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Anatomy of Injustice: Ray Bonner Talks About His “Labor of Outrage”

March 19th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


People often ask Pulitzer-winning journalist turned author, Raymond Bonner,
if his new book, Anatomy of Injustice: a Murder Case Gone Wrong—which took nearly twelve years to reserch and write—is a labor of love.

“Actually, it’s a labor of outrage,” Bonner said, when he spoke on Sunday afternoon at a LA book party given in his honor.

Outrage is only one of the array of emotions evoked by Bonner’s riveting account of the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year old, dirt-poor black handyman with an IQ of 61, who was arrested, tried and convicted of killing a 76-year-old white woman, a murder he almost certainly did not commit, then sentenced to death for the crime.

Every form of injustice seems to be present in the true crime tale of Ellmore’s legal railroading: prosecutorial misconduct, racial prejudice, planted and withheld evidence, staggeringly callous and disinterested defense attorneys, a lying jailhouse snitch coached by the prosecution (but who years later suffered an attack of conscience and confessed to his perjury)… and more.

In choosing this particular case to deconstruct, Bonner got a cast of great characters that give the story near-novelistic richness. Most prominent among them is a remarkable heroine in the form of Diana Holt, a law student working as an intern for the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center (who had her own traumatic personal story) who took up Elmore’s cause after several failed appeals by other attorneys, and whose obsession with seeing justice done for Elmore never wavered after she passed the bar and became a crack appeals lawyer. It was Holt’s dogged work and determination that eventually got him off death row.

Yet still he remained in prison That took a withering ruling by the 4th circuit court of appeals vacating his conviction, along with the publication of Bonner’s book to finally persuade a prosecutor to cut a deal that allowed Elmore his freedom earlier this month, after 30 years behind bars, most of those years spent fighting the threat of execution.

As the reader follows Elmore’s almost unbearably painful journey through the justice system, Bonner gives us an informative and deeply disturbing look at the issue of capital punishment in general by taking us deep into the workings of the legal machinery to see all the ways matters can and do go awry, then showing us how nearly impossible it is to set things right, once an injustice has been rendered—even in the face of factual innocence.

The event for Bonner was hosted by Laurie Becklund, and her husband Henry Weinstein, both former reporters for the LA Times. (Beckland is now an author and Internet publisher, while Weinstein, who is also an attorney, is teaching at UC Irvine’s law school. )

Guests who had come to meet Bonner included such criminal justice types as Judge Arthur Alarcon, formerly of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the co-author of last year’s study looking at the yearly cost of the death penalty in California, and .

There were also two exonerees at the book party, Thomas Goldstein, who served 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and Gloria Killian, who served 17 years before her conviction was set aside, and who now runs, The Action Committee for Women in Prison and who has her own book coming out soon.

Other guests included LA Times columnist and editor at large, Jim Newton, and his wife, LA Times legal counsel, Karlene Goller, along with Geneva Overholser, the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, and actor Mike Farrell who is also president of Death Penalty Focus and his wife, actress, Shelley Fabares.

As luck would have it, on Sunday Bonner’s book was reviewed glowingly on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here’s a clip:

This much we know to be true: On a cold winter weekend in early 1982, somebody murdered 76-year-old Dorothy Edwards. Apparently she knew the perpetrator, since she let him into her handsome home on a quiet side street in Greenwood, S.C. The crime itself was horrific. She was beaten with a blunt object, stabbed repeatedly — one ear was almost severed — probably sexually assaulted; her body was stuffed into a bedroom closet, where it was discovered on Monday afternoon, Jan. 18. The next day the police arrested Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year-old handyman whom Edwards had recently hired to do a few odd jobs around the house. He was formally charged with first-degree murder on Jan. 21, tried in the second week of April, found guilty by a jury that deliberated for two and a half hours, and sentenced to death.

We know this as well: As of this writing, there have been 1,283 executions in the United States since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended its four-year moratorium on capital punishment. There have also been 134 death row exonerations, almost half of them since 1999. In his mesmerizing new book, “Anatomy of Injustice,” Raymond Bonner, a onetime prosecutor and a former investigative reporter and foreign correspondent at The New York Times, makes a persuasive case that Elmore ought to be added to the list of the innocent. Instead, he spent nearly 30 years in the South Carolina state penitentiary, most of that time on death row, trapped by a complex of forces that too often warp the legal process, even when a man’s life hangs in the balance.

I raced through Bonner’s un-put-down-able book about Elmore in less than 48-hours, slowed down only by such pesky needs as working, eating, running with the dog, and sleep.



LATER THIS WEEK I’LL HAVE NEWS ABOUT OTHER MUST-READ BOOK, JUMPED IN BY JORJA LEAP.

Jumped In is part memoir, part an academic researcher’s journey that takes us deep into the causes of—and solutions to—gang violence, with with highly-regarded-researcher and violence reduction expert Leap as our guide.

In the meantime, you can hear Jorja discuss her important new analysis of Los Angeles gang life on Tuesday night 7:30 at Skylight books.

See you there!

PS: All Leap’s proceeds from the book will be donated to Homeboy Industries.

Skylight Books
7:30 pm
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, California 90027

PPS: Here’s Leap talking with Larry Mantle at KPPC.

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

Friday Must Reads: Birth Control, Secret Spy Centers and…um… Geese

March 16th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


This “Must Read” list strays a little afield from our usual criminal justice and related realms.
(It’s that kind of Friday.)

Not to worry. We’ll be back to our regular programming Monday.

(And, for those of you who have been inquiring, see the end of the post for an update on the next installment of Dangerous Jails.)


THE NEW YORKER’S MARGARET TALBOT LOOKS AT THE BIRTH CONTROL IDIOCY

New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot is a consistently intelligent and insightful journalist, thus it was nice to see her name on the magazine’s opening essay about the perplexing outbreak of birth control madness, the creepily anti-female diatribes of Rush Limbaugh, and what it all means to the rest of us.

Here’s a clip:

…..As long as the debate stirred up by the Blunt Amendment—which would have allowed employers to refuse coverage for health services they felt compromised their religious beliefs—stayed focused on freedom of religion, it was possible to forget that putting birth control back in political play meant ignoring reality. You could, after all, make a coherent argument about Catholic employers and the calls of conscience, without insisting on the moral turpitude of people who use birth control or talk about it in public. You could also argue that the Catholic hierarchy was basically asking the federal government to do what its own teachings apparently could not: to remind Catholic women of the evils of contraceptives in such a way that they would actually stop using them. But at least we were still in the realm of a legitimate policy debate.

Then Rush Limbaugh opened his mouth and showed us more than we wanted to know about the dank interior of his mind. Though repellent, it wasn’t exactly surprising. A few months ago, after Sharon Bialek charged that Herman Cain had sexually harassed her, Limbaugh pronounced her name “Buy-a-lick,” and called her thirteen-year-old son a Nazi “brownshirt,” for having encouraged her to come forth. That’s not really so different from calling Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law School student who testified before Congress about insurance coverage of contraception, “a slut” and “a prostitute.”

What was more revealing was the mild response from leading Republicans….

Yeah. No kidding. Mighty revealing.

Anyway, read the rest.


THE NSA BUILDS THE WORLD’S LARGEST SPY CENTER (HOW COMFORTING.)

Wired Magazine’s Threat Level section (which is fast becoming a must read all on its own) has the details. Here’s a clip to draw you in.

For the NSA, overflowing with tens of billions of dollars in post-9/11 budget awards, the cryptanalysis breakthrough came at a time of explosive growth, in size as well as in power. Established as an arm of the Department of Defense following Pearl Harbor, with the primary purpose of preventing another surprise assault, the NSA suffered a series of humiliations in the post-Cold War years. Caught offguard by an escalating series of terrorist attacks—the first World Trade Center bombing, the blowing up of US embassies in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and finally the devastation of 9/11—some began questioning the agency’s very reason for being. In response, the NSA has quietly been reborn. And while there is little indication that its actual effectiveness has improved—after all, despite numerous pieces of evidence and intelligence-gathering opportunities, it missed the near-disastrous attempted attacks by the underwear bomber on a flight to Detroit in 2009 and by the car bomber in Times Square in 2010—there is no doubt that it has transformed itself into the largest, most covert, and potentially most intrusive intelligence agency ever created.

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.

Cheering, no?



THE NOW INFAMOUS GOLDMAN-SACHS FAREWELL LETTER (IT TURNS OUT THAT GOLDMAN IS A GIANT VAMPIRE SQUID)

Just on the off chance you didn’t see the resignation letter to Goldman Sachs in NY Times Op Ed form that ran Wednesday in the paper, and caused Goldman’s market value to take a $2.2 million dive, here it is. (In reading it we learn, among other things, that Goldman’s managing directors refer to their clients as muppets.)


THE LA WEEKLY FINDS THE…UM…GOOSE WHISPERER OF HOLLENBECK PARK (MAYBE)

This LA Weekly story does not require explanation. Here’s how it opens. (And, yes, goose whisperers are a social justice issue. I’m sure of it.)

This week, the Internet got wind of a man who allegedly bench-pressed a goose for 10 minutes at an L.A. park. Even more adorably, according to the actor who photographed the event, the goose was totally loving it.

We obviously had to get to the bottom of this.

Who is the man (and goose) behind the urban legend?

Lowell Tweeted that after bench-pressing the goose, the man “cradled it, tickled its tummy and then it walked away.” And over email, he gave us some more heartwarming details about this miraculously cooperative animal and the man whom he calls “the Goose Whisperer.”

Turns out the guy and the goose are well known. Read the rest of Simone Wilson’s column for the backstory.


EDITOR’S NOTE: UPDATE ON NEXT DANGEROUS JAILS INSTALLMENTS

A number of you have either written us privately or inquired in the comments section about when we’d have the next chapter in the Dangerous Jails series.

Here’s the deal: We’re working on Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 will be out in the next two weeks. Chapter 6 will be out in April—presumably early April.

The wait will be worth it. I promise.

Posted in Must Reads | 6 Comments »

WitnessLA Reportedly Now Blocked on Sheriff’s Dept. Work Station Computers

March 15th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


If you work at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department,
when you are taking a break at work (unless you are driving, say, a patrol car), with rare exceptions, you may use a department computer to log on to Facebook, check out the latest video going viral on YouTube, buy some new shoes on Zappos, bid for some Springsteen tickets on eBay, read the latest news on the LA Times website, Huffington Post, Drudge, Wired, Breitbart, the LA Weekly or LA Observed.

But, reportedly, as of February 22, at most LASD work stations you may no longer access WitnessLA.

Since September when we launched Matt Fleischer’s Dangerous Jails investigation into the systemic problems in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, WitnessLA began drawing a significant readership from the ranks of those who work for the department, a readership that has continued to grow. Deputies logged on from their home computers, their PDAs and, in lots of cases it seemed, from some department computer or other.

LASD folks came in the beginning (we presume) to read our investigative reports on the department and related topics but, as time went on, they also came to participate in—or simply to observe—the ongoing conversation among department personnel, working and retired, in WLA’s comments section. The exchanges are lively, sometimes angry, occasionally snarky, quarrelsome and gossipy, but nearly always very informative

We knew that department personnel were reading us from their workstations because WLA subscribes to a very good tracking service (in addition to Google Analytics) that allows us to observe and analyze reader patterns and the like. Thus we can see when people log in from the LASD system—as they did, by the hundreds.

Then on Wednesday February 22, we began getting emails from deputies and supervisors telling us that WitnessLA had been blocked on LASD computers that could formerly accessthe site.. After these messages reached critical mass, I checked the tracker, and sure enough the log-ins from the LASD IP addresses fell off a cliff late on that Wednesday in February.

There was still a trickle coming through on Thursday, but even that was gone by Thursday evening.

We waited a week, thinking it might be a momentary glitch, but according to a slew of department sources, the block never came off. After months of being able to access WitnessLA, the ability to pull up our URL was precipitously shut down, while most other websites were available as usual.

Our electronic measurements showed the same thing that the deputies continued to report.

It should be noted, by the way, that Wednesday Feb. 22—the day deputies reported that they could no longer get on the WLA site—-was also the day that both the LA Times and the Daily News reported that LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina had, the day before, introduced a motion at the Supes’ meeting prohibiting county managers from soliciting campaign contributions from their underlings, and that she cited WitnessLA as part of the reason. Specifically, Molina told reporters that her motion had been triggered by concerns she felt after reading WLA’s reports on an alleged pay-for-play promotions scheme being overseen by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Sure, it could be just a coincidence and all, but the peculiarity of timing could not help but catch our attention.

In any case, yesterday when I asked Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore about the fact that WLA was reported blocked, he said he wasn’t aware of any such action, and that deputies might be talking about computers that don’t have Internet access at all.

I explained that, no, that the people who contacted us said that they used to be able to access WLA regularly without a problem, but that since that particular Wednesday in question, access had been cut off, while most other sites were available as usual. I also told him that I had my own electronic record that showed months of very high traffic from certain LASD IP addresses—to the tune of hundreds of hits per day—and then none at all.

Whitmore said I seemed to be implying that WitnessLA was blocked specifically.

“Uh, well, yes,” I said. “That is what I’m implying.”

“I don’t believe that to be true,” Whitmore said. “WitnessLA is not something that this sheriff’s department is all that interested in. It’s not that relevant. It’s not on our radar. I’m not sure the sheriff knows what it is.”

Alrighty then.

So there you have it.

Posted in LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | 52 Comments »

FELON: The Forever Brand

March 15th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



This essay about the label of “felon,” by former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love,
is something that every journalist should read—and frankly everyone should read period. It’s written for The Crime Report.

Here’s an excerpt:

At a recent conference of journalists at John Jay College, I raised an issue I have about language in the media: the frequent use of the word “felon” to describe a person who has been convicted of a crime.

“Felon” is an ugly label that confirms the debased status that accompanies conviction. It identifies a person as belonging to a class outside many protections of the law, someone who can be freely discriminated against, someone who exists at the margins of society.

In short, a “felon” is a legal outlaw and social outcast.

But the word “felon” does more work than that. It arouses fear and loathing in most of us. I confess that it arouses those visceral feelings in me. I do not want to live or work around felons. I do not want to socialize with them.

[SNIP]

A journalist friend at the John Jay conference pointed out that “felon” is convenient shorthand, helpful for headlines, certainly evocative. How could I argue?

But labeling people as “felons” is also fundamentally at war with efforts to reduce the number of people in prison, to facilitate reentry, and to encourage those who have committed a crime, or even many crimes, to become law-abiding and productive citizens.

Social liberals and fiscal conservatives alike pay lip service to the supposed American ideal of second chances. But our language, like our law, points in the opposite direction. We have schooled ourselves to avoid other stigmatizing labels that in the past were used to distance mainstream society from ethnic and racial minorities, and those groups from each other, because we understood that labels function to distract and excuse us from the hard work of building community.

The word “felon” (and for that matter other less ugly but still degrading labels like “offender,” with or without the feckless prefix “ex”) is no less dysfunctional. We can do better.

Yeah, we can.


Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | No Comments »

LAUSD Cuts, What KCET Found Inside Children’s Court, How the CDCR is Changing Methods…and More

March 14th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



LAUSD BOARD GRITS TEETH….THEN SLASHES AND BURNS: VOTES TO CUT ALL ADULT SCHOOLS….AND A LOT MORE, HOPES THAT A PARCEL TAX & UNION CONCESSIONS WILL SAVE ALL

The LA Times Stephen Ceasar reports:

The Los Angeles Board of Education approved a preliminary, worst-case $6-billion budget Tuesday, a plan that would eliminate thousands of jobs, close all of the district’s adult schools and cut some after-school and arts programs.

But Supt. John Deasy presented a less severe deficit than initially expected to the board and several scenarios that would restore millions in funding and save some programs from either elimination or partial cuts before the budget is finalized. Much of that, however, is contingent on voters’ passing the governor’s tax initiative in November, which he hopes would stave off more education cuts.

“I can say that this budget, even with its clear and present dangers, remains a budget of hope,” said board member Steve Zimmer. Deasy then interjected, “I don’t want to hope, I want to plan.”

The very excellent Tami Abdollah of KPCC has LOTS more.


KCET’S SO CAL CONNECTED GOES INSIDE CHILDREN’S DEPENDENCY COURT, FINDS POTENTIAL DISASTERS

KCET’s So Cal Connected (which has been on a roll in the past year) brought cameras inside LA’s children’s dependency court, and saw a lot that alarmed producer Karen Foshay, and correspondent Jennifer London.

The first of the resulting episodes aired last Friday. The second will air this coming Friday, March 16.

Both episodes demonstrate why Judge Michael Nash’s controversial order to open the court to the press is so important—despite the loud protests by those who thought reporters would trample on the rights of the children whose lives were being decided at these formerly closed proceedings.

Here’s what KCET had to say about episode 2, titled Courting Disaster.

Los Angeles County’s Dependency Court is the largest in the nation, handling 25,000 children. For the first time television cameras were granted access, revealing in graphic detail how deep budget cuts are devastating our justice system and putting our most vulnerable citizens at risk. We profile Judge Amy Pellman who is scheduled to hear 33 family cases in six hours, sometimes deciding a child’s fate in as little as three minutes. We meet parents who have completed counseling programs and are hoping the judge will grant them custody of their son. But other parents are stuck, unable to get into overcrowded programs that are required in order to get their children back.

We see how judges and attorneys often learn the facts of a case only minutes before the case is heard; how attorneys who are supposed to represent 160 children are burdened with 240 cases. More delays and backlogs are inevitable as 300 layoffs and 50 courtroom closures are scheduled to occur in L.A. County, following a statewide $650 million slash in funding.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakaueye says “I think its devastating to be told to come back in four months and that we’ll hear your case on child custody. What’s a person to do in four months?”

Hell, we certainly wouldn’t want reporters looking into any of that.

And, by the way, So Cal Connected focused on exactly the sort of thing that has rarely been adequately reported. We will hear about the ghastly tragedy of a child dying at the hands of abusive parents, but we rarely hear about the everyday tragedies that occur when a system with the power to save or ruin the lives of children and families is overburdened.


CA DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS OUTLINES NEW POLICIES FOR HANDLING PRISON GANGS, AND FOR CLASSIFYING PRISONERS AS TO RISK

As the CDCR rightly states, California prisons manage “the most violent and sophisticated prison gangs in the nation.” Sadly, yes. That’s about right. And much of that management in the past has been to crack down hard, and then crack down some more.

How has this strategy worked out? Not all that well, actually—at least in the long term. Or as the CDCR put it, “Although this [suppression only] strategy reduced violence in prisons, it lacked prevention, deterrent and interdiction components.”

So what did the CDCR do? To their great credit, after 25 years of ever-more aggressive crack downs, they decided to stop and really examine the problem, and then try to institute the most effective methods to solve it, rather than the methods they’d always used.

Here is the report on the new methods that have resulted.

I’ll tell you about the report in more detail in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s quite smart—and, among other things, gives gang members who are willing, a step-by-step road out that is rehabilitative rather than punitive.

It is also good news to note that, in a separate but related report, the CDCR has redone it’s risk classification system. In short, they found that they were overclassifying and/or misclassifying prisoners, which they discovered did greater damage to the prisoners and to public safety, then did underclassing them. Research showed that prisoners who were overclassified—i.e. put in more restrictive units than their behavior warranted—were more likely to act out, more likely to learn criminal behavior from the truly hard cases, and more likely to do poorly when they paroled. (Here’s the report.)

More on this too at another time. In any case, it’s really, really good to see the CDCR stepping up and doing the right thing in these crucial but difficult areas.

Go CDCR!

PS: It’s important to note that many of these reform elements were requested by the prison hunger strikers of last year, during the hunger strike that began at Pelican Bay’s SHU (Secure Housing Unit) and then spread throughout the system.

PPS: As the CDCR points out, these changes are made possible by the population relief brought by realignment, which is exactly right. Despite all the wailing, realignment is wise and necessary. Change is painful in the beginning, but under Jerry Brown’s governorship, Matt Cate and the CDCR is actually starting to slowly but steadily make genuine progress.


ANIMAL ADOPTIONS UPS—AND SO IS EUTHANASIA IN LA’S SHELTERS

Commissioners resigning, euthanasia is up, three of the five commissioners who oversee the Department of Animal Services have recently resigned thus paralyzing the department, a million dogs are running around LA unlicensed, is LA’s critter oversight a mess? Warren Olney with Which Way LA? wades into the issue.


AUTOPSY SHOWS JAIL INMATE’S DEATH LIKELY CAUSED BY DRUGS GIVEN HIM FOR MENTAL ILLNESS

LAT’S Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard report.


CALIF. PRISON INMATE FINDS HE HAS TALENT FOR SCHOLARSHIP IN HIEROGLYPHICS

Read this very cool Column One story in the LA Times by Thomas H. Maugh II.


Photo by KPCC’s new education reporter Tami Abdollah

Posted in bears and alligators, California budget, CDCR, DCFS, Education, Foster Care, LAUSD, prison policy | No Comments »

The Supreme Court Looks at the Issue of Juvenile LWOP, Asking if Life Sentences for Kids are Constitutional

March 13th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


A week from Tuesday the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama
, two cases concerning whether the sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

For those who are interested in the juvenile LWOP issue (a sentence of Life Without the possibility of Parole), the go-to site to track the legal side of the matter is Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy, as Berman is parsing the various developments in the twinned cases with a very experienced eye.

For instance, Berman points out that the precursor for the Jackson and Miller cases to be heard next week, is the SCOTUS ruling on the earlier cases of Roper and Graham, which concerned LWOP for kids who had not committed murder, and which the court found to be unconstitutional. Thus it’s going to be interesting to watch the various SCOTUS justices respond when their own wise words are bounced right back to them in this broader set of cases.

If you want to get still wonkier, take a look, for example, at the amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association for Social Workers. It gives an idea of how the petitioner attorneys will quote the Supremes—to themselves.

Begin by reading the opening of the summary from that brief, which you’ll find on page 15.


HOW THE CASE MAY AFFECT OTHER STATES

In addition, all this week, Michigan Live is doing an excellent series on Juvenile Life, although neither of the cases that will be argued before the Supreme Court next week are from Michigan (they are from Alabama and Arkansas). Still, Michigan is second only to Pennsylvania for its number of juvenile lifers, thus the Michigan Live team is pulling apart the issue for its readers. (LA Times? This might be a good time for a California series, no?)

Here’s how the first one opens:

He was 14 years, 11 months and 1 day old.

That night TJ Tremble rode his bike to the home of Peter and Ruth Stanley. He had the .22-caliber rifle given him by his dad. He had alcohol in his belly, some also from his dad. And, police say, he had murder on his mind.

Before daylight, the Michigan youth would be behind bars for the rest of his life. Or maybe not.

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether mandatory life sentences are too cruel for anyone so young. It will be exactly 14 years, 11 months and 1 day since Tremble got on his bike.

Now 29, is it possible he has changed in the second half of his life, or that he can change with more time? Should he at least have the consideration to one day walk free?

Or does death make it different?

In a state with more “juvenile lifers” than almost any other, the answers will resonate throughout Michigan as the high court addresses this: Are life sentences, without any chance of parole, unconstitutional even for juveniles who commit unthinkable crimes?

If the court’s earlier rulings are an indication, the answers could be yes.

[But the reporters acknowledge these are not simple issues, particularly for the families of victims.]

“It rekindles it,” says Dennis Stanley, son of the murdered Peter and Ruth Stanley, of next week’s hearing. “I was just thinking of that this morning. It’s like counting down to April 1997. We’re still very bitter, angry and, sure, we go about our lives. But no one knows what the victims go through.”

“It never ends,” he says. “It never ends.”


AND ON OTHER JUVENILE JUSTICE ISSUES…..THE LA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS WILL VOTE TUESDAY ON WHETHER TO OPPOSE GOVERNOR BROWN’S PLAN TO CLOSE THE STATE’S JUVIE PRISONS—AKA DJJ

Youth advocates like the Youth Justice Coalition will show up at the Supes’ meeting on Tuesday to ask the Supervisors to instead work to “create a local alternative to DJJ so families can stay involved and programming can be more consistent.”

It’s a complicated choice, to be sure, but DJJ is preposterously expensive, and has no good record of doing right by its charges. The recidivism rate is horrendous.

On the other hand, LA County’s juvenile facilities—run by the probation department— have their own problems (to understate the matter greatly). In choosing between two bad choices, I tend to lean toward what the YJC says. Bring these kids home, and take the state’s money to deal with them here.

But that is if—and only if—we can commit to providing appropriate oversight and programs for them. Alameda County, for example, is doing just that. But, thus far, LA seems to have little stomach for such an endeavor.

Posted in juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Supreme Court | 3 Comments »

A Preview of What to Expect With the Supremes & Obama’s Health Care Act

March 13th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



On Tuesday night, March 13, two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act—aka “Obama Care
—The California Endowment and a pile of distinguished law schools are bringing together a bipartisan mix of hot shot legal minds and policy experts to hear and argue the case that will decide the health status of millions.

The event runs from 6-7:30 p.m. (with a reception following) and will be held at The California Endowment- Yosemite Hall, 1000 North Alameda St, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Behold the list of petitioners, respondents and justices:

RESPONDENT:
Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP

PETITIONER:
Kathleen M. Sullivan, Partner, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP

JUSTICES:
Vikram Amar, Associate Dean, UC Davis
Hon. Gray Davis, Former Governor, State of California
Daniel Philip Kessler, Professor of Law, Stanford University and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
Thomas E. Lorentzen, President, Health Approaches, and Former Regional Director, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Rachel F. Moran, Dean, UCLA School of Law
Hon. Carlos R. Moreno, Former Associate Justice, California Supreme Court
Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Hon. Deanell Reece Tacha, Dean, Pepperdine University, and Former Circuit Judge, 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals
Judge Alex Ferrer, Host of Judge Alex; Former Florida Circuit Court Judge

Cool, right?

The Cal Endowment has also filed an Amicus Brief with SCOTUS, which is summarized here, with the full brief here.

If you want to attend you must RSVP: (323) 892-2080

But it will fill up fast, so if you can’t attend, or if the event is already full by the time you inquire, you can also listen to a live broadcast here.

Or follow the Twitter stream at #ACA_mc (which you should do anyway, whether you’re there or not, as it will provide the Greek chorus, so to speak.


HERE’S THE DEAL: Where ever you stand on the health care issue, the outcome will be of consequence, So you may as well become well informed on the challenge, legally speaking.

With this in mind, here are a couple of stories (below) to get you started:


CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS’ BIG CASE

*On Sunday, the NY Times Adam Liptak wrote about how and why this will be the signature case for Chief Justice Roberts and what kinds of choices Roberts will have before him as he and the rest of the Supremes hear the arguments.

Here’s how it opens:

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. takes his usual center seat on the Supreme Court bench on March 26, he will begin presiding over an extraordinary three days of arguments that will determine the fate of President Obama’s sweeping health care law.

The decision in the case, expected by June, will have practical consequences for tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, and it may affect Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.

It will also shape, if not define, the chief justice’s legacy.


MEET THE VERY, VERY SMART PAUL CLEMENT: THE CONSERVATIVES’ MAIN GUY WITH THE SUPREMES

The Washington Post profiles attorney Paul Clement, 45, who will be handling the case against the health care law, and whom Ken Starr calls the the best advocate of his generation.

Here’s a clip:

When Paul Clement stands in front of the Supreme Court’s nine justices to argue a case, the effect is akin to watching a game of speed chess, only speed chess contested on nine different boards against nine relentless players. Clement addresses all the boards at once. He’ll make a rhetorical move on one justice here, only to find another skeptical justice requiring attention over there — he has arguments tailored for the court’s fence-sitters especially.

If the justices have anything in common during an oral argument at the court, it is a willingness to express in-your-face sarcasm for a lawyer’s weak gambit. But when Clement, a Republican and former U.S. solicitor general, is on his game, he is a grandmaster, conservative and liberal lawyers agree.

Posted in health care, Supreme Court | 1 Comment »

Two Women Explain the True Cost of Shutting Down LA’s Adult Ed

March 12th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

SHUTTING DOWN ADULT ED WILL MEAN A TEN PERCENT HIGHER HIGH SCHOOL DROP OUT RATE, SAYS LAUSD’S OWN PROJECTIONS.

BUT IT WILL ALSO AFFECT THE LIVES OF THOUSANDS OF LA RESIDENTS TRYING TO REACH FOR A NEW FUTURE


On Tuesday, March 13, the Los Angeles Unified School board
will vote on the question of whether or not the district’s Adult Education program will continue to exist.

Right now the odds against Adult Ed surviving are not considered to be good.

In the newest draft of the district’s so-called worst case budget, which WitnessLA has obtained, all 24 of the district’s adult ad schools are scheduled to have their doors slammed closed.

There are also huge cuts schedule for the district’s arts education and LAUSD’s gifted and talented programs (GATE). The ranks of school nurses and librarians are decimated. And a bunch of continuation schools are marked for shuttering.

But it is the approximately 300,000 adult school students and their teachers who have been the most active in protesting the truly ruinous slashing of their adult ed programs. While the ongoing demonstrations (like the one above at West Valley Occupational Center) have surprised and rattled the board, in the end it still appears that adult ed will be hit by some of the most crippling cuts, which will, in turn, affect thousands and thousands of worried students.

Supt. John Deasy has said repeatedly that he’ll do whatever he needs to do in order not to not raise class sizes in the K-12 grades.

Never mind that in in a recent report sent to the LAUSD board by the Superintendent’s office (that WLA has obtained), according to the district’s own calculations one of the impacts in cutting adult ed is that “the district’s drop out rate would increase by approximately ten percent as students who have fallen behind would not be able to attend adult schools for credit recovery and therefor not graduate.”

[You can read the report yourself here. Scroll to p. 48 for the Impact Statement.]

An increased drop out rate is, however, just one of the impacts that closing adult ed would have on its students, present and future—as evidenced by the stories below.


A FORMER HOMEGIRL EXPLAINS WHY ADULT SCHOOLS MUST STAY OPEN

“See, everybody’s freaked, because of how much this school means to us,” said a 34-year old mother named Rosa, who is a student at West Valley Occupational Center, where approximately 20,000 students a year take classes in ESL, GED prep, various job training and vocational programs…and more.

Rosa (who asked me not to use her last name) said that her adult school classes have changed her life.

Rosa explained that she is a former gang member who grew up in an abusive household and who, during the early years of her life, thought very little about her future.

She managed to leave her gang with the help of a boyfriend whom she eventually married. But her new husband had his own problems; he was addicted to rock cocaine, which gradually led to a spiral downward. “He didn’t know how to fit into society,” she said.
Rosa was three months pregnant with her second child when her husband was shot dead on the street.

After her husband’s death, Rosa kept the household together the best she could for the sake of her kids. But then in 2009, she was fired from her job. Her boss liked her, she said, but told Rosa that her skills weren’t up to par.

“I didn’t know how to type or use the computer. I mean, I was typing with one finger,” Rosa said with a small laugh.

For the next two years, while Rosa searched for employment, she lived at her mom’s house, got by on public assistance, and tried to be a good mother. But she felt terrible about herself. “After the kids went to school, and I cleaned up the house, I’d just sleep. I didn’t want to do anything. Finally I realized, I was really depressed, you know?”

Rosa understood she had to make a change—if not for herself then for her children. A man who was mentoring her son (as part of the mayor’s GRYD program), gave her some advice. Go back to school, he said.

“I told him I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough to go to school.” she said. “And I meant it.”

But the mentor pushed her. So in September of last year, she enrolled in three classes: office Procedures. Business English, and computer basics.

“I took business English because I needed to learn to talk better to be in the business world.”

Now she’s taking another three: Typing, and Computer Software Application, and Physical Therapy. She goes to class for four hours in the morning and four at night.

“I know if I keep working, I can really make something of myself. And I want to give my kids a better future,” said Rosa.

“This school has changed my life. It changes a lot of people’s lives. That’s why it’s so important they don’t close it down.

“We’re the future,” Rosa said. “Our kids are the future. But to get to that future we need the help that we get from these schools.

“If they close down, what will people like me do? Where will we go to get the skills we need? Really, where?”


THE LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN

Students from West Valley and other adult ed schools have been writing piles of letters to Supt. Deasy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and anyone else whom they could think of who might have some influence on the future of adult ed.

Rosa’s letter is below along with that of a woman named Nancy who, like Rosa, is taking classes to “meet employers’ requirements”….”so that I can show my daughter and everyone in my life that I’ve made it, after 10 years of being out of school.”

Her story is also a compelling one, as you’ll see when you read her letter.

[CLICK TWICE ON THUMBNAILS TO MAKE LARGE ENOUGH TO READ]


NOTE: Aaron Liu writing for Neon Tommy has an excellent story on the proposed adult ed cuts and student reaction.

Posted in Education, LAUSD | 5 Comments »

Questioning Solitary Confinement & The Plague of Plea Bargains

March 12th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


“IF YOU TREAT PEOPLE LIKE ANIMALS THAT’S EXACTLY HOW THEY’LL BEHAVE.”
Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi commissioner of corrections

More inmates are held in solitary confinement in the United States, than in any other nation.

There might be 25,000 people in the U.S. being held in solitary. But no one’s really sure. All we know is that at least 25,000 are kept almost entirely away from human contact. However, experts say the real total could be many times that number.

NY Times reporter Erica Goode has a terrific Page One story about the practice of holding prisoners in solitary confinement and the reasons that some states that are scaling back on the policy—with Mississippi leading the way.

Here are some clips from Goode’s excellent story:

James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.

“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.

It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state. As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

“He started saying, ‘You tell me what kind of person needs to be locked up,’ and it wasn’t near the numbers that we had,” said Emmitt L. Sparkman, deputy commissioner of corrections. By the time they were done, the group had determined that up to 80 percent of the 1,000 or more inmates at Unit 32 could probably be safely moved to less restrictive settings.

Like many such prisons, Mississippi’s supermax, opened in 1990, owed its existence to the fervor for tougher punishment that swept through the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There was an incredible explosion in the prison population coupled with a big infusion of gangs,” Dr. Austin said. “Riots were occurring. Prison officials were literally losing control.”

Some states built special units to isolate difficult prisoners — “the worst of the worst,” prison officials said — from the general prison population. Others retrofitted existing prisons or established smaller units within larger facilities. The federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., was locked down in 1983 after the murder of two prison guards, its inmates confined to cells 23 hours a day and then kept that way permanently. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, a remote town near the Oregon border, specially designed to control inmates in conditions that minimize human interaction.

By 2005, 44 states had supermax prisons or their equivalents. In most, inmates were let out of their cells for only a few hours a week. They were fed through slots in their cell doors and were denied access to work programs or other rehabilitation efforts. If visitors were allowed, the interactions were conducted with no physical contact.

And while prisoners had previously been sent to isolation for 10 or perhaps 30 days as a temporary disciplinary measure, they were now often placed there indefinitely.

[LARGE SNIP]

Many states continue to house inmates with mental illness in isolation. Some inmates appear to function adequately in solitary confinement or even say they prefer it. But studies suggest that the rigid control, absence of normal human interaction and lack of stimulation imposed by prolonged isolation can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms including insomnia, withdrawal, rage and aggression, depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, even in prisoners who are mentally healthy to begin with.

A study of prisoners in the Pelican Bay supermax, for example, found that almost all reported nervousness, anxiety, lethargy or other psychological complaints. Seventy percent said they felt themselves to be at risk of “impending nervous breakdown.”

“Worse still is the fact that for many of these men, the real damage only becomes apparent when they get out of this environment,” said Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, who led the study.

In fact, some research has found that inmates released from supermax units are more likely to reoffend than comparable prisoners released from conventional maximum-security prisons, and that those crimes are more likely to be violent. In Colorado, said Tom Clements, executive director of corrections, it turned out that about 40 percent of inmates held in long-term isolation were being released directly to the community with no transition period.


TAKING A DEAL: LOSING THE RIGHT TO A TRIAL


Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow (an extremely important book, by the way), has an Op Ed in Sunday’s New York Times
that draws attention to yet another little-talked about broken link in our criminal justice system.

Alexander writes about the fact that most people who are accused of crimes never go to trial—even when they are innocent. Instead, they are usually pressured to “take a deal,” and do so simply because they are convinced by the prosecutor (or their court appointed attorney) that if they proceed to trial they are likely to get decades in prison—or worse— rather than the, say, four or eight or twelve years the Assistant DA is offering.

Here’s a clip from what Alexander wrote, but read it all. (And keep an eye our for her generally. What Alexander writes is inevitably worth reading.)

The Bill of Rights guarantees the accused basic safeguards, including the right to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel.

But in this era of mass incarceration — when our nation’s prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement — these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.

“The truth is that government officials have deliberately engineered the system to assure that the jury trial system established by the Constitution is seldom used,” said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the libertarian Cato Institute. In other words: the system is rigged.

In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial. Thirteen years later, in Harmelin v. Michigan, the court ruled that life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

No wonder, then, that most people waive their rights…..


NOTE: AN INTRIGUING STORY ON THE JAILS COMMISSION COMING LATER THIS WEEK….WITH PART 5 AND PART 6 OF DANGEROUS JAILS STILL TO COME (SOON).


One of the 12-foot-by-7 ½-foot solitary cells in Unit 32 of the Mississippi State Penitentiary—photographed by Josh Anderson for The New York Times

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

Peter Bergman: “We’re All Bozos on this Bus” – 1939 – 2012

March 10th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


He was a master of absurdist comedy with a heart the size of Wyoming.

A co-founder of the Firesign Theater and one of the smartest men I have ever known or ever will know, Peter Bergman, was a magician in every important sense of that word.

Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Not insane!


Here and here and here and here are links to some of the better early obits.

Posted in American artists, American voices, writers and writing | 2 Comments »

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