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Innocence


Are LA’s Foster Care & Juvie Justice Kids Being Over Drugged?….When Experts Recant in Criminal Cases….The Flawed Science of Bite Mark Evidence…..TAL’s Series: “Cops See Things Differently”

February 17th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



As you know, we’ve been following San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá’s important series on over drugging in California foster care system.

Then, late on Tuesday, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf reported that the kids overseen by LA County’s juvenile probation system plus LA County’s foster care children are being drugged in greater numbers than was originally thought.

Here’s are some clips from Therolf’s story:

Los Angeles County officials are allowing the use of powerful psychiatric drugs on far more children in the juvenile delinquency and foster care systems than they had previously acknowledged, according to data obtained by The Times through a Public Records Act request.

The newly unearthed figures show that Los Angeles County’s 2013 accounting failed to report almost one in three cases of children on the drugs while in foster care or the custody of the delinquency system.

The data show that along with the 2,300 previously acknowledged cases, an additional 540 foster children and 516 children in the delinquency system were given the drugs. There are 18,000 foster children and 1,000 youth in the juvenile delinquency* system altogether.

If we are reading this right, that means that more than half of LA County’s kids in the juvenile justice system are being given psychotropic medications. Is that possible?

State law requires a judge’s approval before the medication can be administered to children under the custody of the courts, but a preliminary review showed no such approval in the newly discovered cases.

Child advocates and state lawmakers have long argued that such medications are routinely overprescribed, often because caretakers are eager to make children more docile and easy to manage — even when there’s no medical need.

We’ll get back to you as we know more on this disturbing issue.


NEW CALIFORNIA LAW HELPS IN CASES WHEN EXPERTS REVERSE TESTIMONY

A new California law, which took affect in January, makes it easier to get a case overturned when experts recant. But will it help the man whose case inspired the law?

Sudhin Thanawala of the AP has the story.

Here’s a clip:

This much is not in dispute. William Richards’ wife, Pamela, was strangled and her skull smashed in the summer of 1993. A California jury convicted Richards of the slaying after hearing now-recanted bite-mark testimony.

But California judges have disagreed about whether that change in testimony was grounds for tossing Richards’ conviction. Now, almost two decades after Richards was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, his attorneys are hopeful a new state law inspired by his case will set him free.

The law, which took effect in January, makes it easier for a defendant to get a conviction overturned when experts recant their testimony. It prompted attorneys for the 65-year-old Richards, who has always maintained his innocence, to again ask the California Supreme Court to throw out a jury’s guilty verdict.

Legal experts say the law will impact a wide variety of cases where experts later have second thoughts about their testimony. And it gives attorneys fighting to exonerate their clients an important new tool.

“More and more, experts are reconsidering their opinion not because they have pangs of guilt, but because in fact the science changes,” said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School. “You want a legal system that recognizes that reality.”

A San Bernardino County jury convicted Richards in 1997 of first-degree murder following expert testimony that a mark on his wife’s hand was consistent with a unique feature of Richards’ teeth. That expert, a forensic dentist, later recanted, saying he was no longer sure the injury was even a bite mark.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF THE SCIENCE OF BITE MARK MATCHING….

According to the Innocence Project, 24 people have been exonerated after they were either convicted or arrested because of the analysis of a bite mark analyst.

Director of special litigation for the Innocence Project, Chris Fabricant, who specializes in bite mark evidence, estimates that there are still hundreds of people in prison today due to bite mark testimony, including at least 15 awaiting execution, writes the Washington Post’s Radley Balko.

Balko’s story on the flawed “science” of bite-mark matching, and those who still go to great lengths to defend it, is both important and alarming.

Here’s how it opens:

Before he left the courtroom, Gerard Richardson made his mother a promise. “I told her that one day she’d see me walk out of that building a free man,” he says.

Her response nearly broke him. “She said, ‘Gerard, I’ll be dead by then.’”

Richardson, then 30, had just been convicted for the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose half-naked body was found in a roadside ditch in Bernards Township, N.J. The year was 1995, and Richardson had just been sentenced to 30 years in prison.

There were only two pieces of evidence implicating him. One was a statement from Reyes’s boyfriend, who claimed to have heard Richardson threaten to kill her. But that statement was made only after police had shown the boyfriend the second piece of evidence: a finding from a forensic odontologist that a bite mark found on Reyes’s body was a match to Richardson’s teeth. Dr. Ira Titunik, the bite mark expert for the prosecution, would later tell jurors there was “no question in my mind” that Richardson had bitten Reyes.

“I thought it was crazy,” Richardson says. “There was no way it was possible. The FBI looked at hairs, fibers, blood, everything the police found at the crime scene. None of it came from me. Just this bite mark.”

Two decades later, DNA technology was good enough to test the tiny amount of saliva in the bite found on Monica Reyes body, resulting in the overturning of Richardson’s conviction.

Here’s Part 2 of Balko’s series on bite mark evidence telling how the bite mark matchers went on the attack when subjected to scientific scrutiny as American courts across the country welcomed bite mark evidence


THIS AMERICAN LIFE TAKES ON THE DIVIDE IN AMERICA ABOUT POLICING AND RACE

After the conflicts caused by events in Ferguson, along with the death of Eric Garner in New York, and other controversial shootings by police, Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life noted that there seemed to be a huge divide in the nation about how people view the issue of race and policing.

The TAL producers originally intended to a single show on the issue of these intense differences in views. But they ran across so many relevant stories, that they devoted two shows to the complex tales that they found.

In the first episode This American Life looks at one police department—in Milwaukee-–which had a long history of tension with black residents, and a chief of police committed to changing things. But although some things change, others do not. And nothing is simple. When an unarmed black man is killed by police in controversial circumstances, the battle lines form, and the two groups opposing groups agree on only one thing: they want the chief out.

By the show’s end, we glimpse change in Milwaukee, yet it comes not in steps, but in inches.

A week later, in the second hour of stories about policing and race, This American Life reporters tell about one city where relations between police and black residents went terribly, and another city where they seem to be improving remarkably.

We highly recommend both programs. They are designed to start conversations.

Posted in children and adolescents, FBI, Foster Care, How Appealing, Innocence, juvenile justice, law enforcement, Probation, race, racial justice | No Comments »

Does California Need an Innocence Commission?…ABA Sez No More LWOP 4 KIDS….Confronting Lynching…MacArthur Puts Up $$$ to Reform U.S. Jails

February 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


DOES CALIFORNIA NEED AN INNOCENCE COMMISSION?

North Carolina is the only state in the union that has an innocence commission, a neutral government agency that investigates claims of wrongful convictions.

The rest of the 49 states, California included, depend on the work of nonprofits, like the Innocence Project, along with certain activist lawyers who give a percentage of their time to working on innocence cases.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations compiled by the University of Michigan, since 1989, there have been 1,543 exonerations in the U.S. In 2012, California led the nation in innocence cases, with 119 exonerations since ’89. In 2013, Texas moved into first place, and remained in the top spot for 2014.

But whether or not we win first prize for exonerees in any given year, our populous state—with its massive criminal justice system–continues to make its share of tragic legal mistakes.

So do we need our own innocence commission?

The Atlantic’s Matt Ford writes about Joseph Sledge who spent 39 years in a North Carolina prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The state’s innocence commission got him set free at the end of last month, on January 23, 2015.

“In 49 other states, Joseph Sledge would still be in prison,” Ford writes.

Here are some clips from Ford’s story.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is the first full-time state agency dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence. “The innocence commission is the only one of its kind in the nation,” the executive director, Kendra Montgomery, told me. Other states have nonprofit organizations like the Innocence Project or think tanks with similar names, “but we’re the only state that has a government agency that is neutral to investigate these cases,” she said. 1,642 claims have been submitted to the commission since its creation in 2006; Sledge’s case marked the eighth exoneration.

Because it is a state agency, the commission has powers that other institutions lack. Investigators can compel testimony with subpoenas, for example, and gather other kinds of evidence for their cases. “The commission has the unique power, because we are a neutral, fact-finding state agency by statute, to collect and test physical evidence in criminal cases,” said Sharon Stellato, who led the commission’s investigation of Sledge. This ability can be decisive: In at least 18 cases, commission investigators were able to locate evidence that had been officially declared lost or missing by other state agencies. Three of those cases resulted in exonerations, while some others confirmed the convictions.

[SNIP]

Exonerations, which were once exceedingly rare, have become regular features of the American justice system. The National Registry of Exonerations tallied 125 cases in 2014, the highest annual total so far. The group records 1,535 exonerations nationwide since records began in 1989. Of the 125 wrongful convictions thrown out in 2014, 33 came from Harris County, Texas after faulty testing procedures were uncovered there. Even without Harris County, however, the number of exonerations last year still outnumbered those in preceding years.

125 exonerations might seem paltry compared to the estimated 1 million felony convictions per year, but the number of wrongful convictions is likely far higher. Many jurisdictions don’t devote the same level of resources towards exonerations that North Carolina does, and even then, the process can be achingly slow. For a justice system that exalts due process and the presumption of innocence, any wrongful conviction represents a serious breakdown of justice. Even a handful of high-profile wrongful convictions can ripple throughout the public consciousness, undermining confidence in the system. “The country is having to psychically cope with conclusive evidence that we make, with some regularity, errors in criminal trial outcomes,” Tate said.

Investigating possible wrongful convictions, especially those that don’t involve DNA evidence, is a difficult and time-consuming matter. Even so, exonerations, as Ford writes above, are becoming a regular feature of our justice system.

But how many innocent people are still locked up who, for one reason or another, have not been able to get the attention of a willing lawyer, or non-profit?

The question becomes even more pressing when those convicted have been sentenced to die by the state’s hand.

According to a 2014 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, since 1973, when the first death penalty laws now in effect in the United States were enacted, 143 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated.

To put it another way, since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1978, for every ten whom we executed there was one death row exoneration. Not a comforting set of numbers.

Oh, and the great majority of those death row innocence cases—78—were black men.

PS: One of the arguments against a state commission is the expense. However proponents of an innocence commission counter that keeping innocent people locked up indefinitely is also a very high cost endeavor, both fiscally and morally.


AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION VOTES TO END TO LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE FOR CHILDREN

On Monday, the American Bar Association, passed a strongly-worded resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life-in-prison-without-parole and urging “meaningful periodic opportunities for release.”

The ABA is the nation’s largest membership organization for lawyers, representing 400,000 prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, litigators and others.

“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.

Hubbard called the practice of juvie LWOP “a severe violation of human rights.” He added, “The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”

The text of the resolution itself uses even more forceful language. Here’s an excerpt:

The United States stands alone in permitting life without parole for juveniles. It is the only country other than Somalia that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences for youth. The legal developments in [Supreme Court rulings] Graham and Miller, along with the advances in brain and behavioral development science showing how children are fundamentally different from adults… support a conclusion that it is inappropriate to decide at the time of sentencing that life without parole is an appropriate sentence for a juvenile offender. This resolution encourages jurisdictions to go one step further than Miller and to join the policy position of the rest of the world by eliminating mandatory life without parole sentences for youthful offenders.


THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LYNCHING IN AMERICA

There were 3959 lynchings of black people in 12 southern states between the end of reconstruction in 1877, and 1950, according to a report released this week by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the non-profit law and advocacy firm founded by attorney, Bryan Stevenson. (We’ve reported on Stevenson several times in the past.)

That number is at least 700 more lynchings than previous research has reported.

EJI and Stevenson maintain that in order to begin to cure the racial inequality that exists in the American criminal justice system, it is essential to have a conversation about the racial ills and profound trauma of the past, lynching included.

This is from the introduction to the report:

Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. These lynchings were terrorism. “Terror lynchings” peaked between 1880 and 1940 and claimed the lives of African American men, women, and children who were forced to endure the fear, humiliation, and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided.

Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in America and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West during the first half of the twentieth century. Lynching created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. The administra- tion of criminal justice especially is tangled with the history of lynching in profound ways that continue to contaminate the integrity and fairness of the justice system.

This report begins a necessary conversation to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created.

As Stevenson notes, Germany and South Africa has have each had their versions of truth and reconciliation in order to heal. The U.S. has not.

The NY Times’ Campbell Robertson also has a story on the release of the report, which you can find here.


MAC ARTHUR FOUNDATION LAUNCHES $75 MILLION INITIATIVE TO REDUCE USE OF AMERICA’S JAILS

On Tuesday, the MacArthur foundation MacArthur announced a five-year, $75 million investment that “seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.” (The John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur Foundation is one of the nation’s largest independent foundations.)

The plan that MacArthur is calling its “Safety and Justice Challenge” hopes to support and reward cities and counties across the country “seeking to create fairer, more effective local justice systems that improve public safety, save taxpayer money, and lead to better social outcomes.”

The new initiative is based on a MacArthur-supported report released Wednesday by the Vera Institute, called Incarceration’s Front Door: the Misuse of Jails in America.

[More on the Vera report tomorrow.]

Julia Stasch, MacArthur’s President summed up the foundation’s thinking: “For too long America has incarcerated too many people unnecessarily, spending too much money without improving public safety,” she said. “Jails are where our nation’s incarceration problem begins…”

Okay, MacArthur, how about starting in Los Angeles, the city with the nation’s largest jail system, thus the ideal test case.

Posted in Innocence, jail, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, race, race and class, racial justice | No Comments »

Erroneous Convictions for Less Serious Crimes….SCOTUS, Alabama, and Gay Marriage….Loretta Lynch….and Efforts to Reduce Racial Tension Between Cops and Communities

February 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS FOR LOWER-LEVEL CRIMES FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS

The Crime Report’s David Krajicek has an outstanding longread about the lower-priority wrongful convictions that fly under the radar while innocence groups zero in on people serving life sentences, or those on death row.

While no one truly knows the scope of wrongful convictions in America, experts feel certain that each year, thousands of people receive undeserved convictions for lower-level crimes, like robbery and assault, without ever being exonerated. The wrongfully convicted in this category will likely take plea deals, serve their time, and forgo hiring an expensive lawyer to fight for their exculpation.

And, when innocence groups win exonerations for murder (and rape) convictions, it is, more often than not, through new DNA testing. Unfortunately, DNA evidence is rarely collected or tested for more minor crimes. It makes more sense for lifers and those on death row to be given priority, not just because of the severity of the punishment, but because it usually takes more than five years to prove innocence. People convicted of lower-level offenses generally will not serve that much time behind bars.

Here’s the opening of Krajicek’s multilayered project (we recommend reading all of the side stories, if you can):

When Rachel Jernigan was falsely accused of robbing a Gilbert, Ariz., bank 15 years ago, she expected the American criminal justice system to do the right thing.

“They tried to get me to plead guilty,” Jernigan says. “They told me they were going to give me 27 years (in prison). But I said I’m not going to plead guilty for something I didn’t do. I really believed I was going to come home from my trial. I was shocked when the jury found me guilty.”

Sentenced to 14 years, she spent more than seven years in prison before the real robber was identified by Jernigan’s determination and a fluke twist.

“If it can happen to me,” Jernigan says, “it can happen to anyone.”

And it does.

In a sense, Jernigan was a lucky exception.

Experts believe that thousands of people are wrongfully convicted each year in America for the types of crimes that Jernigan was charged with—second-tier felonies like robbery, burglary and assault. And when misdemeanors and driving infractions are included, the number of flawed convictions increases exponentially.

Yet only a tiny fraction of these cases are ever exposed. The cadre of criminologists and law professors who study wrongful convictions regard these missing exonerations as one of the great mysteries of American criminal justice.

Many believe the victims are likely the low-hanging fruit of the justice machine, poor men and women who don’t have the wherewithal to pursue justice.

They likely do what Jernigan was not willing to do: suck it up and accept a plea deal.

“My own somewhat unstudied, seat-of-the-pants estimation is that a lot of working-class folks are probably pretty cynical about the world,” says Marvin Zalman of Wayne State University, a leading wrongful convictions scholar. “And I think that when they get convicted of relatively minor stuff where they didn’t do anything wrong, they just chalk it up to a bad experience, do their time, and simply move on.”

Most who are convicted of minor crimes are unlikely to pony up a retainer—typically $25,000 or much more—to hire a lawyer to seek justice. Nor can they expect help from the community of innocence advocates, who focus on cases where DNA can provide irrefutable evidence of innocence—usually homicides and rapes.

“Unfortunately, the Innocence Project would never take cases like these,” says Mitchell Beers, a South Florida criminal defense attorney who won an assault exoneration in 2006.

About 6,000 people a year ask for help from the Innocence Project, a network of about 65 largely autonomous organizations. It has about 250 active cases at any given time, and nearly all of them focus on DNA evidence, says spokesman Paul Cates.

“We are still very committed to taking cases where DNA evidence is available to prove innocence,” says Cates. “That might change at some point down the road, but the thinking is that DNA is still kind of the gold standard in proving innocence.”

The Innocence Project has had a role in 325 exonerations since it was founded in 1992; just eight of them did not involve DNA cases: four home invasions, three car carjackings and one robbery…

Biological evidence is collected in just one of five crimes, nearly all of them murders or rapes. A 2010 study for the National Institute of Justice said fewer than 10 percent cent of assaults, burglaries and robberies had physical evidence examined in crime labs, compared with 81 percent for murders.

So how vast is the trove of undiscovered wrongful convictions? No one knows for sure, because there is little empirical evidence. Zalman calls wrongful convictions “one of the most remarkably loose areas of analysis in the criminal justice field.”

As Sam Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, has written, “The fundamental problem with false convictions is also one of their defining features: they are hidden from view…”


US SUPREME COURT GIVES GO AHEAD FOR GAY MARRIAGES IN ALABAMA, POINTS TO FUTURE HIGH COURT DECISION

In a meaningful 7-2 ruling that shut down Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s eleventh-hour attempt to suspend gay marriage for Alabamians, the US Supreme Court may have indicated which way the justices will rule when they hear four gay marriage cases this spring.

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidsonhas the story. Here’s a clip:

The Supreme Court has stopped the efforts of Justice Roy Moore, the chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court, to stand in the wedding aisle and block the marriages of same-sex couples in his state. There was no case on marriage before Moore; he had intervened, loudly, when U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade, whose courtroom is in Mobile, ruled that the state’s anti-marriage laws were unconstitutional. Her ruling was stayed, but only until Monday morning. That, apparently, made Moore angry. First, he said that probate judges didn’t have to abide by the federal decision if they didn’t want to—a remarkable stance in itself. Then, when it seemed that judges might not turn away loving couples, he issued an order declaring that they were forbidden to respect the decision. The Alabama Attorney General asked for an emergency stay from the Supreme Court, saying that the state would be irreparably harmed if couples went ahead and married. The Court turned them down. By noon on Monday, news reports were full of pictures of people holding bouquets, bearing rings, and kissing their new spouses. [Update, 6:30 P.M., Monday: By the end of the business day, probate judges in more than a dozen of Alabama’s sixty-seven counties had issued same-sex marriage licenses; many others, though, denied them, only took applications, or closed their doors entirely.]

The Supreme Court’s decision was important on a number of counts. First, for the families of Alabama that have been denied the protection and respect that comes with marriage. Second, it is a strong sign that the Court, which is set to hear arguments this spring on whether there is a fifty-state constitutional right to same-sex marriage, knows where it is headed, and it is in the direction of equality. (The order was accompanied by a dissent signed only by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose main argument was that the Court should allow states to wait for its final ruling on “this important constitutional question.”) Third, it made it clear that there is a definite federal interest in the marriage issue.


BILLS DRAFTED ACROSS THE NATION AFTER DEATHS OF UNARMED BLACK MEN

In the aftermath of a spate of controversial killings by police officers of unarmed black men (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice), bills have cropped up in at least thirteen states to increase law enforcement transparency and improve police-community relations. Efforts include bipartisan bills to put body cameras on cops and proposed changes to the way deaths at the hands of cops are recorded.

The Washington Post’s Reid Wilson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“There is a concrete coherent legislative agenda that we are pushing for,” said Cornell Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP. “We’ve been doing this from state capital to state capital, as well as here in Washington, D.C.”

Some of the proposed responses have bipartisan support. In other cases, familiar partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats, and civil rights groups and police organizations, are emerging and slowing down legislative action.

Those partisan fissures are exacerbated by events beyond Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland. In Albuquerque, N.M., two officers were charged last month with first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of a homeless, mentally ill man who had been camping illegally. In Springfield, Mo., a police officer was shot in the head while on patrol; he suffered career-ending injuries.

“Our citizens deserve to be and feel safe, and our law enforcement deserve our respect and support,” said Missouri Rep. Lincoln Hough (R). “I say all that to illustrate the complexity of these issues. There is not a one size fits all approach to this issue.”

Brooks and other civil rights leaders have vowed 2015 will be a year of legislative strategy, pressuring statehouses to pass state-level laws concerning special prosecutors and grand juries while pushing for broader legislative steps in Washington D.C.

Body camera legislation is at the forefront of that push. Civil rights groups like the NAACP, The Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union are behind many of the body camera proposals, and the Obama administration has allocated $263 million for a three-year program to expand training for local police departments, including $75 million that would purchase 50,000 cameras through a matching program.


IN THE SAME VEIN…US AG NOMINEE LORETTA LYNCH POISED TO TAKE ON POLICE-COMMUNITY RELATIONS

US Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, will be the first black female AG if confirmed, and says she will focus on mending relations and calming racial tensions between law enforcement agencies and their communities.

The Hill’s Tim Devaney has more on the issue and why advocates and lawmakers believe Loretta is suited to the task. Here’s a clip:

As a black woman with strong law-and-order credentials, Lynch, observers say, would be uniquely positioned to ease strained relations between police and minority communities they serve.

Lynch’s reputation for being a hard-nosed, impartial prosecutor has won her wide support from civil rights advocates, law enforcement, Democrats and even some Republicans.

This will serve her well as she seeks to “resolve the tensions” between law enforcement and the African American community, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“She has prosecuted those who have committed crimes against police officers, as well as police officers who have committed crimes,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said during her confirmation hearing.

Lynch has earned the trust of civil rights groups by pursing cases of police brutality.

During her time as a federal prosecutor in New York, Lynch went after a police officer accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a stick in a precinct bathroom.

More recently, she was assigned to investigate the Eric Garner case.

As the “face of law enforcement,” Lynch will have the opportunity to improve public perceptions of police, said Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People…

Lynch promised to “draw all voices” into the conversation about reforming law enforcement and cracking down on cases of police misconduct.

“She has to be a person who brings both sides together, police and the community,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill.

Posted in Department of Justice, DNA, Innocence, law enforcement, LGBT, racial justice, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Prosecutorial Misconduct, Sasha and Richard, False Confessions, and Penalizing States that Fail to Protect Foster Kids

February 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LETTING PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT SLIDE

Federal judge Alex Kozinski railed against unchecked prosecutorial misconduct in California’s court system while hearing oral arguments for a habeas petition last month.

Lower courts had upheld a murder-for-hire conviction despite having established that both a jail informant and prosecutor had provided false testimony—both saying that the informant had not been given a deal (he had). The prosecutor was not sanctioned, nor did the state bar revoke his license.

Kozinski, along with judges Kim Wardlaw and William Fletcher, accused California judges of continuously overlooking prosecutorial misdeeds and choosing not to overturn flawed verdicts. (This is not the first time Kozinski has zeroed in on this issue.) Kozinski said the panel would rule on the issue themselves, threatening to name names, if the California Attorney General’s Office—which had tried to keep transcripts away from the Ninth Circuit Court—did not stop fighting to uphold the conviction.

Kozinski directed Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Vienna to notify California Attorney General Kamala Harris of the controversial particulars of the case, saying, “Get ahold of the Attorney General, get ahold of your supervisor, and see whether they really want to stick by a conviction that was obtained by lying prosecutors and that was maintained in the Court of Appeal after the Attorney General’s office fought tooth and nail to keep out a transcript that would have shown the perfidy of the prosecutors…” The AG’s office chose to discontinue its defense of the conviction.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has the story. Here’s a clip:

The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined.

The low-profile case probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the video, which attorneys emailed to other attorneys and debated on blogs.

In a series of searing questions, the three judges expressed frustration and anger that California state judges were not cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct. By law, federal judges are supposed to defer to the decisions of state court judges.

Prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” Kozinski said.

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said the judges’ questions and tone showed they had lost patience with California courts. State judges are supposed to refer errant lawyers, including prosecutors, to the state bar for discipline, but they rarely do, Uelmen said.

“It is a cumulative type thing,” Uelmen said. “The 9th Circuit keeps seeing this misconduct over and over again. This is one way they can really call attention to it.”

A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.


TWO TEENS ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF A TRAGIC CRIME

In late 2013, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, egged on by friends, set 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire on an Oakland city bus. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was burned so badly in the incident that they had to undergo several surgeries and spent weeks in the hospital.

Richard, who is black, was charged as an adult with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, with hate-crime sentence enhancements.

Richard was a well-liked kid who grew up in a turbulent East Oakland neighborhood, with his mom, siblings, and cousins. In his 16 years, Richard experienced an extraordinary amount of trauma. In 2008, Richard’s aunt was murdered. In 2013, Richard’s best friend, his “twin,” was gunned down while sitting in a car. When Richard, reeling from the loss, started doing poorly in school and skipping class, he asked for help from the school’s attendance compliance officer.

After the fire, Richard told investigating officers he was homophobic. He told them he never thought the skirt would catch on fire like it did, that he only thought it would singe a little and go out quickly, and meant it as a prank. Richard was forced to take a plea deal of seven years behind bars with removal of the hate-crime enhancements and mayhem charge. His only alternative was to go to trial and risk receiving a maximum of life imprisonment, a sentence severely disproportionate to the crime, and one he would not have faced if he had been tried as a juvenile.

Dashka Slater’s phenomenal New York Times Magazine story illuminates both sides of Sasha and Richard’s double tragedy. Here are a couple of clips, but you really must read it in its entirety:

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old boy who lit the skirt on fire, was arrested the following day. Citing the severity of the crime, the Alameda County district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, charged Thomas as an adult, stripping him of the protections — including anonymity — customarily afforded to juveniles. Charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that increased the time he would serve if convicted, Thomas faced the possibility of life imprisonment.

[SNIP]

On Nov. 8, four days after lighting Sasha’s skirt on fire, Richard wrote the teenager a letter.

“Dear Victum,” it began. “I apoligize for my actions, for the pain that I brought to you and your family. I was wrong for what I did. I was wrong. I had no reason to do that to you I don’t know what was going through my head at that time. Im not a monster, I have a big heart I never even thought of hurting anyone like the way I hurt you. I just wanted you to know that im deeply sorry for my actions. I think about what happened every second, I pray that you heal correctly and that you recover and live a happy life. Please forgive me thats all I want. I take responsibility for all my actions, I’ll take all the consiquences,” he wrote. “I’m not just saying this because im incarcerated I honestly mean every word.” He signed it, “Love, Richard Thomas.”

A few days later, he wrote a second letter, this one addressed to “Mr. Fleischman.” It was nearly three pages long, written in neat cursive.

“I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apoligizing,” he wrote. “I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there still making me seem like a monster, but im not. I’m a good kid if you get to know me. I’m sure you would have been a nice person to,” he continued. “I was hoping that I can meet you face to face so I can apoligize to you.”

He went on to detail the charges against him, explaining that he was willing to accept the assault charges but that he rejected the hate-crime enhancements. “I don’t have a problem with homosexual’s,” he explained. “I have friends thats homosexuals and we never had problems so I don’t look at you wrong because of your sexualitie. Honestly I could care less if you like men you weren’t trying to talk to me in that way.”

As for himself, he said: “I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.” Perhaps, he suggested, he and Fleischman had things in common. “I’ve also been hurt alot for no reason, not like I hurt you but Ive been hurt physically and metally so I know how it feels, the pain and confusion of why me I’ve felt it before plenty of times.”


ALL CONFESSIONS, EVEN FALSE ONES, HAVE AN IMPACT ON JURY MEMBERS’ PERCEPTIONS AND BELIEFS

According to 2013 data from the National Registry of Exoneration, 38% of exonerations of kids and 11% of exonerations of adults involved false confessions. Whether or not confessions are true, they have considerable power over juries, more than character testimony, and even more than eyewitness testimony.

ProPublica’s Joe Sexton uses the upcoming trial for the 1979 murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz, and a videotaped confession from Pedro Hernandez to explore the issue. Here’s how it opens:

Over the next several months, defense lawyers for Pedro Hernandez will seek to undercut the central evidence against him: his videotaped confession to having killed 6-year-old Etan Patz.

They will depict the confession as inaccurate when set against the known facts of the infamous 1979 missing child case. They will portray Hernandez, a onetime bodega clerk in the Manhattan neighborhood where Patz lived, as mentally ill. They will paint the detectives who gained the confession as manipulative and coercive.

It’s a daunting assignment, but here’s what may well be scaring the lawyers the most: They could succeed in every aspect of their attack on the reliability of the confession and still not win an acquittal.

Such is the power of confessions, true or false, for American juries. A nascent body of scholarship, driven in part by an escalating number of wrongful convictions in cases with false confessions, has begun to document just how persuasive confessions can be.

Of course, the power of confessions owes in part to the fact that they very often are true. Certainly, that is the argument Manhattan prosecutors will make as they seek to hold Hernandez responsible for a case that has haunted the city, and parents nationwide, for decades. Prosecutors say Hernandez’s claims that he strangled the young boy after luring him from his school bus stop are credible, and that any mental health issues he suffers from are not serious. They also argue that the confession is supported by the accounts of others who maintain Hernandez told similar stories of killing a child over the years.

But false confessions – including those questioned at trial by effective defense lawyers – also have proven to carry extraordinary weight with juries. Several studies, using mock jurors and sophisticated analysis, have demonstrated that confessions outweigh the value of eyewitness and character testimony. And in at least one case, according to a 2010 study, prosecutors chose to believe a confession even when the accused seemed categorically cleared by DNA evidence.


HOLDING STATES ACCOUNTABLE FOR NONCOMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL LAWS THAT PROTECT FOSTER KIDS

In a new report, two California advocacy groups: the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star are calling for the feds to monitor states compliance with federal child welfare laws and to deny funding to states who do not adequately protect their most vulnerable kids.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s John Kelly has a good rundown of the report’s main points. Here are clips from the first two:

Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR)

The CFSR has been conducted twice in each state by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and gauges the state’s performance on seven outcomes and seven systemic factors. The report takes the view that the CFSR process is a general assessment indicating adherence to federal law, done instead of a full compliance check on individual laws.

“Although the efficacy of the CFSR process is highly questionable in terms of ensuring state conformity with federal child welfare laws and standards, it at least provided some modicum of external oversight and monitoring of at least a few aspects of federal child welfare law,” the report says.

Not once in those two rounds has one state been found in “substantial conformity” with the review. States enter into a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) upon failure on the CFSR, and face withholding of federal IV-E funds if they fail to meet the goals in the plan.

Yet report authors could only identify two instances in which states were assessed penalties, according to the report….

Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System

The Department of Health and Human Services is not actively penalizing states that declare themselves out of compliance with the data collection standards put in place with the creation of AFCARS.

“By refusing to impose financial penalties on states that fail to comply with federal data reporting requirements, ACF has ignored one of the most incentivizing tools it has to ensure states’ submission of reliable, consistent, and complete data — information that could have meaningfully contributed to the improvement of the adoption and foster care processes,” the report says.

Posted in Fire, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, Prosecutors | No Comments »

Brooklyn DA Targets Questionable Convictions….a “Suicide by Cop”….MacArthur Genius Probes Unconscious Racial Bias….and the MacArthur Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Reform Push

January 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

BROOKLYN’S DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOCUSED ON JUSTICE OVER CONVICTIONS

The New Yorker’s Matthew McKnight tells the story of Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney who established a “conviction integrity unit” last year to investigate a slew of possible wrongful convictions. Thompson took over as DA after Charles Hynes, who was defeated after a wrongful conviction lawsuit unearthed systemic prosecutorial misconduct in the DA’s office.

Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit is made up of ten lawyers who have examined around 100 cases in around 9 months, and exonerated eleven people in 2014.

While other counties have made considerable efforts to right justice system wrongs via conviction integrity systems, Thompson’s is the largest DA’s office in the country to make such a strong push.

Here are some clips from McKnight’s story:

The Conviction Review Unit has been the most profound reform that Thompson has implemented in his year as district attorney. A team of ten lawyers has been tasked with reviewing wrongful-conviction claims and questionable convictions, many of which occurred under the leadership of the previous D.A., Charles Hynes, whose twenty-three-year tenure is suspected of being marked by negligence and questionable ethics—including using faulty eyewitnesses, manipulating his prosecutorial responsibilities in order to appear tough on crime and win elections, and relying on the work of discredited detectives. One retired detective in particular, Louis Scarcella, has been connected with roughly seventy cases that have come up for review by Thompson’s office, including Hamilton’s. Meanwhile, one of Hynes’s assistant district attorneys, Michael Vecchione, was named in a wrongful-conviction lawsuit brought against the city by Jabbar Collins, who spent sixteen years in prison for murder. Collins claimed that Vecchione and others in the prosecutor’s office had threatened a man in order to solicit testimony of Collins’s guilt. (Collins was awarded a settlement of ten million dollars last summer. Both Scarcella and Vecchione deny any wrongdoing.)

The C.R.U. represents Thompson’s attempt to correct systemic flaws in Brooklyn’s criminal-justice apparatus, which have included poor oversight, inadequate independent review, and a lack of prosecutorial and police transparency—and which have enabled problems ranging from mistakes in judgment to deliberate misconduct. Thompson’s is the third-largest district attorney’s office in the nation, behind those of Chicago and Los Angeles, with five hundred prosecutors who litigate roughly a hundred thousand cases a year, and it is certainly the largest to make such a thorough effort to review past convictions. In scope, the Kings Country C.R.U. follows an earlier effort by Craig Watkins, the district attorney in Dallas, who, in 2006, formed a conviction-integrity unit that sought, at first, to review potentially tainted convictions that could be tested with DNA evidence that wasn’t available at the time of the original trials.

Thompson’s unit differed from Watkins’s in that it sought to consider an expanded notion of justice. “They’re not simply looking at wrongful convictions in cases in which a person can prove his or her innocence. They’re also looking at cases where they may be innocent—we don’t know—but, definitely, the conviction has no integrity,” Peter Neufeld, the cofounder of the Innocence Project, told me. Watkins later expanded his unit in Dallas to include convictions not resting on DNA evidence, but Thompson’s office has not yet widened its scope to include cases in which retroactive DNA testing can be applied. Rather, the questionable convictions that the Kings County office has sought to review can largely be traced to human error—negligence, misconduct, or errors in judgment—and not necessarily to poor technology. “It is much more difficult to set aside convictions in non-DNA cases, so Kenneth Thompson’s work in that regard has been especially impressive,” Karen Daniel, the co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, wrote to me in an e-mail.

[SNIP]

According to Hale, the unit has accepted about a hundred cases for review since March, 2014, and has made a determination in thirty-one. Most of the cases that the unit has handled so far involve crimes that were committed in the early nineteen-nineties, during the highest period of criminal activity in the history of Brooklyn, which were also Hynes’s first years as D.A. The highest priority for the unit, Thompson says, is to give freedom to people who were convicted during the concomitant era of mass incarceration but don’t belong in prison. He likens the work of the C.R.U. to that of a hospital’s triage center.

For the moment, two important challenges remain outside the scope of Thompson’s unit: understanding precisely why mistakes happened and instituting measures to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the future. Neufeld argues that the means for accomplishing these goals already exists. “The only sector in society which has not used root-cause analysis”—a formal methodology for determining the source of an undesirable result—“routinely to deal with its issues has been the criminal-justice system,” he said. “And I don’t want to single D.A.s out. It’s true of public defenders; it’s true of crime laboratories; it’s true of police departments; it’s true of the courts.”


USING COPS TO COMMIT SUICIDE

On Sunday, two San Francisco sergeants shot and killed Matthew Hoffman after the 32-year-old aimed an air rifle at them, deliberately committing “suicide by cop.” Hoffman left a suicide note absolving the officers of his death.

Committing “suicide by cop,” essentially forcing officers unaware of the motive to use deadly force in self-defense, is not an uncommon occurrence. And in such incidents, even training in crisis intervention will not change the outcome, which officers must live with the rest of their lives. The mental health intervention must occur long before those final catastrophic moments.

SF Chronicle’s Vivian Ho has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

San Francisco police as well as experts said it appeared to be a clear case of “suicide by cop,” a tragic but often murky phenomenon that lies at the intersection of law enforcement and mental health and can devastate all involved.

“You have a note saying, ‘I used you’ — but it doesn’t make (the officers) feel any better,” said Vivian Lord, a University of North Carolina professor and author of “Suicide by Cop: a Comprehensive Examination of the Phenomenon and its Aftermath.”

[SNIP]

While suicide by cop is a familiar term, it is difficult to study, experts said, and there is little definitive data on how many such incidents occur nationwide each year. One problem is assessing the motives of a person who is often deceased. Another is that many departments don’t seek to differentiate between officer-involved shootings.

A 1998 FBI study looking at 240 cases over a 15-year period found that 16 percent of people shot by police had possible suicidal motivations. Another study published in the Journal of Forensic Studies in 2009, which looked at more than 700 shootings throughout North America, determined that 36 percent of them were suicides, while 5 percent more featured subjects who were suicidal during the encounter.

Lord and Stincelli, though, said the numbers in the 2009 study seemed high. They estimated that 12 to 15 percent of all police killings nationwide are provoked for the sake of suicide.

[SNIP]

Lord said law enforcement agencies and mental health professionals need to work together more closely. While police officers are often the first to come in contact with people in distress, she said, “Suicide by cop is just a result of things that should have been done before then.”


MACARTHUR GENIUS TRAILBLAZING RESEARCH ON UNCONSCIOUS RACIAL BIAS

The New York Times’ Claudia Dreifus interviews 2014 MacArthur Genius, Jennifer Eberhardt, who investigates the adverse impact of implicit racial bias on the criminal justice system, and then partners with law enforcement agencies to raise awareness of the issue. Here are some clips from Dreifus and Eberhardt’s discussions:

WHEN YOUR MACARTHUR WAS ANNOUNCED, IT WAS SAID YOU HAD SHOWN HOW CRIMINAL SENTENCING WAS RELATED TO SKIN COLOR AND RACIAL STEREOTYPING. HOW DID YOU DO THAT?

The particular study they were referring to was on the death penalty. We gathered photographs of people convicted of capital crimes and who were eligible for a death sentence. We then cropped them and asked Stanford students to rate how stereotypically black the faces appeared to be.

We told our subjects to use any dimension they wanted with which to make that judgment: skin color, width of nose, thickness of lips. Interestingly, though we didn’t give them clear direction of what we meant by “stereotypically black,” there was a lot of agreement about what that was.

Now, the students had no idea where these pictures came from or that these were convicted felons. We wondered if their ratings of blackness could predict whether the person had received a life or a death sentence.

AND WERE THEY PREDICTIVE?

Oh, yes. People who were judged to be most black were, in reality, most likely to have drawn a death sentence. In fact, they were over twice as likely to get a death sentence.

[SNIP]

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN YOU HAD STUDENTS PLAY COMPUTER GAMES THAT CENTERED ON SHOOTING BLACK PEOPLE WHO MIGHT BE CARRYING GUNS?

This is an experiment that another social psychologist, Josh Correll at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has done. But we’ve done it, too.

You have a computer game simulation where a subject sees someone holding an object. If it’s a gun, they hit a button labeled “Shoot.” If it’s a harmless object, they hit another labeled “Don’t Shoot.”

It turns out that if they are shown a black person with a gun, they’ll respond with “Shoot” faster than when flashed the image of a white person with a gun. People are more likely to mistakenly respond with “Shoot” to a black person with no gun than to a white person with no gun.


AND IN OTHER MACARTHUR FOUNDATION NEWS… REFORM RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HARMFUL JUVENILE JUSTICE POLICIES

Citing growing research on teenagers’ still-developing brains (notably the areas of the brain governing impulse control, critical thinking, and consideration of consequences), a report from the MacArthur Foundation calls for major policy changes in five areas of the juvenile justice system.

These reforms include banning use of solitary confinement on kids, keeping kids out of adult courts and jails, sealing kids’ juvenile records, and keeping kids off sex offender registries.

Here’s a clip from the report that lays out ideal policy changes regarding kids and the adult justice system:

Laws and policies that funnel youth into the adult criminal justice system solely based on age or crime are contrary to the research on adolescent development and successful interventions for youth in trouble with the law. Such policies are also out of line with public sentiment, which favors rehabilitation and does not support transfer. The following would be hallmarks of a model system’s approach to transfer:

• Transfer is never automatic; whenever possible, youth remain in the juvenile justice system. Youth are transferred to the adult system only on an individualized basis and after careful deliberation by a judge, who takes into account the experiences, characteristics, and vulnerabilities that can place adolescents at greater risk of becoming involved in criminal activity, as well as their ability to change. Prosecutors are no longer granted the unilateral ability to file cases in adult court without judicial review.

• Adult sentencing guidelines are not applied to youth. Given their mitigated responsibility and capacity to change, youth receive more lenient dispositions than adults, even for the same crime. Extreme sentences that have a disproportionately harsh impact on youth, such as life without parole, are not imposed on adolescents and there is a lower ceiling for punishment for youth.

• Adolescents are not placed in adult jails or prisons. Placement of youth in adult jails and prisons, even for a short time, is recognized as damaging to the child and contrary to public safety. Policies are influenced by research showing that transferring youth to criminal court bears no relationship to changes in the rates of youth violence and that holding adolescents with adults can actually make youth more likely to commit new crimes.

• If youth are nevertheless placed in an adult facility, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is strictly enforced to protect them. The three prongs of PREA are enforced: the prohibition on youth under 18 being housed in the general adult population of an adult prison or jail; the requirement that adult facilities maintain “sight and sound” separation between adults and youth; and the prohibition on youth being subjected to isolation as a means of complying with the regulations. PREA regulations are used as a guide for the development of statewide policies to protect youth who are placed in adult facilities.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has more on the report.

Posted in Innocence, juvenile justice, law enforcement, racial justice | No Comments »

Part 4: “Drugging Our Kids,” Compensating Wrongfully Convicted, Rehabilitating CA’s Female Lifers, and WLA on Deadline LA

December 22nd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

YOLANDA’S STORY: RESCUED BY A GROUP HOME DOCTOR WHO FOUND A DIFFERENT WAY TO TREAT TRAUMA

In August, September, and November, we linked to parts one, two, and three of Karen de Sá’s powerful investigative series for the San Jose Mercury uncovering the alarming overuse of psychotropic medications to treat California’s foster kids.

Part four introduces readers to Yolanda Vasquez, a former foster kid with a winning smile who was once so severely drugged by doctors, she almost lost the ability to talk, and functioned at the education level of a five-year-old at age thirteen.

Yolanda was eventually rescued by a therapist who wondered who Yolanda really was “under all the medicine,” and psychiatrist who broke from the pack and helped Yolanda and other foster kids wean off of their psychotropic medication cocktails. Dr. Edmund Levin, resident psychiatrist at the Lincoln Child Center group home, began a trial of guiding the kids under his care through tapering off of their medications, of which they were often taking six or seven kinds at once.

When Yolanda emerged from the fog, nearly all of her learning and speech impairments began to fade with the drugs. And a majority of the other kids in Levin’s small experiment, which cut medication use at Lincoln by 80%, had similarly positive results.

Here are some clips from the latest in de Sá’s series:

Before Lincoln, Yolanda remembers taking 10 pills, morning, midday and at night. Levin’s records showed over time she was on a mix of psychiatric drugs that would fill a medicine cabinet: three antipsychotics to help calm her. A mood stabilizer to even her out. A stimulant to help her concentrate. An anti-seizure medication and another drug to help treat the other drugs’ side effects. And finally a drug to help her sleep. She remembers their sizes, shapes, colors and bitter taste.

And each pill had its own set of side effects. Yolanda gained weight and became so lethargic that she couldn’t play basketball — the one thing that excited her through all her moves. She often fell asleep in class, even on field trips.

And when Yolanda was awake, she often was afraid. Like so many traumatized children, Yolanda not only felt invisible but constantly on edge, an emotional state clinicians describe as “fight or flight” mode.

[SNIP]

The tapering trials proceeded gradually, one medication at a time. All child care workers would have to agree to reduce medications in the case of every child. And drugs would be quickly added back if any serious problems arose.

Week by week, Levin eliminated one of Yolanda’s medications, then watched her progress and carefully decided whether to reduce another. Within a couple of months, she was down to one drug — guanfacine, a hypertension medication used to treat attention-deficit disorder. Weeks later, she was done.

[SNIP]

But as Levin reduced Yolanda’s medications, the breakthroughs slowly came — along with the trust. She started sharing some painful memories with Forster, dark moments about being abused, deep sadness about longing for family.

As the “sleepy, fuzzy weirdness” wore off, the more she opened up.

She laughed more, stayed awake in class and took on a new role caring for the younger kids at Lincoln. She finally learned to tell time by reading the clock on the wall in Forster’s office.


FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND REHAB PROGRAM FOR CALIFORNIA FEMALE LIFERS

A new program at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla for women serving life in prison is giving graduates a better chance at winning parole. The comprehensive program helps women realize the impact of their actions, overcome addiction, build relationships, and more. The program is the first of its kind: no other program has received the recognition of the Board of Parole Hearings, and it’s the first real state-funded effort at rehabilitating female lifers.

Sascha Khokha has more on the program for KQED’s California Report. Take a listen to the full audio, but here’s a clip from the accompanying story:

“Denial is real. It’s very difficult to look at yourself, especially if you’ve done horrible things,” says inmate Candace MacDonald, who is serving a life sentence for breaking into a 73-year-old man’s home in Eureka and beating and smothering him to death in 1980.

She says she was high on methamphetamine when she committed the crime.

“Because of my addiction, I did things that I would never do. Then I hated the things I was doing, so I would do more drugs because I hated the things I was doing,” she adds. “It’s just a horrible cycle.”

MacDonald is now 64 years old, and one of a number of senior citizen inmates who’ve spent most of their adult lives in prison. Some now use walkers or wheelchairs. She says in all her years here, this is the first program that’s truly pushed her to work deeply on herself. It held a mirror to her, made her dig into painful truths.

“To be able to peel that away, and look deep down inside, and gain an understanding of what you have done, and how it affected all of the people around you,” she says. “The ripple effect is incredible.”

MacDonald has unsuccessfully presented her case before the parole board a number of times over the years, repeating the same testimony she gave at her trial. But after doing this program, she says, she was able to speak from her heart and truly admit her regret. Last week, the board recommended that she be released on parole.


AFTER A WRONGFUL CONVICTION, A STRUGGLE TO WIN COMPENSATION FROM THE STATE

Rafael Madrigal was convicted in 2000 of attempted murder and sentenced to 53-years-to-life in prison. The victim, who had been shot in the head during a drive-by, identified Madrigal in a photo lineup. Madrigal, a 25-year-old father of four with a good job, said he had never been in a gang, and had a time card indicating he had been at work during the shooting.

But neither cops nor jury bought his story, and he spent the next nine years in prison before an attorney convinced a judge Madrigal received inadequate legal defense. And now, five years later, despite strong evidence pointing to his innocence, Madrigal has received nothing in his fight for compensation, and has struggled to pick up where he left off before his wrongful conviction.

In California, exonerees receive far less than the guaranteed federal payment of $50,000 for every year behind bars. The yearly payment is capped at $36,500 (a far cry from Texas’ $80,000), and the process is complex. As of 2013, only 11 of 132 exonerees from the year 2000 on, have actually received the money. (Note: late last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would make the process a bit easier.)

The LA Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske has Madrigal’s story, as well as a rundown of what it takes to receive compensation in California. Here’s a clip:

Madrigal walked out of Chino State Prison on Oct. 6, 2009, with the clothes on his back and $187. He was free to return to the life he’d left behind nine years earlier.

Except it didn’t exist.

Under a state law intended to compensate those wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, Madrigal appeared to qualify for $281,700 from the state of California.

In the five years since his release, he has argued his case before a state hearing officer and a state compensation board. But though a federal judge found “compelling evidence” that he was “actually innocent,” Madrigal has been paid nothing.

The Los Angeles Times has documented dozens of cases nationwide in which people convicted and later cleared by DNA or new evidence never received state compensation. Some — especially the low-income minorities who make up a large share of the wrongfully imprisoned — never file a claim because they can’t afford a lawyer or find one willing to take the case.

“They just opened the door and said, ‘Hey, walk away!’” said Madrigal, 39. “I didn’t have much when I went in. But I had what I had, and that little bit that I did have was all taken from me.”

[SNIP]

“If someone gets paroled, they get … food vouchers, clothing vouchers, benefits, even places to live. But for someone who gets exonerated, they just throw you on the street and don’t even give you an apology,” said Dwayne Provience, 41, who spent nearly a decade in prison before his murder conviction in Detroit was overturned in 2010. The city rejected his bid for compensation and then declared bankruptcy; Provience now works two jobs to support his four children.

[SNIP]

A 2012 survey by a researcher at the State University of New York at Albany found that California pays less than many other states and provides fewer services.

Since 1981, the earliest year with records available, the three-member board that decides compensation claims in California has denied 59 and granted 22, awarding payments of about $6.2 million.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush signed the Innocence Protection Act, which guarantees those exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for every year they spent in prison, $100,000 for each year on death row.


WLA’S CELESTE FREMON TO BE ON KPFK’S DEADLINE LA

WLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, will be discussing oversight of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on KPFK’s Deadline LA with hosts Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume, today (Monday), at 3:00p.m.

If you don’t catch it live (on 90.7 FM), you can find the episode in the archives, here.

Posted in Foster Care, Innocence, prison, Rehabilitation, Trauma | No Comments »

Jim McDonnell Swearing-in, Native American Kids’ Exposure to Violence, California Exoneration, and a Child Welfare Czar Update

December 1st, 2014 by Taylor Walker

TODAY: LA GETS A NEW SHERIFF

Jim McDonnell will be sworn in as the 32nd Sheriff of Los Angeles County today, December 1. The swearing-in will take place downtown at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration at 2:00p.m.

McDonnell will replace Interim Sheriff John Scott, who took over for Sheriff Lee Baca after he resigned in January.

Former chief of the Long Beach Police Dept. and a 29-year LAPD veteran, McDonnell is the first new sheriff elected from outside the department—the fourth largest law enforcement agency in the US—in more than a century.

We will have much more on our new sheriff after the swearing-in.


NATIVE AMERICAN KIDS PLAGUED BY COMMUNITY VIOLENCE, FAILED BY THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Children growing up in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities experience violence at a rate higher than any other race, according to a recent report. (The 120-page report from the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence was presented to Attorney General Eric Holder in mid-November.)

According to the report, 75% of deaths of Native Americans between the ages of 12-20 are due to violence.

AI/AN kids are also five times more likely than the general population to have four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Kids with four ACEs have a much higher likelihood of having emotional and physical health issues, among other serious negative outcomes.

Clearly this is a national issue, but it’s a California issue, as well, in that our state has the second largest Native American population in the US (the largest is in Oklahoma).

The report makes 31 recommendations to improve the lives of AI/AN kids exposed to violence, including allowing tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans who abuse Native American children on reservations.

Here are some clips from the report:

Violence in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities occurs at very high rates compared with non-AI/AN communities—higher for AI/AN than all other races. And violence, including intentional injuries, homicide, and suicide, accounts for 75 percent of deaths of AI/AN youth ages twelve through twenty.2 Unfortunately, Indian children cannot escape the violence that surrounds them.

Repeated exposure to childhood violence has a staggering lifelong impact on an individual’s health and well-being. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study demonstrated that persons who experience four or more childhood adversities have a four- to twelvefold increased risk for alcoholism, drug use, depression, and suicide attempt when compared to those that had experienced none. This study, coupled with data that show American Indians and Alaska Natives have a fivefold higher risk of being exposed to four or more adverse childhood events, underscores the overwhelming impact of exposure to violence in AI/AN communities.

Children engulfed by this level of community violence often struggle with rebuilding trust, finding meaning in life apart from desires for safety and justice, finding realistic ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from danger and dealing with feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, and doubt. Additionally, when children experience ongoing violence in their communities, it may become an accepted condition of life. They may learn to think of recurring danger, fear, injury, and death as normal. Instead of celebrating life, too often they must mourn losses. This may confuse them in figuring out how to navigate life. These children wait nervously or helplessly for the next explosion of violence in their neighborhood or school, or they mourn the all-too-common deaths or devastated lives of families, friends, and community members. At some point, these children may feel the need to fight back against actual or potential perpetrators, causing them to have difficulty acting appropriately on those feelings. Unfortunately, a number of these children become perpetrators in adolescence and adulthood.

[SNIP]

Vulnerability Due to Homelessness. Homelessness may be caused by a need to escape violence in the home, and homeless youth become easy targets of violent crime in the community. In Minnesota, where the Advisory Committee conducted a Listening Session, it was reported that AI/AN youth make up 20 percent of homeless youth ages twelve through seventeen, although they make up only 1 percent of the general population.

[SNIP]

The cycle of violence that now grips AI/AN communities was years in the making and largely due to failed federal policies. Breaking the cycle of violence will require cooperation at the federal, tribal, and state level as well as the investment of significant new resources.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has more on the report.

In a more recent story for the Washington Post, Horwitz tells of how the federal justice system is failing Native American kids. Horwitz takes a particularly close look at kids from the violence-ridden Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and their encounters with the juvenile system. Here’s a clip:

Around the country, juveniles on reservations are left to languish in cash-strapped facilities that cannot afford to provide the kind of rehabilitative services afforded to most young offenders in the United States. Because some reservations have no juvenile detention centers, offenders often are shipped to facilities far from their homes, compounding the isolation of incarceration.

A jurisdictional legal maze in Indian country further complicates matters. Indian reservations are sovereign nations. So when juveniles commit minor crimes, their cases are usually handled by the tribes. But when they commit a serious felony, their cases are generally handled by federal prosecutors, and they can be sent to either federal prison or a federal facility.

In the federal system, there is no juvenile division, and no court judges, rehabilitation facilities or probation system for juveniles. From 1999 through 2008, as many as 60 percent of juveniles in federal custody were American Indians, according to a commission that last year recommended that tribes be given full jurisdiction over Indian children and be released from “dysfunctional federal and state controls.”

Advocates say Native American youths have essentially been forgotten.

“There is no systemic program to educate kids or provide services for them in detention centers,” said Troy Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission and a former U.S. attorney from Colorado. “They don’t have computer instruction. They don’t have classrooms. They have nothing, and their services are lacking because Congress hasn’t appropriated the funding. They just sit in a cell all day.”


MAN FREED AFTER THE LONGEST WRONGFUL INCARCERATION IN CALIFORNIA, PLUS INTERVIEW WITH HEAD OF INNOCENCE PROJECT

Michael Hanline, a man wrongly convicted of a 1978 murder, was released from prison after serving 36 years behind bars—the longest wrongful imprisonment ever in California. —and a 15 year battle on his behalf by the folks at the California Innocence Project. (You can read the rest of Hanline’s story here.)

UT San Diego’s Dana Littlefield interviewed Justin Brooks, founder of the California Innocence Project. Brooks discusses breaking the good news to Hanline about his exoneration. He also explains how the Innocence Project chooses cases, and a walk from San Diego to Sacramento to file twelve clemency petitions.

Here are some clips from the interview:

Q: What was it like to tell Michael Hanline he would finally be getting out of prison?

A: It was stunning. I think it had been such a roller coaster over all these years that it was hard for him to believe it. I still don’t think he really believed it until (the day after he was released). I think he had to get out. He had to go to bed and wake up somewhere else to really have it hit him.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve walked 15 people out of prison in that situation. And I still don’t know what it’s like because I’m still just an observer. I always try to imagine it, but I can’t imagine it. I mean, I don’t like staying home sick one day. I can’t fathom 36 years of in prison, thinking you’re gonna die there.

[SNIP]

Q: What’s the California 12?

A: With Hanline, we thought we’d run out of options. We were still fighting but we had been going on for so long. So one night I thought, Well, the governor has the ability to grant clemency and my goal isn’t necessarily to exonerate everybody it’s to free innocent people. Clemency isn’t about exonerating you, it’s about getting you out of prison.

So I thought, I’m going to file clemency on all the cases that we’ve been fighting for years and where we have strong evidence of innocence, but we haven’t been able to convince the courts of it.

Clemency is so hard to get because it’s so political and you have to get the governor’s attention. So I came up with this crazy idea that I would walk the clemency petitions from my office here (in San Diego) to his office in Sacramento. Fortunately two of my young and much fitter staff attorneys agreed to walk with me.

It was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life and it was the most amazing experience of my life…

Read on.


WHY THE PROCESS OF FINDING AN LA CHILD WELFARE CZAR HAS BEEN DELAYED

The LA County Board of Supervisors was expected to begin interviewing candidates for the new child welfare czar—to oversee much-needed reforms to the Department of Children and Family Services—at the beginning of November. Instead, the board postponed the process until the two new Supervisors would be sworn in today, December 1.

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, co-chair of the transition team tasked with preparing the way for the new Office of Child Protection, expressed concern over whether the search would gain momentum before the end of the year.

Gilbert-Lurie also noted that the Supervisors may not be happy with the size of the applicant pool. (Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the LA Juvenile Courts, has been the only person to publicly announce interest in the position, thus far.)

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Christie Renick has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“The interviews themselves were postponed,” said transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie during the Nov. 24 meeting. “I was disappointed to hear that the interviews were postponed, but hopefully it will lead to a very positive result.”

The board had also voted 3-2 on October 7 to include members of the transition team in the selection process to fill the director position. But Gilbert-Lurie reported to the rest of the transition team that the board of supervisors was not actually planning to include the transition team in that process.

“What our office was told on the Friday before interviews that were set for Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon was that this was going to be in closed session for the Supervisors only,” Gilbert-Lurie said.

[SNIP]

“What I would question is if the Supervisors were not happy with the search that took place, if they did not feel that they had enough choices, I don’t know how that search gets revved up, redone, and interviews take place again in December,” Gildbert-Lurie added. “I’m just not sure how that timing could possibly work.”

Posted in ACEs, DCFS, Foster Care, Innocence, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, Youth at Risk | 12 Comments »

Conviction Integrity Units, Race-Based Lockdowns, 30 House Dems Concerned by US Immigration, and a Nathaniel Ayers Update

October 29th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

MULTNOMAH COUNTY DA’S OFFICE JOINS SANTA CLARA COUNTY AND OTHERS, SETS UP CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT

As part of a growing trend to combat wrongful convictions, prosecutors offices across the US—including in Dallas, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Santa Clara County (see below), and the US Attorney in DC (above)—are establishing “conviction integrity” watchdog systems. (And back in August, we pointed to this Mother Jones story about a Florida public defender’s office using a group of former police officers for investigating claims of prosecutorial misconduct and bad police work.)

Now, Oregon’s Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has nominated a veteran prosecutor to investigate innocence claims, as well as update plea deal policies, and examine how cops utilize photo lineups and confidential informants.

The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein has the story. Here’s a clip:

“It’s our job to do it right in the first place and double-check our work if we need to,” Underhill said.

Russ Ratto, a 35-year Multnomah County prosecutor, will start in the new job Monday.

Ratto will review claims of innocence after convictions have occurred and update office protocols on everything from prosecutors’ obligations on sharing evidence with defense attorneys to how to use eyewitness identification of suspects.

Underhill said he hopes that assigning one deputy to the work will improve the ability to track the cases and boost public confidence in the county’s prosecutions. In the past, he said, a number of prosecutors throughout the office have juggled the cases, but there was no central contact.

“We want to make sure we’re using the best practices to obtain the best convictions so we don’t have to ask later ‘Was a mistake made?’” Ratto said. “We think we’ve got a good criminal justice system here, but we want to maintain the public confidence going forward.”

Other prosecutors’ offices are doing the same thing, including in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver and California’s Santa Clara County, according to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

“This is a very important movement in our nation’s criminal justice system,” said board member Everett Bartlett of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity. The center started in 2010 with a mission to end wrongful convictions and promote prosecutor ethics.

Until the advent of forensic DNA testing in 1989, we “assumed our criminal justice system was operating very effectively and very accurately,” Bartlett said. Since then, he said, more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated. The majority have not been due to DNA analysis, but due to false confessions or problems in witness identification.

California’s Santa Clara County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is headed by David Angel. The San Jose Mercury’s Tracey Kaplan has a worthwhile 2011 story about Angel and his appointment. Here’s how it opens:

Mention Santa Clara University’s esteemed Innocence Project and most prosecutors cringe. They see the legal advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people as out to get them.

But not David Angel, the prosecutor named this month to head the newly re-established Conviction Integrity Unit in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

Not only does he not fear the project, he also is teaching a wrongful conviction class alongside Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

It’s not that Angel holds prosecutors solely responsible when people are sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He will forcefully point out that defense attorneys, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions contribute to plenty of wrongful convictions. But Angel is devoted to making certain that the 170 prosecutors in Santa Clara County do all they can to get their cases right.

“He’s a model of a good prosecutor,” said Ridolfi.

As head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, Angel will review cases in which an allegation of a wrongful conviction has been made, examine office policies, serve as crime lab liaison and take charge of training prosecutors on a number of topics, including ethics.


LA TIMES EDITORIAL APPLAUDS END TO RACE-BASED PUNISHMENT IN CALIFORNIA PRISONS

Last week, the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to end race-determined prisoner lockdowns triggered after a riot or other violent incident, settling a six-year-long class action lawsuit. The suit was originally filed on behalf of black inmates at High Desert State Prison who were confined to their cells for 14 months without access to outdoor exercise or rehabilitation programs, but was broadened to apply to all state prisoners.

An LA Times editorial says punishment based on race should not be used in detention facilities, that inmates should only have to account for their own actions, not the actions of every other inmate of the same race. Here’s a clip:

Racial segregation and discriminatory treatment of populations by race are, prison officials argued, important tools for combating violence. Squeamishness about such responses was a luxury afforded to outsiders who didn’t have to deal with the reality of prison conditions.

In fact, though, racial segregation is at best a temporary option to quickly defuse violence, but unnecessary and corrosive as an ongoing policy; and race-based punishment is an evil that goes to the heart of the American experience and cannot be countenanced in the justice system….

Inside prison walls, just as outside, people should expect that they will be treated according to their actions and not be made to pay for the transgressions, real or perceived, of others of the same race or ethnicity. Society’s failure to abide by that precept is intertwined with the history of crime and punishment and is exacerbated when race-based policies govern prison populations.


HOUSE DEMOCRATS WRITE LETTER TO PRESIDENT VOICING CONCERNS ABOUT DETENTION OF IMMIGRANT WOMEN AND CHILDREN

On Tuesday, over 30 House Democrats signed a letter to President Barack Obama sharing concerns about how the US is handling of immigrant detention and deportation, especially with regard to women and children fleeing violence from their home countries.

Politico’s Seung Min Kim has more on the letter. Here are some clips:

“At the current rates, within one year this administration will have increased capacity to detain immigrant women and children by more than 4,000 percent,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who spearheaded Tuesday’s letter. “As the law requires, there needs to be a better assessment in place to appropriately screen and assess these women and children, many of whom are fleeing violence, torture or persecution in Central America.”

[SNIP]

In Tuesday’s letter, House Democrats said it is “critical” that none of the families who are currently detained be deported until officials ensure they won’t be sent back to dangerous conditions – such as persecution or torture – in their home countries.

The Democratic lawmakers added that they are “concerned that the rapid expansion of family detention is being done in a manner that fails to meet the unique needs of parents and children.”


CHECKING IN WITH NATHANIEL AYERS, THE “SOLOIST,” AS HE RECORDS NEW ALBUM, PUTTING ON AYERS

For KCET’s SoCal Connected, LA Times’ Steve Lopez catches up with Nathaniel Ayers, the formerly homeless, Juilliard-trained musician who is the subject of Lopez’s book (and subsequent film) “The Soloist.” Lopez sits in on the recording of Ayers’ album, Putting on Ayers, the proceeds of which will fund mental health agencies’ art programs.

Posted in arts, immigration, Innocence, Mental Illness, prison policy | 3 Comments »

Gov. Brown’s Realignment, LAPD Investigating Use-of-force Incident, Exoneree Wins $41.6 Million, and a Bryan Stevenson Essay

October 27th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

LOOKING AT REALIGNMENT AS WE HEAD INTO NOVEMBER ELECTIONS

As Gov. Jerry Brown seeks reelection on Nov. 4, California Report’s Scott Shafer takes a look at the state of criminal justice in California under Brown, particularly with regard to Realignment (AB 109). Many critics argue prison realignment was implemented too quickly, without adequate advanced planning, and thus left counties to struggle with little preparation under the burden of supervising and housing would-be state prisoners.

California counties received a combined $2 billion to adapt to realignment, yet the various counties are not using the money uniformly. Some are funneling the money into rehabilitation, reentry, and diversion programs as reformers had hoped they would, while others have beefed up their sheriff and probation staff. And still other counties have used the money to build new jails able to handle the influx of inmates serving longer sentences than preexisting county facilities were designed to house.

Three years after its launch, in short, the jury is still out. Even supporters agree we won’t really know if realignment had the effects proponents had hoped for until years from now.

Here’s how Shafer’s story opens:

It’s not the focus of this year’s campaign for governor, but under Jerry Brown the state’s approach to criminal justice has gone in a dramatically new direction.

Underlying it all: too many inmates and too few cells.

In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the state Legislature that the prisons were powder kegs.

“Our prisons are in crisis,” the governor said. “We have inherited a problem that has been put off year after year after year.”

Schwarzenegger did take steps to reduce the inmate population, but not nearly enough to satisfy the federal courts. Finally, in 2011, with the state’s back to the wall, the Legislature passed the most fundamental reform of California’s criminal justice system in more than a generation.

AB109, known as “realignment,” transferred responsibility for tens of thousands of low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails and probation officers.

These perpetrators of non-serious, non-sexual, nonviolent crimes would now become the responsibility of local law enforcement officials, rather than the state.

“Probation [departments] were not ready,” says U.C. Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, who for years has advised the Legislature on criminal justice matters.

Krisberg says California adopted realignment so fast that counties struggled to keep their heads above water.

“I mean, if you had done this logically, you would’ve announced to everyone, ‘We’re gonna do it.’ You probably would have spent a year or so planning it out, training and making it happen,” Krisberg says.

“But that’s not how realignment happened. It just happened.”

Five months after Brown signed AB109 (and a companion bill, AB117), realignment took effect.


LAPD OFFICER ALLEGEDLY KICKED RESTRAINED SUSPECT IN THE HEAD

An LAPD officer has been accused of kicking 22-year-old Clinton Alford in the head while he was being restrained on the ground by other officers. Police officials were able to view footage of the incident taken by a nearby store’s security camera. The officials said Alford was not resisting arrest, and one viewer described it as “a football player kicking a field goal.” The police officer (as well as three other officers and a sergeant) has been relieved of duty with pay pending the investigation. The officer’s lawyer said the kick landed on Alford’s shoulder and was an acceptable use of force.

The LA Times’ Joel Rubin has the story. Here’s a clip:

Alford said he was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk along Avalon Boulevard near 55th Street when a car pulled up behind him. A man shouted a command to stop, but Alford said he continued pedaling because the man did not identify himself as a police officer. When someone grabbed the back of the bike, Alford said he jumped off and ran.

After a short foot pursuit, two officers caught up to Alford. Footage from the security camera on a nearby building captured Alford voluntarily laying down on the street and putting his hands behind his back, according to several people who viewed the recording. The officers restrained Alford, who made no movements and did not resist, the sources said.

Seconds later, a patrol car pulled up and a uniformed officer, who the sources described as “heavyset” or “very large,” rushed from the driver’s side, according to sources. The officer moved quickly over to Alford, who was still held on the ground by the other officers, and immediately stomped or kicked, the sources said.

The officer then dropped to the ground and delivered a series of strikes with his elbows to the back of Alford’s head and upper body, sources said. Alford’s head can be seen on the video hitting the pavement from the force of the strikes, two sources recounted. Afterward, the officer leaned his knee into the small of Alford’s back and, for a prolonged period, rocked or bounced with his body weight on Alford’s back, the sources said. At one point, the officer put his other knee on Alford’s neck, a source said.

Throughout much of the altercation, two officers restrained Alford but eventually they moved away.

Two officials who viewed the video said it was clear to them Alford was handcuffed as soon as he got on the ground. Others said it is difficult to tell from the video when Alford was placed in handcuffs.

Alford said he had already been handcuffed when he was first kicked.

When it was over, Alford’s body was limp and motionless, according to sources who viewed the video. It took several officers to carry him to a patrol car, they said.

“He looked like a rag doll,” one person said of Alford.

Gary Fullerton, an attorney representing the officers, declined to discuss details of the incident but disputed that Alford had his hands behind his back when the officers used force.


INNOCENT MAN RECEIVES $41.6 MILLION FOR 15 YEARS IN PRISON, UNPRECEDENTED PAYOUT

A New York man, Jeff Deskovic, won $41.6 million in a lawsuit against Putnam County and the sheriff’s investigator who coerced his false confession. Deskovic was exonerated in 2006 of raping and killing a 15-year-old schoolmate, for which he spent 15 years in prison.

While Deskovic’s sum is reportedly the largest in US history, in a whopping 21 states, people who are exonerated after spending years in prison do not receive any compensation at all. In states that do pay, it takes years for the money to work its way through the court system, and in many cases the payouts are capped to prevent large payouts like Deskovic’s. Most Exonerees are not even given the reentry assistance provided to other released inmates.

The NY Daily News’ Stephen Rex Brown has the story on Deskovic. Here’s a clip:

Deskovic was given three lie detector tests over the course of a six-hour interrogation in which he eventually confessed.

He said on the stand this week in federal court in White Plains that he was scared for his life during the ordeal.

He was convicted in 1991 after prosecutors successfully argued that Deskovic did the deed — despite DNA taken from semen on the body that didn’t match the teen’s.


EXCERPT FROM BRYAN STEVENSON’S NEW BOOK

We introduced you to Bryan Stevenson last week, and didn’t want you to miss this essay by Stevenson in the NY Times Magazine that was adapted from his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here’s a clip (it’s a short one, so be sure to go read the rest):

“The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,

By faith, on heaven’s tableland;

A higher plane than I have found,

Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Posted in Innocence, LAPD, Paul Tanaka, prison, Realignment, Reentry | 1 Comment »

Attorney Fights for Justice and Mercy…When Arrests by Police Replace School Discipline….Analyzing Crime Reporting in America

October 21st, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


In the often disheartening world of criminal justice reform, Bryan Stevenson is deservedly a superstar.

Stevenson is a defense attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, and founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, children who have been tried as adults, and others who have been most abandoned by the nation’s legal system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was on death row for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit.

Stevenson is also a law professor at NYU, the winner of a McArthur genius grant, and has argued six cases before the Supreme Court—two of which are of exceptional significance: He’s the guy who made possible the May 2010 Supreme Court ruling stating that it is unconstitutional to sentence kids to life without parole if they have not committed murder. Then Stevenson came back again two years later and, in June 2012, won the ruling that prohibits mandatory life for juveniles.

Now he’s written a book about his experiences with the justice system called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. It is being released on Tuesday, October 21, and is already generating a lot of enthusiasm.

Stevenson was on the Daily Show at the end of last week talking about the book and about justice in general. (See video above and extended interview here).

Then on Monday of this week, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Here are some clips from Fresh Air’s write-up about the show:

In one of his most famous cases, Stevenson helped exonerate a man on death row. Walter McMillian was convicted of killing 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, who was found under a clothing rack at a dry cleaner in Monroeville, Ala., in 1986. Three witnesses testified against McMillian, while six witnesses, who were black, testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. McMillian was found guilty and held on death row for six years.

Stevenson decided to take on the case to defend McMillian, but a judge tried to talk him out of it.

“I think everyone knew that the evidence against Mr. McMillian was pretty contrived,” Stevenson says. “The police couldn’t solve the crime and there was so much pressure on the police and the prosecutor on the system of justice to make an arrest that they just felt like they had to get somebody convicted. …

“It was a pretty clear situation where everyone just wanted to forget about this man, let him get executed so everybody could move on. [There was] a lot of passion, a lot of anger in the community about [Morrison's] death, and I think there was great resistance to someone coming in and fighting for the condemned person who had been accused and convicted.”

But with Stevenson’s representation, McMillian was exonerated in 1993. McMillian was eventually freed, but not without scars of being on death row. He died last year.

“This is one of the few cases I’ve worked on where I got bomb threats and death threats because we were fighting to free this man who was so clearly innocent,” Stevenson says. “It reveals this disconnect that I’m so concerned about when I think about our criminal justice system.”

Yet the interview—which you can listen to here—is about much, much more.

So is Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, as is made clear by this review by Ted Conover who wrote about the book for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

(Conover is the author of the highly regarded “Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing,” and other nonfiction books)

Here are some brief clips from Conover’s review:

Unfairness in the Justice system is a major theme of our age. DNA analysis exposes false convictions, it seems, on a weekly basis. The predominance of racial minorities in jails and prisons suggests systemic bias. Sentencing guidelines born of the war on drugs look increasingly draconian. Studies cast doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Even the states that still kill people appear to have forgotten how; lately executions have been botched to horrific effect.

This news reaches citizens in articles and television spots about mistreated individuals. But “Just Mercy,” a memoir, aggregates and personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist lawyer.

[SNIP]

The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. “Just Mercy” will make you upset and it will make you hopeful. The day I finished it, I happened to read in a newspaper that one in 10 people exonerated of crimes in recent years had pleaded guilty at trial. The justice system had them over a log, and copping a plea had been their only hope. Bryan Stevenson has been angry about this for years, and we are all the better for it.

NPR has an excerpt from Stevenson’s Just Mercy here.


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ARRESTS OF TEENAGERS REPLACE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE

According to the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, 260,000 students were turned over to law enforcement by schools in 2012 (the year with most-recent available data). According to the same report, 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests that year.

Now that the most punitive policies of the last few decades are slowly being reconsidered, it is hoped that those arrest numbers will start coming down and that school police will be used for campus safety, not as a universal response to student misbehavior.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran an extensively reported and excellent story by Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller on the matter of using law enforcement for school discipline.

Here are some clips:

A generation ago, schoolchildren caught fighting in the corridors, sassing a teacher or skipping class might have ended up in detention. Today, there’s a good chance they will end up in police custody.

Stephen Perry, now 18 years old, was trying to avoid a water balloon fight in 2013 when he was swept up by police at his Wake County, N.C., high school; he revealed he had a small pocketknife and was charged with weapons possession. Rashe France was a 12-year-old seventh-grader when he was arrested in Southaven, Miss., charged with disturbing the peace on school property after a minor hallway altercation.

In Texas, a student got a misdemeanor ticket for wearing too much perfume. In Wisconsin, a teen was charged with theft after sharing the chicken nuggets from a classmate’s meal—the classmate was on lunch assistance and sharing it meant the teen had violated the law, authorities said. In Florida, a student conducted a science experiment before the authorization of her teacher; when it went awry she received a felony weapons charge.

Over the past 20 years, prompted by changing police tactics and a zero-tolerance attitude toward small crimes, authorities have made more than a quarter of a billion arrests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates. Nearly one out of every three American adults are on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.

This arrest wave, in many ways, starts at school. Concern by parents and school officials over drug use and a spate of shootings prompted a rapid buildup of police officers on campus and led to school administrators referring minor infractions to local authorities. That has turned traditional school discipline, memorialized in Hollywood coming-of-age movies such as “The Breakfast Club,” into something that looks more like the adult criminal-justice system.

At school, talking back or disrupting class can be called disorderly conduct, and a fight can lead to assault and battery charges, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights group examining discipline procedures around the country. Some of these encounters with police lead to criminal records—different laws for juveniles apply across states and municipalities, and some jurisdictions treat children as young as 16 as adults. In some states, for example, a fistfight can mean a suspension while in North Carolina a simple affray, as it is called, can mean adult court for a 16-year-old.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

Brushes with the criminal justice system go hand in hand with other negative factors. A study last year of Chicago public schools by a University of Texas and a Harvard researcher found the high-school graduation rate for children with arrest records was 26%, compared with 64% for those without. The study estimated about one-quarter of the juveniles arrested in Chicago annually were arrested in school.

Research by the University of South Carolina based on a multiyear U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, performed at the request of The Wall Street Journal, found those arrested as juveniles and not convicted were likely to earn less money by the time they were 25 than their counterparts. The study didn’t break out school arrests.

Another consequence: Arrest records, even when charges are dropped, often trail youngsters into adulthood. Records, especially for teenagers tried as adults, have become more accessible on the Internet, but are often incomplete or inaccurate. Employers, banks, college admissions officers and landlords, among others, routinely check records online.

Retired California juvenile court judge Leonard Edwards said the widespread assumption arrest records for juveniles are sealed is incorrect. The former judge, now a consultant with the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, an arm of the state court system, said his research indicates only 10% of juveniles nationally know they must request records be closed or removed.

But that process is complicated and varies from state to state. Even terms like expungement and annulment carry different meanings depending on the state. The process usually requires a lawyer to maneuver the rules and to file requests through courts.

“Our good-hearted belief that kids are going to get a fair shake even if they screwed up is an illusion,” Judge Edwards said.


CRIME REPORTING IN AMERICA: WE’VE GOT A LOT OF IT, BUT IS IT….GOOD?

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the trope that has long guided a large portion of contemporary news gathering. As a consequence, while the news business continues to struggle to maintain comprehensive news coverage with diminished staffing, there is no shortage of crime reporting.

But, while there is quantity, is there quality? The John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice decided to find out. To do so, they conducted a content analysis of six U.S. newspapers over a four week period in March 2014. The study—which looked at the Detroit Free Press, the El Paso Times, the Indianapolis Star, the Camden (N.J.) the Courier-Post, the Naperville (Ill.) Sun and the Flint (Mi.) Journal—resulted in a report that was just released.

As it turned out, researchers Debora Wenger and Dr. Rocky Dailey found that quantity did not necessarily equal quality. In fact, the majority of the crime stories Wenger and Dailey analyzed lean strongly toward “just the facts, ma’am,” and offered little or nothing in the way of context or depth. Yet when it came to perceptions about crime in the city or state, the researchers noted that the news sources covered, the papers’ crime stories were very influential in shaping opinions, including those of lawmakers.

The Crime Report has more on what the study found. Here is a clip from their story:

What may be more surprising is how often stories rely on a single source. About 65 percent of the crime and justice stories overall referenced just one source of information.

At the Camden paper, for example, 84 percent of stories had one reported source, as did 55 percent of those published in The Indianapolis Star.

At every publication in the study, law enforcement officers were the most commonly cited sources by a wide margin, with court representatives, including judges and prosecutors, coming in a distant second. Fox agrees this heavy reliance on the official point of view is one of long standing.

News media tends to take the official side, the prosecution side – this doesn’t surprise me – when a case emerges in the news, that’s often the only side available to the reporter,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Eric Dick, breaking news editor at the Star, told researchers the newspaper likes to add more points of view to stories whenever possible; but for every enterprise story, there are undoubtedly many more briefs.

“I think there are three factors involved. One is the amount of crime: information is readily available that rises to the threshold you need to do a story, but you wouldn’t be able to develop all of them,” Dick said.

The authors of the study said more research could further “quantify whether there is more or less crime coverage occurring in today’s daily metropolitan newspapers than in the past.”

Pointing out that, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Journalism Project, 66 percent of U.S. adults say they follow crime news—with only weather, breaking news and politics garnering more interest—they said such research was “a critical tool for editors, journalists and policymakers” at a time when the criminal justice system was the focus of intense national debate.

“It is imperative that the audience gets the most contextualized and well-sourced coverage possible,” Wenger and Dailey wrote.


Posted in Civil Rights, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Education, Future of Journalism, Innocence, race, race and class, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 3 Comments »

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