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Judge Fails to Rule for Years on Possible Wrongful Convictions

August 22nd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

This troubling story about multiple cases of justice preposterously delayed by the same US District judge
was originally reported by Gabe Friedman of the Daily Journal but, as the DJ is hidden behind a very hefty pay wall, it’s great that Carol Williams of the LA Times picked up the story and expanded a bit on it.

Here’s a clip from the Times’ version:

Justice delayed was justice denied for Omer Harland Gallion. He died in prison in his sixth year of waiting for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to act on a decision that he had been wrongfully convicted and should be released or retried.

Anderson took no action until December, when he dismissed the matter as moot after an attorney brought Gallion’s death to his attention.

Two other cases in which junior judicial officials found grounds for striking prisoners’ felony convictions also languished unattended by Anderson for five and a half and eight years, respectively. Another prisoner who petitioned for relief in 2002 is still waiting for an answer.

Prisoners who appeal to federal judges with claims of wrongful conviction are rarely successful in their quests for relief, known as writs of habeas corpus, “the great writ” that is a hallmark of American justice. Only 1 in 284 petitions is approved, according to a 2006 report by a Vanderbilt University law professor. But ignoring recommendations for relief in the few meritorious cases among the 17,000 or so filed each year raises concern about a judge’s objectivity, judicial scholars say.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, How Appealing, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

AB 9, the CA Juvenile Life Bill Passes Hurdle & Hunger Strikes Make Progres

August 19th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The AP has the story:

A controversial bill headed for a vote in California has stirred up conversation again about whether life sentences for juveniles need to be re-examined.

Under the state bill, which received a key vote Wednesday to allow it to head to the Assembly floor for a vote, some juvenile offenders would get the opportunity for release.
At the heart of the bill is a question that’s been pondered by legal scholars, law enforcement and even the Supreme Court: Should juveniles who have committed crimes that led to a life prison sentence be given a second chance?

The bill, introduced by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow juveniles to ask a court to re-examine their sentences after they have served 15 years for their crime. Yee, who is also a child psychologist, argues that at certain ages, kids don’t have the full capacity to understand their crimes, and locking juveniles up without giving them a chance to show they have gained that capacity isn’t the right answer.

“The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed,” Yee said in a statement. “SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”

California law allows kids as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole for certain crimes.

The Patt Morrison Show had a very good segment on the issue that included as one of the guests an attorney whose wife had been horribly murdered by a teenager who lived next door, and who is against the bill.


There has been much disinformation and misinformation on this topic. But the very excellent Sam Stanton at the Sac Bee has a nice, clear well-sourced story. Here’s a clip.

Last month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their complaints of being unfairly held in extreme isolation at the Crescent City lockup.

Within three weeks, the prison hunger strike had become one of the largest in years, spreading throughout the state corrections system to involve thousands of inmates and sparking a legislative hearing scheduled for next week.

“We had up to 6,000 (prisoners taking part), including about 300 in Mississippi in our out-of-state facility half the country away, participating in this,” said corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo.

When officials tried to tamp down the protest by moving 17 hunger strike leaders to the state prison in Corcoran, the inmate action spread.

“As soon as they got down to Corcoran, an additional 300 inmates at that institution went on the hunger strike,” Hidalgo said.

he effort ended July 21, after inmates inside the security housing unit at Pelican Bay were promised changes, including being given wool caps for use during winter months and being allowed to have wall calendars.

Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also said they will review policies on how the agency determines which inmates are believed to be gang leaders who are then placed in a security housing unit.

But they insist that inmates inside the SHU, including several who have identified themselves as leaders of the hunger strike, pose a serious threat to others and are there for very good reasons

Read the rest.


The LA Times’ Christopher Goffard, Paloma Esquivel and Teresa Watanabe have the story.

Here’s how it opens:

The Obama administration said it will review the cases of 300,000 illegal immigrants currently in deportation proceedings to identify “low-priority” offenders — including the elderly, crime victims and people who have lived in the U.S. since childhood — with an eye toward allowing them to stay.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the review as the Obama administration has sought to counter criticism that it has been too harsh in its deportation policies. By launching the case-by-case review, officials said they are refocusing deportation efforts on convicted felons and other “public safety threats.”

The administration’s action was cheered bysome illegal immigrants, notably college students who have been pushing Congress to pass the Dream Act, which would allow them to stay in the country.

“It makes me happy and hopeful,” said Rigoberto Barboza, 21, an undocumented student at Mt. San Antonio College who supports a family of five with a $9-an-hour job at a fast-food restaurant. He said his mother, who brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a boy, is facing deportation. “I hope they go through my mother’s case, stop her deportation and, if possible, get her a work permit.”

Like I said: sane.

But critics labeled the plan as a “blanket amnesty” for a large group of illegal immigrants.

This “clearly demonstrates the Obama administration’s defiance of both the constitutional separation of powers and the will of the American public,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform….

Oh, blah-blah-blah-blah.

Posted in juvenile justice, prison, Sentencing | 4 Comments »

Predictive Policing: Good Idea or Bad idea?

August 18th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Wednesday, Larry Mantle’s AirTalk on KPCC focused on a new strategy that the LAPD plans
to take for a test drive as a experimental program. The strategy is called predictive policing and it is already being tried out by the Santa Cruz PD, reportedly with some success. Now Los Angeles wants to give it a try—at least in the form of a pilot program.

Here are some clips from the show:

Police departments have been providing years of historic crime data to mathematicians, who’ve created algorithms to analyze and determine crime patterns. The results are predictions of where and when similar crimes are likely to occur.

Zach Friend, a crime analyst for the Santa Cruz Police Department, says the crime-fighting system is modeled on methods for predicting earthquake aftershocks. The tool comes from Santa Clara University Professor George Mohler who believes crimes follow similar patterns. Friend, who helped to launch the program in Santa Cruz, says the system works because crimes tend to occur in time and place-based patterns. Santa Cruz officials became interested in the program after the success of a similar pilot by the LAPD.

“You have a crime and there will be after-crimes that occur after that,” said Friend. The technology, he says, has helped Santa Cruz prevent crimes before they happen. Thus far his department has focused on burglaries and vehicle theft.

“The arrests are not the goal here,” says Friend, of how the program is working in Santa Cruz. Preventing crime is the goal.

In L.A., LAPD Captain Sean Malinowski says he’d like to push the envelope further; and next year use the technology to predict violent crimes. Each morning officers using the program enter crime reports into the system, which is already packed with eight years worth of data. The program then predicts 10 potential crime hot spots.

Malinowski says the technology represents a vast improvement to what the department currently uses.

“The instruments we are using seem blunt now, in terms of the kind of specificity we can get with data analysis,” he says. Malinowski says he believes the computer model helps to remove biases.

Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of law, worried that the program would lead to additional profiling and would provide an excuse for harassment.

My pal George Tita, criminologist from UC Irvine countered Professor Cohn’s concerns with down to earth information.

And, yes, Cohn’s fears could come to pass, but it would be up to LAPD management to keep an eye out for any such Minority Report-like problems.

In truth, on first bounce, the model sounds very promising.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Listen and see what you think.


The LA Times’ Rong-Gong Lin II has a story about the LA County Supervisors opining that crime will go up if, as Governor Brown intends, short-timer offenders (people given months-long sentences) serve out their time at the various county jails, rather than being sent to state prison for, say, 3 or 6 months, which is grossly inefficient and needlessly expensive.

The Sups also say that crime will go up if the lower-level offenders who are paroled from prison report, not to a state parole officer, but to a county probation officer (as it was decided would happen last month).

This last, especially, is ridiculous.

Currently, when inmates are released from state prison and transferred to the state parole system, they are given $200 so they can buy themselves a bus ticket home with instructions to contact a state parole officer within two business days.

But county authorities say that system [requiring them to instead contact a probation officer] could allow just-released prisoners to flee without making contact with a county probation officer.


Lin notes that the supervisors also expressed some concern that the state won’t fork over enough money to pay for the County’s added responsibility with the short time prisoners and the parolees.

That, my dears, is the one legit worry out of this whole The Sky is Falling and Criminals are Coming to Get Us! routine.. Heck, if the state fails to pay up, we should all march on Sacramento, then plant ourselves outside the governor’s office and refuse to leave until he gets out his metaphorical wallet.

But until and unless we find out that Jerry plans to welsh on his promise to pay the cost incurred by the 58 counties when they shoulder the burden of some of the state’s prisoners and parolees, how about we dial back the crime wave scare tactics.


Rebecca Weiker’s essay on the Juvenile Justice Exchange speaks eloquently for itself. Here’s how it opens:

A few months ago I spent the day meeting with a group of family members who have had their lives changed forever by acts of violence. Nobody there would have chosen to be a member of this group — all of us had either lost a loved one to murder, or had lost a loved one in an entirely different way. Many brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were sentenced to die in prison for a crime committed in their youth.

My sister Wendy was a therapist who was passionate about supporting young people with mental health problems. Almost 20 years ago she was murdered by one of her patients. All these years later, I only now am at a place where I can consider this crime from a position of empathy. I understand that I can choose what meaning to make of this experience.

I will never “get over” her death nor do I expect to shed the feeling of loss and deep sadness that comes from not having her in the world. She was truly a bright light in the world. She was my big sister and I looked up to her. I admired her commitment to justice, her warmth, her seemingly endless energy.

But, I believe it dishonors my sister’s memory every time a young person is sentenced to die in prison. In California prisons, nearly 300 youth have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. How can we decide that a young person’s life is entirely without worth when they are still unformed and immature?

Our broken system is far from offering real justice to either victims or offenders…

Note: Weiker is strongly in favor of passing Senate Bill 9, a California law that would give young people sentenced to life without parole the possibility of a hearing to determine if they deserve to be re-sentenced to a minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life.

Photo by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times prognosticate

Posted in Board of Supervisors, California budget, crime and punishment, juvenile justice, LAPD, law enforcement, parole policy, Probation | No Comments »

Should Neuroscience Change Our Idea of Sentencing…and Other Issues

August 17th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


An intriguing new book by Professor Deborah Denno is coming from Oxford University Press: It’s called Changing Law’s Mind: How Neuroscience Can Help Us Punish Criminals More Fairly and Effectively.

Here is some of the summary from the abstract on the book:

A criminal justice system should protect society from crime and also punish criminals at the level of their blameworthiness. Changing Law’s Mind contends that new insights about the brain can help us in the quest to construct a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that some of our previous intuitions about human culpability fail to reflect the reality of how the brain functions. If we ignore these developments, we risk perpetuating a justice system that punishes some people far too much and others too little or not at all.

The intersection of law and neuroscience is a thriving topic, but this book is unique. Many books and chapters in edited books focus narrowly on issues such as the diagnosis and effect of brain abnormalities or the possibility that neuroscience will someday perfect lie detection. Changing Law’s Mind, instead, provides readers with a foundation in both the legal doctrine and neuroscience and then uses that bridge to question the criminal law’s underlying principles and practice, starting from the moment a case is processed in the system to the point at which a defendant is sentenced and punished. Based on this assessment, the book suggests ways in which the criminal law can change — either quickly by accommodating our new understanding of the human mind into current practice or more fundamentally by incorporating this understanding into long-term modifications of criminal law doctrine.

PS: Thanks to Doug Berman at Sentencing, Law & Policy for pointing to Denno’s book.

I hope the book lives up to its promise. If so, it could be particularly helpful in the arena of juvenile justice, where we seem to be ever more eager to shove kids into adult court in defiance of everything we know about how the human brain matures (not to mention just basic psychology).

In fact, it has long struck me that so much of contemporary sentencing, incarceration and parole policy is designed with a bizarre disregard for nearly everything we have learned about human behavior in the last century. With rare exceptions, we use our prisons almost solely to punish—even though there is nothing in research or anecdotal observation that tells us that punishment alone will improve behavior and/or expand one’s ability to function as an upright, productive citizen. In most cases, it makes people worse, not better. We seem also to forget that 95 percent of 2.3 million who are locked up in our nation’s prisons at any given time, will eventually come home. Then, we act shocked and dismayed when more than half of the more than 700,000 Americans who are paroled each year, do not succeed on the outside.

I long for the time when our policies are based more promoting public safety and community health instead of some atavistic notion of vengeance.


Carrie Johnson for NPR reports that “…a quiet revolution has overtaken the death penalty debate. Like many trends, this one started in the states and moved to the federal level..” That “quiet revolution” means fewer executions. Read the details here.


The Seattle Times reports that various counties in Washington state have put capitol punishment on hold due to budgetary concerns. In King County, which still has active death penalty cases, the paper reports that “.…the cost of prosecuting two men and a woman accused of two of the most heinous crimes in King County in recent years is $656,564 and counting.

The cost of defending them is even higher: $4.3 million, and also climbing.”

Last year’s prosecutor of a third case has thus far cost the county $2.4 million.

All three of these cases, the defendants appear to be the worst of the worst-–people that one is hard-pressed to believe that the planet will miss all that much.

Still, even some of the Washington’s death penalty advocates are wondering if maybe the price tag is too high for the state to afford.


Charlie Savage of the New York Times has this story:

Fanned by the financial crisis, a wave of sentencing and parole reforms is gaining force as it sweeps across the United States, reversing a trend of “tough on crime” policies that lasted for decades and drove the nation’s incarceration rate to the highest — and most costly — level in the developed world.

While liberals have long complained that harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses like drug possession are unjust, the push to overhaul penal policies has been increasingly embraced by elected officials in some of the most conservative states in the country. And for a different reason: to save money….


The LA Times’ Richard Winton has the story. Here’s a clip:

The Fullerton City Council late Tuesday gave the go-ahead for an independent review of the city’s embattled Police Department and to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a homeless man after a violent encounter with six officers.

Michael Gennaco, who oversees Los Angeles County’s Office of Independent Review and scrutinizes the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s actions, said the two contracts approved by the Fullerton council allow him to review Kelly Thomas’ death and conduct a separate extensive review of department policies and procedures.

The council’s decision came after a meeting dominated by more than two hours of public comments criticizing how the Police Department and the city handled the July 5 altercation that resulted in Thomas’ death and its aftermath. The meeting grew so heated that three council members briefly walked out.

Illustration from SerenaDraws

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, Sentencing | 1 Comment »

The Secret History of Guns, Drug Running Grandmas… and More

August 16th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


In September’s issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Adam Winkler has a fascinating article on the history of guns and gun policy in America.

Here’s the sub head, which will explain, very succinctly what the story is about:

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.

Read the rest.


If for some reason you missed it, The NYT’s Adam Nagourney wrote a good and to the point story about how much the LAPD has changed in the past ten plus years that I meant to include in yesterday’s Must Reads. Here’s how it opens:

It had all the makings of another turbulent moment for the Los Angeles Police Department, an agency once notorious for an “L.A. Confidential” style of heavy-handed policing, hostile relations with minorities and corruption. Two months after triumphantly announcing the arrest of a suspect in a brutal beating at Dodger Stadium, the police admitted that they had arrested the wrong man, and charged two other people with the crime.

But unlike other potentially explosive episodes that have rocked this department over the decades, there were no indignant denials or attacks on critics. Instead, the police chief, Charlie Beck, wrote an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times explaining what had gone wrong and expressing regret at some of his own public comments. “We can do much better,” Chief Beck wrote.

The moment reflected what has been a revolution for the police department that was once the model for Sgt. Joe Friday and “Dragnet.” Twenty years after the police beating of Rodney King was caught on videotape, and 10 years after the Justice Department imposed a consent decree to battle pervasive corruption in the Rampart Division, this has become a department transformed, offering itself up — in a way that not so many years ago would have been unthinkable — as a model police agency for the United States.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” said John W. Mack, a former head of the Urban League who is the president of the Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the force. “The L.A.P.D. of today is very, very different than 10, 12 years ago, when I was one of the people who was constantly battling them.”

And so on. Read it, I tell you!


Another fun story brought to you by the drug war. Here’s how the article for the Minn. Star Tribune about the wrongly-jailed non-drug smuggling Minnesotan grandma opens:

In April, Janet Goodin of Warroad, Minn., was crossing into Canada for an evening of bingo with her daughters when an officer with the Canadian Border Service conducted a routine search of her van. The officer found an old bottle of motor oil, did a field test and told her that it contained heroin.

“I can’t even describe the feeling of amazement,” Goodin, 66, said in an interview. “I said, ‘That’s not possible, it’s leftover oil.’”

The bottle was re-tested, and agents said it again revealed the presence of heroin. Goodin was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail, where she was strip-searched. The motor oil was sent to a Canadian federal laboratory, which eventually determined there was no heroin in it. After 12 days behind bars, Goodin was released.

Goodin’s case has been seized upon by critics who question the reliability of field drug-test kits, which are used widely by law enforcement….



The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just upheld the Nevada Department of Corrections’ policy prohibiting inmates’ personal possession of typewriters. And if you read the ruling, you’ll see the 9th Circuit’s point. (Thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing for flagging this ruling.)


Jason Song at the LA Times has the story about the pilot program and it sounds encouraging. Here’s how the story opens:

This is what one of Los Angeles Unified’s most ambitious reform efforts looks like: about 30 people gathered in a Gardena school auditorium, watching a video of a teacher trying to get her young students to understand a John Updike poem.

The viewers furiously type their observations into laptop computers and discuss their impressions of the lesson the next day. They ask open-ended questions — “What are some possible explanations for the lack of understanding of the vocabulary?” — all aimed at helping the teacher improve.

These training sessions are the school district’s first concrete steps toward replacing its age-old teacher evaluation system, which is widely regarded as a failure. The new version is based on more detailed observations, student and parent feedback, and students’ standardized test scores.

According to Song, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy hopes to have some kind of new evaluation in place by the 2012-13 school year. May it be so.


Posted in guns, LA County Jail, LAPD | 10 Comments »

Monday Must Reads: Bratton, the 2nd Amendment, Patient Dumping and More

August 15th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


You gotta love Bill. Sunday’s Guardian reports on how much Bratton wanted to apply for the position of commissioner of the Metropolitan police—an ambition that got squashed over the weekend. The Guardian also reports in great detail about how Bill verbally thrashed anybody who suggested that one ought to be born in Britain to hold such a job.

The New York Times also has a report on the Bratton in London adventure.

Adore the aviator glasses, by the way.


The LA Times Alexandra Zavis and Richard Winton have the alarming story. Here’s a clip:

The graying veteran in a wheelchair was found in the parking lot of a Westside cold weather shelter wearing hospital pants, carrying a urine bottle and screaming for help.

Senior officials at the Los Angeles city attorney’s office say they believe James Boykin was “dumped” Dec. 1 at the shelter after his toe was removed at the nearby Department of Veterans Affairs medical center because of a bone infection. Moreover, according to city prosecutors, VA officials blocked an investigation that could have shed light on whether there were other similar incidents.

“This was an unprecedented interference with an investigation,” said Jeffrey B. Isaacs, who heads the office’s criminal and special litigation branch.

VA officials strongly dispute the allegations involving Boykin, adding that the city does not have authority to conduct a criminal investigation on federal property.


Julia Preston for the New York Times writes that resistance to the Secure Communities program is growing. Here’s a clip:

Mayor Thomas Menino, who often invokes his heritage as the grandson of an Italian immigrant, was one of the first local leaders in the country to embrace a federal program intended to improve community safety by deporting dangerous immigrant criminals.

But five years after Boston became a testing ground for the fingerprinting program, known as Secure Communities, Mr. Menino is one of the latest local officials to sour on it and seek to withdraw. He found that many immigrants the program deported from Boston, though here illegally, had committed no crimes. The mayor believed it was eroding hard-earned ties between Boston’s police force and its melting-pot mix of ethnic neighborhoods.

Last month, Mr. Menino sent a letter to the program with a blunt assessment. “Secure Communities is negatively impacting public safety,” he wrote, asking how Boston could get out.

On Aug. 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the program, gave an equally blunt response. Its director, John Morton, announced he was canceling all agreements that 40 states and cities had signed to start Secure Communities. Their assent was not legally required, he said, and he planned to move ahead anyway to extend the program nationwide by 2013.


In Monday’s Washington Post, Robert Barnes has a round up of the second Amendment cases that are likely headed to the Supreme Court.

A funny thing has happened in the three years since gun-rights activists won their biggest victory at the Supreme Court.

They’ve been on a losing streak in the lower courts.

The activists found the holy grail in 2008 when the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller said the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual right to own a firearm unconnected to military service. The court followed it up with McDonald v. Chicago two years later, holding that the amendment applies not just to gun control laws passed by Congress but to local and state laws as well.

The decisions were seen as a green light to challenge gun restrictions across the country, and the lawsuits have come raining down — more than two a week, according to the anti-gun Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But it is the Brady Center that is crowing about the results.

“Three years and more than 400 legal challenges later, courts — so far — have held that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Heller was narrow and limited, and that the Second Amendment does not interfere with the people’s right to enact legislation protecting families and communities from gun violence,” the center said in a report optimistically titled “Hollow Victory?


On Monday, Jim Newton’s LA Times column profiles Chrysalis. A Los Angeles-based nonprofit with facilities in Santa Monica, Pacoima and on the edge of skid row that manages to put desperate people to work.

Read it. It’ll cheer you up.

Posted in Bill Bratton, Homelessness, How Appealing, immigration, Must Reads, Skid Row, Supreme Court | 7 Comments »

Honoring Officer Nick Armstrong: Number 49

August 12th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

On August 7, Nick Armstrong became the 49th law enforcement officer killed by gunfire in America this year.
He was 27-years-old.

If the bad, sad numbers continue at this pace, the 2011 gunfire deaths of officers will exceed every year in the last decade except possibly 2001. No one seems to know why there is a rise in these fatal attacks. After all, crime as a whole is down.

Nick Armstrong’s death is the most recent.

Nick was shot on August 2—a Tuesday—along with two other Rapid City, South Dakota, police officers. The three had reportedly approached a group of men who were drinking and causing a disturbance. At some point in the exchange, in an action that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, one of the drinkers pulled out a gun and began blasting at the officers, hitting all three, wounding two of them mortally.

One officer died almost immediately, a well liked 28-year-old named Ryan McCandless (number 46 killed this year).

Nick Armstrong was taken off life support the following Sunday.

He died just a few hours after still another officer was killed, San Diego PD’s Jeremy Henwood, a reserve Marine, who was shot and killed while in his patrol car. (Number 47)

The death of a police officer—or similarly a firefighter— wounds not only his or her family, but it also rends a hole in the psyche of a community.

And so it has been in Rapid City where, from August 2 onward, the town was thrown into a state of shock and mourning.

In the case of Nick Armstrong, however, for me the wound is a far more personal one. Nick is….was….the eldest son of my closest cousin, and just two years older than my own son.

Nick was also exactly the kind of person you’d want protecting and serving in your city, your town, your community. He was a great-hearted man with a wonderfully silly sense of humor, and a supremely kind and generous spirit. Unwaveringly fair-minded, even the people he arrested weren’t mad at him, said a fellow officer in one of the many news articles on his death.

Losing him seems impossible.

Nick followed his father, my cousin, Bill Armstrong, into law enforcement. Bill retired as an extremely highly-regarded captain in the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department, and is one of the bravest and best men I know. Bill’s wife Kim, who is the ferociously devoted mother to Nick and his two brothers, trains search and rescue dogs. In other words, both Bill and Kim have spent their lives committed to service. They are both shattered.

How could it be otherwise. Some storms you’re not supposed to weather.

Nick was buried Thursday morning in a ceremony that, between the grieving community, grieving sheriffs and grieving cops, drew people from all around the state. The live stream of the funeral was watched by more than 38,000 viewers. And while the outpouring of support couldn’t heal anything, it was steadying to parents who now have to bear the unbearable.

So, aside from being an account of personal loss and grief slamming into people I love, what are we to make of all of this?

I don’t really know. In truth, individual crime stats tend to spike up and down and even the best of those who study such things cannot always say why. I don’t think there’s a “war on cops,” as some articles suggested earlier this year. Suicides have risen with the economic downturn too. So, maybe it is that, in fiscally insecure times, already disturbed people are more likely to snap and do terrible things to themselves and others. Really, I don’t have an answer.

What I do know is that, in the space of a week, three excellent people—two in South Dakota, one in California—were shot and killed while working to make our communities safer for the rest of us.

And attention must be paid.

The video was made by Nick’s friend, Jessica

UPDATE: I see that yet another officer was shot and killed on Thursday as I was writing this; Officer Robert Lasso, 31, of the Freemansburg Police Department in Pennsylvania, was shot in the head when he went to answer a disturbance call.

Robert Lasso is Number 50.

Posted in criminal justice, law enforcement, Life in general | 10 Comments »

What Should We Do If We Wrongly Execute Someone? (& Related Stories)

August 11th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Since the advent of DNA evidence, America has been dealing with an ever growing list of men
and women who have been found to be innocent of serious crimes after having spent years or decades behind bars.

When the innocent are released we have laws in place (on a state by state basis) that allow an individual and a family to bring suit for the harm done.

But what if the injustice is taken to the extreme? What happens if we find that we have executed an innocent person? What then are we obligated to for the surviving family?

Professor Meghan Ryan has written a provocative paper about this question.

You can find the abstract here. (You can also download the full paper at that same site.)

In the meantime, here’s a clip:

The first legal determination of wrongful execution in the United States may very well be in the making in Texas. One of the state’s district courts was recently in the midst of investigating whether Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004, was actually innocent. The court has been interrupted by objections from Texas prosecutors and the presiding judge’s retirement, but if the court proceeds, this may very well become a bona fide case of wrongful execution. Texas, just like other jurisdictions, is ill-equipped to provide any relief for such an egregious wrong, however.

This Article identifies the difficulties that the heirs, families, and friends of wrongfully executed individuals face in attempting to obtain compensation for this wrong. The Article highlights that statutory compensation schemes overlook the issue of wrongful execution and the greater injustice it entails and urges that the statutes be amended in light of this grievous wrong that has come to the fore of American criminal justice systems.

Part I traces Willingham‘s story of a man who was executed in the face of evidence suggesting that he was innocent. It takes a look at his relatives‘ recent attempts to clear his name and explains that his story is not yet over. Part II examines the difficulties of exonerating individuals who have been wrongfully executed. It explains how DNA is often essential to posthumous exonerations and notes prosecutors‘ reluctance to release DNA evidence for fears that it could undermine interests in finality of convictions and even prosecutors‘ own convictions rates. Part III explores possible remedies for determinations of wrongful executions….


The ACLU has released a new report called Smart Reform Is Possible:
States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities.

It looks in detail at what six traditionally “tough on crime” states — Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio — in the way of significant reforms to reduce their prison populations and budgets. These same states saw their crime rates drop while the new policies were in place.

The report also looks at some states that are “working toward reform,” with California at the top of the list as the governor works to successfully implement his realignment strategy.


The LA Times’ Catherine Saillant, who is covering the trial, writes a nuanced and sad story on the issue that has become a big deal in McInerney’s defense.

Here’s a clip:

Brandon McInerney is the defendant in the Chatsworth courtroom, accused of bringing a gun to his middle school and killing gay classmate Larry King. But as the case unfolds, the school itself has come under scrutiny.

One teacher after another has testified in the murder trial about their deep worries that King’s feminine attire and taunting behavior could provoke problems — and that E.O. Green Junior High administrators ignored them.

It wasn’t just that King, 15, had begun wearing makeup and women’s spiked-heeled boots, witnesses testified. It was that he seemed to relish making the boys squirm at his newly feminized appearance and was taunting them with comments like “I know you want me.”

“They wanted to beat Larry up for what he was doing to them and they came to me because I wanted to keep them out of trouble,” E.O. Green teacher Jill Ekman testified. “I told them that I would work on getting assistance from the office and we would work this out.”

But that didn’t happen, Ekman and others testified. After days of escalating tensions between King and McInerney, McInerney, then 14, brought a handgun to the Oxnard school on Feb. 12, 2008, and shot King twice in the back of the head. King died two days later.

Photo courtesy of Willingham family

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty | 3 Comments »

Probation Commission May “Affirm Confidence” in Embattled Probation Chief

August 10th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

In something of a Hail Mary move in the hope of finding some way to rebuild the crumbling support for the embattled Chief of LA County Probation, Donald Blevins,
the Probation Commission—which meets Wednesday— is scheduled to vote to “affirm confidence in Chief Donald Blevins’ management of the department.”

(Bizarrely enough, Commissioner Steve Gores, who is one of the commissioners who will be bringing forth this motion, happens to be employed by the Probation Department, meaning he will be introducing this motion to affirm confidence in his boss, which strikes me as something of a conflict of interest. But whatever.)

This sort of vote is, to say the least, highly unusual. Yet the fact that Blevins has taken some serious political hits, is without question.

If you’ll remember, last month, the Chief, who has only been on the job a little over a year, was slammed with a nearly unprecedented—and very public—vote of no confidence by all of the main unions that represent Probation’s employees.

And there is strong grumbling out of the offices of at least two of the five Supervisors about whether Blevins has shown he is up to the task of getting the still deeply troubled Probation Department—particularly the juvenile segment of the agency— back on track enough to, say, avoid the Department of Justice losing patience and stepping in with a federal consent decree. All it would take is for one more Supervisor to sign on with the Blevins contras and his days as chief could be numbered.

In many ways it is perplexing that the target of all this ire should be Blevins. While he is not without his flaws, he is also a smart and seasoned pro who knows what successful programs ought to look like—unlike his predecessor Robert Taylor, whose mismanagement was one of the elements that broke the agency in the first place.

On the other hand, little substantive progress appears to have been made in correcting the panoply of serious problems that plague the county’s juvenile probation camps—a worrisome fact that is reflected in the reports from the federal monitors tasked with overseeing the improvements, and in the anecdotal accounts of the volunteers and others who come in and out of the camps.

if the Probation Commission does indeed give Blevins a vote of confidence, it has only symbolic value. Still whatever theater may emerge from the meeting will be interesting to note.

So stay tuned. The ending of this story is far from certain.

PS: I just took a quick glance at the other agenda items on the Commission’s list, several of which make one want to bang one’s head repeatedly against a hard surface.

For instance there is this: Corrective Action Plan for the arsenic in the drinking water at Challenger camps.


Turns out, the drinking water at the Challenger camps-–which houses more than 300 kids—showed roughly seven times the recommended maximum threshold, according to a report that came out last month.

The Commissioners also want to know why the library program has been discontinued at the Challenger camps.

Good question. It was the Challenger camps that were the object of a monster class action lawsuit for failing to even minimally educate many of their charges. So, yes, why is the library program being discontinued at this arsenic-ridden facility?—-since that program was specifically ONE OF THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE NOVEMBER 4, 2010 COURT SETTLEMENT (!!!).

(Paging the ACLU.)

As I said: stay tuned.

Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | No Comments »

LAT DCFS Sequel, The Kids for Cash Case, Rights for Freed Felons….and More

August 9th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


In the second LA Times editorial this week about DCFS and the LA County Board of Supervisors who are micromanaging it, the Times notes that the Sups have fired one head of DCFS this year and run through two other interim directors, Now they have hired yet one more interim director, County Welfare Chief, Philip Browning

Let us hope that Browning can figure out what is going so wrong in DCFS’s culture that that allows the bad decisions that have led to kids’ deaths, and what is beginning to go right in the department, that needs more nurturing.

And keep those clear-eyed editorials coming.


The PA judge who took high ticket bribes in return for sending kids to certain juvenile incarceration facilities, whether thee deserved be locked up or not, is finally about to be sentenced. Michael Rubinkam of the AP has the story. Here’s how it opens.

As a juvenile court judge, Mark Ciavarella Jr. routinely deprived kids of some of their most basic constitutional rights. Their right to a lawyer. Their right to understand the charges against them. Their right to a fair, impartial hearing.

Ciavarella enjoyed all of those protections while defending himself against federal charges that he took millions of dollars in kickbacks while sending youth offenders to privately owned detention centers. Not that it changed the outcome.

Convicted in one of the biggest courtroom scandals in U.S. history, the disgraced former judge could face more than a decade in prison when he is sentenced in Scranton on Thursday.

“I hope he gets sent away so he can see what he put others through, see what he made kids go through,” said Brian Larkin, 19, who once appeared in Ciavarella’s courtroom.

The denouement of the “kids for cash” case comes more than two-and-a-half years after Ciavarella and a second Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, were charged with orchestrating a scheme to enrich themselves by stocking for-profit detention centers with young offenders. Conahan pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing….


Steve Bousquet at the St. Petersburg Times reports on a new study in Florida. The study found found felons who successfully get their rights back tend to stay out of prison. But such pesky facts have not fazed FLA legislators who have recently made it harder for a felon to regain these rights.

Here’s a clip from the story:

….a new report by the Florida Parole Commission shows that a released felon in Florida whose civil rights are restored is much less likely to commit a new crime than others in the overall population of released prisoners.

The report, quietly delivered to officials a few weeks ago, has not been discussed publicly.

The agency studied 31,000 cases over a two-year period in 2009 and 2010 and found that about 11 percent of people whose civil rights were restored ended up back in custody.

The overall re-offense rate in the state is three times higher — 33 percent — according to the Department of Corrections.

“This report shows clemency is working very well, as 89 percent of convicted felons granted a second chance have not re-offended,” said Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer who has helped felons navigate the complicated clemency process for the past 17 years….

The NY Times’ Adam Lipdak writes about a man named Edmond Demiraj who risked his own and his family’s lives to inform on an Albanian mobster in return for legal immigration status for his wife and children. But the feds went back on the deal.

Here’s a clip from the story’s center:

…Mr. Bedini was allowed to post bail and promptly fled to Albania. With their witness no longer of value to them, federal authorities deported Mr. Demiraj, also to Albania.

Mr. Bedini was waiting. He kidnapped, beat and shot Mr. Demiraj, the bullet just missing his kidneys.

Mr. Bedini also went after members of Mr. Demiraj’s family, kidnapping two of his nieces and forcing them into prostitution in Italy. “This was payback to your Uncle Edmond for when I was in the United States,” he said as he beat the women, who were 19 and 21.

This lurid narrative is set out in a recent federal appeals court decision and related court documents. The ruling, issued in January, contained good news: Mr. Demiraj survived the shooting, and his nieces escaped thanks to, as a dissenting judge put it, “sheer luck and a kind taxi driver.”

Mr. Demiraj and his nieces are now lawfully in the United States. He owns a small painting company near Houston. But the decision in January also brought bad news for Mr. Demiraj. It ordered the deportation of his wife, Rodina, and teenage son, Rediol, who have both lived in the United States since they entered the country unlawfully in 2000. (The two youngest Demiraj children were born in the United States.)

The idea that members of his family will be forced to return to Albania terrifies Mr. Demiraj….

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, DCFS, Foster Care, immigration | No Comments »

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