnson asked the judge to give Mustafa only 42 months. Mustafa’s defense attorney, Thomas Hanrahan, argued that since the April fight was his first offense, Mustafa would be better served by probation and no prison time.
“Then this whole thing unfolded in front of our eyes,” Pulla says.
In closing arguments, Johnson discounted the positive influences in Mustafa’s life. “If he would have stayed being the person that obviously his family and friends and his community sees and supports and loves, we wouldn’t be here,” Johnson told the court. “The fact still remains he was involved in a drug deal.”
Johnson then likened Mustafa to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “Do we sentence with the hope of Dr. Jekyll?” she asked the court.
Then she laughed, and so did the judge.
“It’s not a matter of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and you don’t have to separate the good from the bad,” Hanrahan, Mustafa’s defense attorney, rebutted. “You have to look at everything.”
And with that, Judge Lopez, a child of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Compton, Calif., brought up Mustafa’s juvenile record.
In December 2005, when Mustafa was 15, he stole three $2.59 cigars from a Walgreens. The juvenile court system ordered Mustafa to perform 18 hours of community service, and although the incident took place almost four years before the fight, Lopez argued it was relevant.
“Years ago I was a victim of a burglary,” he told the court. That case ended with the youth getting no prison time.
“Whoever signed off on it was wrong because the whole point they were making…was that it was a one-time-only deal and it would never be repeated,” he said. “But guess what? It was.” Lopez then handed down an 18-month sentence, which he said was in the best interest of Mustafa and the community. “I can’t put this young man on probation, and I’m not going to,” he said.
Pulla says the sentencing had a profound, almost physical effect on her. “We were all in tears,” she says. “To see him walk away like that was very heartbreaking. You have to see it to feel the impact. The court setting, the look on his face, the prison clothes, the chains on his feet, the clunking noise you hear. Here was this kid playing music and now his hands are in shackles.”
MUSTAFA PRACTICING THE CELLO. IMAGE: Monique Thornton
But she thought she still had some power to change the outcome.
“It seemed like there were so many things that were wrong,” Pulla says. “It seemed easy to fix because it was so glaring. I thought, OK, I’ll put aside everything that’s on my plate for a month or two and we can fix this.”
And now? “It’s been six months,” she says.
In so many other respects, Pulla is a typical Portlander and a typical mom. She volunteers at her daughters’ school, the Young Women’s Academy. She shuttles them to orchestra rehearsal. But in the six months that have passed since Mustafa’s sentencing, Pulla has become something else, too. She herself admits as much. “It’s become more than an obsession,” she says.
It’s also become something of a family affair. Pulla’s teenage daughters, Shradha and Medha, help out; her husband supports her. “This is a really important case,” Shradha says. “He did very little wrong.”
The fact that the case involves someone whom Pulla barely knew makes it even more peculiar.
“I am astonished,” says Katy Hubbard, the wife of one of Mustafa’s former music teachers. “It’s not like she doesn’t have her own life. The fact that she is so willing, day after day, to advocate for him is inspiring.”
Mustafa’s mother, Zakiyyah Rasheed, is overjoyed that Pulla has taken an interest in helping her son appeal his case and seek clemency. Rasheed has since moved back to Virginia. She has six children and 12 grandchildren, but she lacks Pulla’s financial resources—and maybe her drive. “She’s tenacious,” Rasheed says. “She’s like a pit bull. She gets ahold of something, and she doesn’t let go.”
Still, she admits Pulla’s persistence occasionally borders on irritating. “I told her I find her annoying sometimes, and she said, ‘OK, I won’t talk to you anymore.’” Rasheed says in a friendly tone. “And I said, ‘No that’s not going to happen! You can forget that! I’m going to talk to you.’ And I told her I love her. I said, ‘I love what you’re doing for my child.’”
Rasheed is hopeful Kulongoski will grant her son the pardon. But the odds are against Mustafa. Since 2003, about 650 convicted felons have submitted clemency applications to the Democratic governor. He’s granted pardons to 12 of those people. He’s commuted the sentences of 44 more.
Pulla has doubts, but she isn’t deterred. “He’s just an ordinary kid,” she says. “He did everything possible to do the right thing. One incident, one association, I think should not undermine all the positive things he stood for.”
In phone interviews from Snake River, Mustafa exhibits the tendencies of any 20-year-old. He has trouble finding the words to fully express his frustrations about his prison time, which is leavened by the gratitude he feels toward Pulla and the hope he has that she just might succeed. He’s more expressive in his letters to friends and family members. “This place can make a person lose their sense of self if you’re weak-minded,” he writes in one letter to Pulla. “I don’t know why they call this prison a correctional facility. What is it correcting? It is the exact opposite. I would call it a college for criminals.”
Prison rules prohibit Mustafa from bringing his cello from home to Snake River, which means that when Mustafa is not working in the prison kitchen, serving food to other inmates, he’s often in his cell composing music without being able to play what he writes. “I can kind of hear it in my head, but I struggle,” he says.
The Portland Cello Project will perform some of Mustafa’s music Saturday, May 22, at the Aladdin Theater, and when it does, Pulla will be holding the phone for Mustafa to listen to how it sounds. “I’m not much of a musician,” Pulla says, “but I can see how happy it makes my own kids.”
And whatever doubts she has about Mustafa’s clemency application don’t extend to his passion for the cello. “Of course he will continue his music,” she says. “It’s what he breathes. I don’t think he can give it up.”
See The Harun Documentary Here
On May 22, the Portland Cello Project will perform some of Mustafa’s original compositions at the Aladdin Theater.
More information about Mustafa’s case can be found at cellonotcell.web.officelive.com.
Oregon built Snake River Correctional Institute in 1991 to house 3,000 inmates. It’s the largest prison in the state.
Even without a pardon, Mustafa could still be a music teacher; a felony assault charge does not automatically disqualify a person from getting an Oregon license.