Saturday, December 3, 2016
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts




WitnessLA Going on a Christmas Break – Back January 4

December 20th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

As noted below, we’re saving our next Jails/LASD story until we come back.
I will run early in January.

However, if something urgent comes up on the main the issues we’re following—topics like the jails, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, or LA’s juvenile probation system—then look for us to post.

Otherwise, here’s to a joyous (and music-filled) winter solstice, Happy Holidays, and a very Merry Christmas.

I know that last year I posted this same video above of Rufus Wainwright singing Minuit Chrétiens on Dec. 9, 2009, at the Royal Albert Hall, while his mother, Kate McGarrigle accompanies him on the piano, laughing with delight at his antics. The show was, of course, her last public performance before she died of clear-cell sarcoma six weeks later on January 18, 2010. Yet, in spite of what was to come—or more likely because of it—I never get tired of seeing Kate’s unfiltered momma love as she watches her golden-voiced eldest kid.

And then there’s this….

And this…

Posted in Life in general | 7 Comments »

DANGEROUS JAILS….Next Installment after the Break

December 19th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Matt Flesicher’s next report in his series for WitnessLA on the dysfunction
inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in general and in the LA County jail system specifically, was to appear today.

However, we have decided to hold the story until WLA comes back from the holiday break in January—so that we may do some additional reporting.

In the meantime, a huge thank you to those of you who have sent us tips on the issue. Please keep the facts, tales and insights coming.

Posted in LA County Jail, Sheriff Lee Baca, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | No Comments »

California Prison Pop. Dropped by 8,000—So, Do We Have a Crime Wave Yet?

December 18th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon




KPPC’S Julie Small reports that California’s prison population has dropped by 8000, mostly in response to California’s realignment strategy that began on Oct 1 and has resulted in the transfer of thousands of prisoners from state lock-up facilities to California’s counties.

Here’s a clip from Small’s report:

The number of inmates in California prisons has dropped by 8,000 since “realignment” took effect Oct. 1. Court papers state officials filed Thursday indicate the change. Officials reported the new numbers Thursday under a federal court order to reduce crowding in the prisons.

In its monthly status report to the court, officials said the state prison population dropped by 8,218 between Oct. 5 and Dec. 7.

California prison officials say the transfer of low-level felons to county officials that began in October will allow the state to meet a court-ordered reduction a month after a Dec. 27 deadline.

The state’s prison population has declined from a record high of 173,000 in 2006 to the current population of 135,000. But many prisons remain packed with almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold….

University of Ohio Law prof Doug Berman, of Sentencing, Law and Policy, also noted the drop and wondered in a post, if California was experiencing a “big new crime wave in California in recent months?”

The court order resulting in these prison reductions is the one upheld by the Supreme Courtin Plata earlier this year despite strenuous objections and dire warnings of Justices Alito and Scalia and others about a likely spike in crime as a result. I am thus wondering, given that it appears that California is going to be soon complying with this court order, if there is developing evidence of a new crime wave.

The question is particularly relevant in Los Angeles where approximately 40 percent of the “realigned” prisoners have landed, and will continue to land, causing a list of city officials like DA Steve Cooley and others to predict that crime will go up.

Admittedly, it hasn’t been all that long—nevertheless, do we have any early indications, one way or the other?

(NOTE: I can tell you that, far, overall crime is down this year over 2010, but I don’t, as yet, have a month by month breakdown for these past few months.

As Berman points out, nuanced analysis of crime stats would likely tell us a lot, because not every county and/or municipality is handling realignment the same way.

I sincerely hope that there is an on-going effort to track the public safety impact of the prison population reductions in California, especially because it seems that different localities are responding to the influx of former prisoners in different ways. The process of prison realignment is thus creating a kind of post-prison community reentry natural experiment, and I would expect spikes in crime to vary in different localities based on both the nature of the offenders returning to the community and also how the communities are responding to the return of these offenders.

Only a few months into the realignment plan, it is surely to early to have clear or conclusive evidence on the public safety consequences of Plata and its aftermath. Still I am very eager to hear any early reports, especially from anyone actively working on these issues, about what we might know on this front so far.

Yep. Me too.


In the past months, CBS’s 60 Minutes has done a couple of excellent, aggressive and utterly enraging reports by Scott Pelley on the banking business, the mortgage crisis, and the like—asking repeatedly why the Justice Department hasn’t filed charges one any of these folks.

The most recent such report was this past Sunday.

The Occupy movement could do worse than to study these segments for talking points.


The LA Times Molly Hennessy-Fiske and David G. Savage have the story. Here’s how it opens:

The case of a grocery store clerk wrongly convicted of murdering his wife has rocked the legal system across Texas, and not just because an innocent man served 25 years of a life sentence.

Supporters of Michael Morton, who was set free in October, say he might never been convicted if a prominent prosecutor had shared significant evidence with the defense at the time of the trial.

“Mr. Morton was the victim of serious prosecutorial misconduct that … completely ripped apart his family,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, which represented Morton in his appeal.

On Monday, Morton and his lawyers plan to ask District Judge Sid Harle to take action against the lead prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, now a county judge.

The case highlights what critics say has become a recurring problem in Texas and across the nation: prosecutors concealing evidence that could undercut their cases.

Yeah. Sign me on as one of those “critics.”

Posted in CDCR, criminal justice, Occupy, Realignment | 1 Comment »

FRIDAY WRAP UP: A Questionable LA Times Story Gets Legs, KCET has More HACLA Dirt, Plus More on 3-Strikes

December 16th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


On Friday (tonight) at 8:30 on KCET, So Cal Connected goes still deeper with its investigation into the ever more astonishing spectacle of LA Housing Authority supervisors gobbling at the public trough.

I agree with Simone Wilson in her recent LA Weekly column: if there’s any fairness in the world, this series will gather up piles of awards for KCET.


In the midst of all of the investigations into the graft and mismanagement that appears to be running rife through both the county and the city right now [The Housing Authority, LASD and its Jails scandal, the Coliseum Commission and its scandal) last Friday, the LA Times' ran a 922 word, prominently-placed story, by Paul Pringle and Rong-Gong Lin--- which has now been picked up by CBS local news, and other media outlets.

So what is the juicy bit of scandal worth all this attention? It seems that in 2009, LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas---who is a member of the increasingly-troubled Coliseum commission---asked for and got $560 worth of football tickets, which then were charged by the stadium's financial director to the commission.

According to Pringle and Lin, Ridley-Thomas took the tickets as a gift, which he never declared. And because an elected official is only allowed $420 worth of gifts from one source (which they are supposed to declare), this means that the supervisor may have taken an undeclared gift that is...$140 over the limit.

Or not.

In a letter to the Times, Ridley-Thomas disputed the Times' account saying that he'd never intended that the tickets be a gift, that the cost of the tickets were supposed to be invoiced to him right away, but for some reason or other he was never invoiced, thus he didn't pay for the tickets until the oversight was was discovered by a staffer this July, after which time he paid for 'em forthwith. (Or words to that affect.) Okay, maybe not a gift but $560 worth of sloppy accounting---either the Supe's or the commission's.

The Times reporters, however, have written that it was only after they discovered the tickets' existence in August did Ridley Thomas pay up. Ridley Thomas says this is nonsense and says that a staffer discovered the oversight before the Times was on the scene....

....and on it goes.

(This letter [2011-12-08 Sandbrook to Commissioners re LAT Article of December 8] tends to support Ridley-Thomas, but the Times says it has its own documentation…..)

In the end, who knows what really happened. And who cares, quite frankly.

The Times has been reporting on the mess that is the Coliseum commission, and we’re grateful for that work. But give us the meat please, not an innuendo-filled story masquerading as meat. (You too, CBS.)

PS: If you want to really read something excellent from this week’s Times reporting, be sure to read Alan Zarembo’s important series on autism.

PPS: And while we’re on the coverage by or of the LA Times, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed deserves a yearly award for the ongoing work he does making sure we’re informed of the ongoing and loathsome dismantlement of our hometown newspaper. Here’s a link to his report on the exit of LAT Editor-in-Chief Russ Stanton, merely another in the parade of editors and/or publishers who’ve left rather than make more staff cut backs.


KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has an excellent, informative and very balanced report on the efforts to put an initiative on the ballot to modify California’s Three Strikes law. It is the first of two such reports by Stoltze, and very much worth your time.

Below is clip from the written version of his radio broadcast. But listen to the podcast as, with this story, it’s better when you can hear the voices behind the words.

This week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris is expected to issue the title and summary for the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012. The initiative would require that a criminal’s third strike be serious or violent for him or her to receive a sentence of 25 years to life in prison, bringing California in line with other states. Backers will need to collect more than half a million signatures by April to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

For years, activists have contended Three Strikes in the Golden State casts too wide a net — that it scoops up people convicted of minor crimes and tosses them into prison for life.

Amberly McDowell worries about that all the time. The owner of Rush Hour Transport in Montebello employs dozens of ex-cons on 13 moving trucks, hiring unemployable men and helping them stay clean. His crews are the kind of guys he ran with as a kid.

“We all liked to do bad things together,” McDowell said. “We all liked to push each other to do bad things.”

McDowell grew up in L.A.’s Harbor Gateway neighborhood. He was a member of the notorious 204th Street Gang, and a methamphetamine addict. Dressed in a pressed shirt and tie for work, McDowell described how he loved stealing car stereos back then.

“I was one of those people that you can give up on,” he said. “I would steal. I would get into fights. I would do anything that you can imagine. And I had no plans in the near future of quitting that.”

McDowell earned 16 trips to jail, two years in state prison and two strikes under California’s Three Strikes law. Under threat of a third strike, he entered rehab and cleaned up.

By his own description, the 30-year-old entrepreneur is drug free, a law-abiding homeowner with a wife and twin daughters. But McDowell lives with the possibility of a 25-years-to-life sentence. Any felony conviction would send him away, including petty theft conviction…..

Happy weekend, y’all.


Posted in Must Reads | 2 Comments »

RIP Christopher Hitchens: Too Soon! Too Soon!

December 15th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Did he often infuriate us? Oh, hell yeah.

But Christopher Hitchens wrote with great power, enormous intelligence, delicious wit, more than occasional meanness, but always, always with a grace that took your breath away and, in the end, maybe that grace trumped everything—even when you tried not to let it, even when you disagreed with him, bigtime.

The loss of his voice is profound.

If you read nothing else on Hitchens, read Christopher Buckley’s essay on his friend in the New Yorker.

UPDATE: There are, of course, a number of eloquent stories and essays about Hitchens,—among them, this essay by LA Times book critic David Ulin.

Here’s a clip:

….Among his role models? Thomas Paine, whom he described in 2007 as “part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.”

There’s something telling about such an image, with its notion of Paine — or, more accurately, Paine’s belief in “human rights, and … their concomitant in democracy” — as a weapon, one that is as necessary to the future as he was to the past. It suggests that Hitchens didn’t take anything for granted, that he knew vigilance is the best, perhaps the only, defense we have.

This is why he revered George Orwell also, for “his commitment to language as the partner of truth.” In his 2002 book “Why Orwell Matters,” Hitchens makes that idea explicit, rejecting a view of the author as a sanitized icon in favor of something more complex and profound. “I sometimes feel as if … Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies,” he wrote, “an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity.”

No one would have characterized Hitchens as “an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise”; he could be a bully, and it sometimes seemed as if he’d rather shout down those with whom he disagreed than engage in conversation. But he was as committed to telling the truth as any of his great heroes, and nowhere as movingly as when he wrote about the illness that would take his life…..

Posted in Life in general | 19 Comments »

DANGEROUS JAILS: Help Needed with Sheriff’s Department Reporting

December 15th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

9:50 PM UPDATE: Amazing! In Just a few hours you all came through
, and Matt’s next story is funded. (It’ll appear early next week.) But please keep doing the questionnaire, as any $$ gathered will continue to be used exclusively to fund this investigation. (And, obviously, if you feel moved to through in a few bucks extra—as some of you already have —any and all will be gratefully accepted and applied directly to Matt’s continued reporting on the LASD.)


Here’s the deal:

When Matt Fleischer started reporting on the abuse of inmates at the LA County Jails for WitnessLA’s California Justice Report project, it was our intention that he’d would report and write a hard hitting 2 or 3 part series on the topic—and that would be that.

Boy were we ever wrong.

Now that Matt has completed Part 3, we find we aren’t even close to being finished with this investigation.

What Matt has uncovered and reported, turns out to be only the first layer of excavation.

So many of you who work for the Sheriff’s department (or who have recently retired) have pointed out to us in emails, telephone calls and comments on the site, there is much, much more to this story—and that WE HAVE TO KEEP GOING.

Not to worry: Matt is already hard at work on Parts 4 and 5.

The problem is that we were only funded for those first three parts.


(But, as I said above, it won’t cost you any cash.)

Here’s what you can do:

If you follow this link to the Spot.Us site, and take a 5-question survey about what kinds of stories you think will be important in 2012, will donate $4.50 toward to WitnessLA & The California Justice Report—every penny of which will go toward this LASD project.

You’ll have to register to take the survey, but you can use any name and email you wish if you want to preserve your anonymity. They really just want your opinions.

As of this writing, we merely need 68 of you to take that 5-question survey and the next round of reporting will be fully funded.

So do it.

Follow this link …and then hit the letters that say FREE CREDITS (It’s in the upper-ish right quarter of the page.) That should take you to the questionnaire.

Answer the 5 questions and you’re done. We’ll get $4.50. And you’ll have helped independent journalism in Los Angeles.

Do it right this minute, not later, okay? Right now, right now, right now!

Okay? Okay.


Posted in LASD, Los Angeles County, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | 5 Comments »

Jails Commission Adds 2 More Members—One a Strong Jails Reformer

December 15th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

The special Jail Violence Commission ordered by the LA County Board of Supervisors has added its final two members—one of whom, in particular, is a very heartening choice.

One of the two, Robert Bonner, is a former federal judge, a former prosecutor, and even a former DEA administrator. This brings the total number of former jurists on the 7-person panel, to four. Added to that there is Cecil “Chip” Murray, the well-liked former pastor of the First AME Church, and Long Beach Chief of Police, Jim McDonnell, the former Assistant Chief of the LAPD and someone who was short-listed for the chief’s job after Bill Bratton left.

Thank heaven for McDonnell.

The former judges—Lourdes Bairde, Carlos Moreno, and Dickran Tevrizian–while impressively august and no doubt extremely bright and discerning, have exactly zero experience between the four of them in the ins and outs of dealing with custody facilities, or the running of a law enforcement agency.

McDonnell, fortunately, while he’s not worked in the LA county jails, has spent his life in law enforcement.

The other piece of good news is commission member number seven, Alex Busansky, who is right now the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. But most significantly, in the recent past he worked for the Vera institute where he was the Executive Director of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. So he knows Jails and prisons, their functions and policies—and what they look like when they’re running well—and he knows a lot about the LA County Jail.

(And he is a former prosecutor.)

The original five commissioners chose the last two. So bravo to them for the selection of Busansky.

It’s a good omen.

But, see here’s the thing: This commission has no legal power, meaning its only power to affect change will simply be the force, accuracy and clarity of its investigation, analysis and recommendations, which can in turn affect public opinion. The pressure of public opinion, together with the the existing federal investigation—which may (or may not) result in a federal consent decree—is the one combination of elements that has the possibility of producing the desperately needed reform in the jails, and in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department as a whole.

So, will these seven have the will and insight necessary to take on such an aggressive investigation? Or will they simply tinker around the edges?—making more suggestions of the ilk of forbidding deputies to wear steel-toed boots when working custody, and asking for more timely completions of force reports in the jails—all suggestions that, while worthy, only address the symptoms.

The selection of Busansky offers at least the hope that the seven might—-just might—be planning to take a swing at making a real difference.

Fingers crossed.

Posted in Board of Supervisors, jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 1 Comment »

Is a Federal Consent Decree Coming for LA’s Juvie Probation Camps?

December 14th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


This past Friday the Federal monitors representing US Department of Justice delivered their 145 page response
to LA County Probation’s claims that its juvenile camps were mostly “In compliance” with the Feds’ 41 demands for reform spelled out four years ago in a 2008 Memorandum of Agreement.

Not so fast, said the monitors in the report— which WitnessLA has acquired.

When, on November 6, 2006, the US Department of Justice began investigating LA’s juvenile probation camps, investigators found the facilities rife with horrors. Probation officers batted kids around, instigated fights (some of which were caught on video and wound up on YouTube) or looked the other way when one group of kids pounded another. Staff also made kids stand or sit in body-stressing positions for long periods, kept them in solitary confinement for even longer periods as punishment, randomly denied them bathroom breaks, recreational time and/or medical treatment, failed to check on kids who were on suicide watch, pepper sprayed teenagers over trivialities, and drank alcohol on the job—among other transgressions and illegalities.

Now, said the monitors in the new report, the worst of the rampant abuse and neglect in the camps had pretty much been halted, although there was still lots of room for improvement.

And thankfully the staff, for the most part, wasn’t drinking on the job.

But, after 4 years under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice, although most kids weren’t being actively abused, they weren’t being helped either, said the monitors, particularly when it came to mental and emotional health, substance abuse—and overall rehabilitation. Probation has little or nothing in the way of positive outcomes to show for its supposed progress in these areas. And in many of the camps they have they don’t have the required rehabilitative programs in place at all.

“These camps are not meant to be punishment for the kids we send there,” said a source close to the federal monitors. “They’re supposed to rehabilitate. And that’s still not happening.”

So now the big question is: Will the Feds take over the the juvenile facilities with a Federal Consent Decree?

Observers are split on whether the Feds will step in— or will they give probation one more chance now that Probation has a brand new head guy, Chief Jerry Powers, who started last Monday.

LA County Board of Supervisors has a committee of staffers meeting today, Wednesday, to discuss the Fed monitors’ comments and instructions—and what, if anything, to do in response.



After the $1.2-million golden parachute handed to HACLA’s ousted head, and jaw-dropping spending for trips, meals and “employee incentives,” the LA City Council thinks maybe there should be a bit more city oversight of the agency. (Ya think?)

The LA Times David Zahniser and Jessica Garrison have the story.

Controller Wendy Greuel also has a new report on the drunken-sailor-spending HACLA folks.

Posted in Civil Rights, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | 8 Comments »

Posting Later Today (Okay, I lied. Tomorrow.)

December 13th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Neck deep in another project so late and light in posting.

Check back.

UPDATE: See, I really was GOING to post later today, but those “Other Project” thingies kept hanging around.

HOWEVER, a good story about LA County Probation—and the Feds—is coming tomorrow.


So stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Imprisoned for 18 Years, the West Memphis 3 Are Freed by the Power of Movies

December 12th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Eighteen years ago, three West Memphis teenagers were falsely accused of the 1993 murders
of a trio of 8-year-old boys, even though there was no physical evidence to tie them to the killings. All the prosecution had was a coerced then recanted confession from one teen, Jessie Misskelley, a trailer park boy with an IQ of 70—and the fact that another of the teens, Damien Echols, listened to heavy metal music and was considered weird by the grown-ups. Nevertheless, the three were convicted a year later, and Echols, supposedly the Satan-worshiping ringleader, was sentenced to death.

Then, through an extremely unlikely confluence of events that involves two flukey HBO documentaries that, in turn, drew to the case a string of determined advocates, some of them famous, the so-called West Memphis 3 were released this summer. However, in order for their increasingly obvious innocence to recognized, they had to plead guilty to the killings they didn’t commit.

The story of the three—Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols—appears in the December issue of GQ magazine, written by GQ correspondent, Sean Flynn.

It is a deeply troubling tale of justice miscarried, made even more disturbing because the confluence of events that needed to produce freedom for the threesome was so unlikely.

Here’s a clip—but do be sure to read the rest of this exceptionally well-written story:

Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers disappeared on the evening of Wednesday, May 5, 1993. The next afternoon, their bodies, naked and bound ankle-to-wrist with shoelaces in the same way a hunter ties a dead deer, were found submerged in a drainage ditch in a patch of woods bordered by the boys’ neighborhood, an interstate highway, and a twenty-four-hour truck wash. All of the boys had been beaten. Byers’s penis was missing.

Weeks passed. Terror of a sadistic sex killer quickly spiraled into panic. By early June, under enormous pressure to make an arrest, the West Memphis Police picked up Jessie, Jason, and Damien. They would seem to have been unlikely suspects. To begin with, though they became known as the West Memphis Three, they weren’t all really friends. Jessie, a short and wiry high school dropout with stripes shaved into the side of his head, knew Damien but didn’t spend any time with him. “I like to go out in the sun and stuff, and he don’t,” Jessie told me. “He likes to come out at night, when I want to go to bed. I don’t like to go out at night. That’s where the trouble is.” He was friendlier with Jason, whom he’d known since Jason moved to Marion in the sixth grade, but not much. “The first time I met Jessie,” Jason told me in September, “he tried to beat me up.”

Jason and Damien, on the other hand, were best friends, though in some ways a mismatched pair. Damien was a high school dropout with a history of mental illness and minor delinquency. But he was also intelligent and shy, the kid who read books other people in his Bible Belt town didn’t and listened to music other kids didn’t like and wore clothes other people found odd. “He looked like one of the slasher-movie-type guys—boots, coat, long stringy black hair, though he cut it short sometimes,” the local juvenile officer told Mara Leveritt, an Arkansas journalist, for her 2002 book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.Jason, a slight boy of 112 pounds with small, crooked teeth and matchstick arms, went to school every day, got good grades, was a talented artist, and never did anything more sinister than shoplift a bag of chips. “I had a mullet,” he jokes now, as if to confess the worst of his sins.

There was no physical evidence connecting any of the three to the killings. At the time of the arrests, the police had only Jessie’s rambling statement and the general consensus that Damien was a weirdo. So in order to paper over the lack of reputable facts in their case, the police and prosecutors created a motive: satanic worship.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost and a 2000 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Without these films, the three men would never have gained their supporters, never have been released. The filmmakers’ third documentary on the case, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, is scheduled to debut on HBO on January 12

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Innocence | 2 Comments »

« Previous Entries