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Life-Skills Programs Combat Juvie Crime, Baca’s Legal Issues, and “Breaking Bad”

July 16th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Enrolling disadvantaged teens in life-skills programs may bring down juvenile arrests for violent crime by as much as 44%, according to a report released Friday by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

The Crime Report has the story. Here’s a clip:

Researchers analyzed the impact of enrolling 2,740 disadvantaged seventh through 10th grade boys in Becoming A Man (BAM)—Sports Edition, a Chicago program which focuses on developing cognitive skills related to emotional regulation and other social behaviors. In addition to the reduction in violent-crime arrests, the study found an increase in schooling outcomes that could translate to a 10 to 23 percent increase in graduation rates among participants.

The report itself is worth reading. Here’s a clip:

Our findings show that program participation significantly increased school engagement and performance by 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and by 0.19 standard deviations in the follow-up year, impacts that imply future graduation rate increases of about 10 to 23 percent of the control group’s graduation rate. Program participation also reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent (8 fewer arrests per 100 participants) and arrests in the ‘other’ (miscellaneous) category, which includes vandalism and weapons crime, by 36 percent (11.5 fewer arrests per 100 participants) during the program year. These findings are particularly noteworthy given the challenging settings in which the intervention took place. (In fact, our study is closer to what evaluation researchers would call an effectiveness trial of how a program would operate at scale than it is to the sort of smaller-scale efficacy trials carried out under ideal conditions by program developers and researchers.) The positive program effects provide the most rigorous, large-scale evidence to date that a social-cognitive skill intervention can improve both schooling and delinquency outcomes for disadvantaged youth.


The San Francisco Chronicle ran a long story over the weekend about LA County Sheriff Lee Baca’s expanding list of serious legal challenges, including the ACLU’s most recent lawsuits against the department (that WitnessLA reported here and here), the issues raised at the jails commission hearings, the 200 newly recalled department badges that had been passed out unwisely to civilians—and a lot more.

SF Gate’s Greg Risling has the detailed story. Here’s a clip:

“We could call for his resignation daily, but it’s not going to do any good,” said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU Southern California legal director, who called for Baca to step down late last year. “If he stays on, he’s got to fix these problems. There are some glimmers of hope, but it’s far from what we’d like to see.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, a constant critic of the sheriff and a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, sued Tuesday, alleging that inmates charged with assaulting deputies have been unable to get evidence that could help exonerate them.

At the core of the problems facing the department is how its deputies treat some of the estimated 15,000 inmates in county jails. The ACLU has filed another lawsuit accusing Baca and some other department officials of condoning violence against inmates.

Last year the civil rights group released a report that documented more than 70 cases of alleged abuse and other misconduct by deputies, many of which occurred at Men’s Central Jail. The FBI has launched its own investigation and asked for internal department records dealing with inmate abuse.

On July 6, Capt. Michael Bornman testified before a county commission looking into deputy abuse in the jails that the former head of the jail, Capt. Daniel Cruz, resisted efforts to investigate employees who were accused of excessive force. Bornman described a culture of brutality where Cruz allegedly joked about not hitting inmates in their face so marks wouldn’t be visible. Cruz has denied the accusations.

However, Bornman said his boss has been addressing and correcting the problems in the jails.

Baca, 70, who has said he’s to blame for deputy misconduct against inmates and wasn’t available for comment Friday, pointed out in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that some of the media coverage has been unfair.

“Criticism is necessary; so are all the facts,” Baca wrote to the paper’s editor on Friday regarding Bornman’s testimony. “I simply ask you to present both.”

You can read the rest of Baca’s letter to the LA Times here.


AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, whose fifth (and final) season premiered Sunday, is actually a pretty accurate depiction of the meth business–from the drug production to the Mexican cartels.

The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe has the story. Here’s a clip:

…“Breaking Bad” is a chamber piece, relying on the shifting alliances and betrayals of the same handful of players. The show presents a challenge, for Gilligan and his writers, to configure and reconfigure, like playing an endless game of Scrabble using only the same eight letters.

So it’s somewhat surprising that in depicting the mechanics of the meth business, “Breaking Bad” is so notably realistic. I spent the past six months interviewing drug traffickers and D.E.A. agents for an article about the business side of a Mexican drug cartel, and, having been an ardent fan of “Breaking Bad,” I was startled by how much the show gets right. On one level, the show is a parable about the impossibility of running a mom-and-pop business in a world of rapacious multinational conglomerates. In this sense, it shares a basic template with Oliver Stone’s lurid “Savages”—or, for that matter, with “You’ve Got Mail.” The difference in the case of Walter White, the show’s protagonist, is that Pop ends up waging bloody war on the conglomerate. And winning.

Photo by WitnessLA

Posted in ACLU, art and culture, criminal justice, LA County Jail, LASD, media, prison policy, Sheriff Lee Baca | 2 Comments »

WitnessLA Walks Away With One of Top Prizes at LA Press Club Awards

June 25th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Witness LA took home a top prize in one category, a second place in another, and was a finalist in a third on Sunday night at the 54th annual Los Angeles Press Club Awards,
where hundreds of reporters, editors, columnists, producers, news anchors and other miscellaneous members-of-the-press gathered in the Crystal Ballroom of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel to find out who had won what in the world Southern California Journalism.

Among its highlights, the evening featured a duet of speeches by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. (The twosome got the evening’s President’s Award). Woodward gave his remarks looking Big Brother-ish via SKYPE on a screen behind where Bernstein stood at the ballroom’s podium. (Woodward apologized for his looming electronic non-in-person presence, pleading that the manuscript for his latest book was due to the publisher on Monday.)

For some reason, the glitzy night also featured more than the usual number of gawp-worthy shoes including these startling items, whose owner admitted she had lacerated her ankles more than once with the things.

(click to enlarge)

Witness LA—namely Matt Fleischer and I— walked away with a 1st Place for Advocacy Journalism for our work reporting and investigating the problems in the LA County Jails and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. (Matt didn’t do any literal walking Sunday night as he was up in the Bay Area all weekend, so learned of the award via his editor’s enthusiastic texts.) We competed in a terrific field that included entries from Reason Magazine and Reason TV, the Huffington Post, KCET’s online division and more.

In their comments on WLA’s work the judges wrote:

Many thought it just sarcasm when some inner-city residents referred to law enforcement as “just another armed gang” during the riots some years back. These reporters uncovered the chilling truth in what is perhaps America’s most troubled jail in this startling series of articles, making the judges relieved that they lived to tell the tale. While some observers prefer the term “cliques,” groups of deputies employ many of the trappings of street gangs to protect some prisoners (and each other) while savagely assaulting the person of prisoners and the careers of deputies who don’t join up. Outstanding research and excellent writing.

WLA also won second place in the Group Weblog category. (The staff of Reason Magazine was the winner in this field, but we were happy to be the runner up on a list that also included entries from Truthdig and LA Weekly’s Squid Ink.)

AND WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer was a finalist for the Online Investigative Journalism award for Part 3 THE PRINCE of our Dangerous Jails series, a category won by Bloomberg reporters Christopher Palmeri, Rodney Yap and Michael Morris.

(A pretty good haul, we thought, for our hardworking little shoe-string operation.)

There were many, many worthy winners, lots of our good pals among them.

(click to en-biggen)

KCET’s So Cal Connected left with a bunch awards, as did KPCC, Neon Tommy,
LA Weekly, OC Weekly, the LA Times and The Atlantic Magazine….and more.

(You can find the full list here.)

Congratulations to everyone for their fine work.

Posted in media, writers and writing | 23 Comments »

WitnessLA is a Finalist for Three LA Press Club Awards

May 25th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

WitnessLA is very happy to report that we are a finalist in three categories
for this year’s Southern California Journalism Awards given by the LA Press Club.

The categories in which we are shortlisted are:

Best Online Investigative Story or Package….for Matt Fleischer’s Dangerous Jails Part 3: The Prince.

Best Advocacy Journalism…….for the coverage—reporting and commentary-–documenting a complex system of corruption inside the LA Sheriff’s Department.

Best Group Weblog….for WitnessLA in general.

You can find a full list of all the finalists here.

The winners will be announced on June 24 at the 54th SoCal Journalism Awards Gala at Biltmore Hotel.

Posted in media | 9 Comments »

Saving “LA Youth”—The Nation’s Largest Youth Newspaper Needs Help ASAP

May 10th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

We want our kids to be informed, thinking, confident compassionate, educated people, such a goal is in everyone’s interest, for heaven’s sake, and yet increasingly, as the economy continues to wobble, the commitment to this obviously worthy goal on the part of those with resources seems to be faltering.

It doesn’t help that education has been slashed to a horrific degree. while, at the same time, nonprofits that serve kids and families at risk have watched their funding shrink down to nothing.

And now LA Youth, the Los Angeles based newspaper for and by kids— the largest of its kind in the nation, and an institution that always seemed safe—-is right at the edge of closing its doors at the end of this school year, one more possible casualty of the economic tsunami of 2008.

(Thanks again, Wall Street. Really. Your giant vampire squid-osity is a gift that keeps on giving.)

However, all is not lost. What LA Youth needs to rescue it from disaster is $500,000 in operating funds, and then it can make do with some of the other grants it will receive for specific programs.

They’ve already raised some of what they need, but it ain’t close to enough. They must hit that $500K mark by May 15.

I’ve been a friend and admirer of LA Youth for years now, and have spoken to kids and read essays by other kids, who explain in detail how their lives and sense of self would be far, far different had it not been for the mentoring they received as writers/editors/mentees for this stellar organization.

The video above is by a teacher at Locke High School, where LA Youth runs a weekly program. Just listen. She explains how writing for the newspaper allows kids—many of whom come out of risky personal circumstances—to discover that they count for something, that they have a voice, that what they think/feel/perceive/know can matter.

Put another way, a lot of kids who were struggling in school have now graduated from college, because of the intellectual/emotional lifeline this program tossed to them.

Okay, that’s the pitch. You can check out LA Youth here, and CLICK HERE to donate, if you are so moved. I am told that every little bit helps. (And if you happen to know a wildly wealthy philanthropist, feel free to drop a hint.)

Posted in academic freedom, American voices, journalism, media | No Comments »

4 Monday Must Reads & 1 Must Watch

May 7th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

with Taylor Walker


In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Padilla vs. Kentucky, that a an immigrant who is a permanent legal resident but who, after being charged with a felony, agreed to a guilty plea on the bad advice from a defense attorney without being told that his or her plea will result in automatic deportation, can have that guilty conviction vacated.

Now the court is set to decide this year whether or not Padilla should be made retroactive.

Michael Strickland from UPI has more of the details. Here’s a clip:

Is the U.S. Supreme Court about to open the appeal floodgates for legal aliens who committed crimes in the United States, pleaded guilty but weren’t told they would face deportation under federal law?

Maybe. Argument on the issue will be heard next term, which begins on the first Monday of October.

The genesis of the dispute arose in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla vs. Kentucky that non-citizens who pleaded guilty to felonies, but weren’t advised by their lawyers they automatically would be deported, were unconstitutionally deprived of their Sixth and 14th Amendment rights to effective counsel.

The vote was 7-2.

Now the Supreme Court has agreed to review whether the Padilla ruling should be made retroactive. In other words, should it be applied to any non-resident who pleaded guilty to a felony without effective counsel from 1996, when the deportation law was passed, to 2010, when the decision was handed down.

How big a universe would be affected is up for speculation….

One thing: although Strickland implies otherwise, a guilty plea does not always mean the person pleading actually committed the crime. Most times it does, of course. But far from always. These days 90 percent of all criminal cases are settled by plea bargain and people take pleas for all kinds of reasons, a common one being someone who has already spent a year or two in jail waiting to go to trial when his attorney tells him if he just pleas out, he will be released for time (already) served. So he takes the plea—whether he committed the crime or not.. And, if he’s a perfectly legal resident, but not a US citizen, he (or she) will be immediately deported for the rest of his or her life.

In any event, this will be an interesting matter to watch.


SF woman Wanda Brown was released after serving fifteen years longer than the maximum she should have spent behind bars. Her release was based upon a new retroactive law that allows domestic abuse testimony to be considered in old cases. Getting out also required the work of a young but determined pro bono attorney.

San Jose Mercury News columnist, Scott Herhold has the story:

Here’s how it opens:

Wanda Brown killed Willie Kelley. There was never any question. In a frenzy in 1984, the 22-year-old woman stabbed the San Francisco shopkeeper 64 times with a pocket knife. As lawyers say, it looked like bad facts. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A judge gave her 16 years to life.

With no evidence of premeditation, her lawyer, a San Francisco public defender, told her she’d likely be out in eight and a half years. That was the standard back in the mid-’80s.

Then California politics lurched toward an unforgiving stance on crime. More than 27 years later, Wanda Brown was still at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, rejected three times for parole.

On this one, you really do need to read the rest.


With more and more innocence cases turning up evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, the fact that prosecutors are legally protected from accountability in most of such cases is becoming an increasingly pressing matter.

The Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck has an essay on the issue in Sunday’s Austin Statesman.

Here’s a clip:

In February, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson affirmed the finding of state District Judge Sid Harle that there was probable cause to believe former Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson had violated the criminal laws of Texas by disobeying a court order to disclose evidence pointing to the innocence of Michael Morton, who in 1987 was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. A court of inquiry will now try Anderson on these charges.

The case against Anderson (who is now a state district judge and denies wrongdoing in the Morton case) made national headlines because, as a recent article in the Yale Online Law Review thoroughly documents, our system rarely disciplines, much less brings criminal charges against, prosecutors who have engaged in acts of intentional misconduct. Far too often, prosecutors, who wield enormous power over our lives, aren’t investigated at all, even for intentional misconduct that has led to a wrongful conviction, much less “harmless” intentional misconduct in cases in which the defendant was guilty.


Be sure to watch this 60 Minutes story about how a small town newspaper did what even the feds couldn’t manage. (Video link here.)

And here’s a clip from the written version:

Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in America. Few places have been hit harder than Kentucky, a state that has also been ravaged by addiction to crystal meth. In Whitley County, Kentucky – in the heart of Appalachia — matters were made worse when the man suspected of being at the center of the drug trade was the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Lawrence Hodge.

There had long been suspicions that Sheriff Hodge was dirty, but nobody – not even federal agents – could prove it.

That’s when two local journalists — both in their 20s — launched their own investigation. And they soon discovered poking into the affairs of a powerful county sheriff can be risky business.

Adam Sulfridge: You know you’re 20 years old, and you’re taking a shower one day and getting ready for class and you get a call from a federal agent because there’s a credible threat against your life. Everything about it is just so surreal. You know. You don’t– you don’t think a whole lot about it. Then later that night you start thinking, you’re like, “Geez, somebody wants to kill me. That’s a little odd.”

And it’s the sheriff. The sheriff wants to kill you.

Read and or watch the rest.


Ex gang-leader-turned-pastor Jesse Sanchez’s Coachella Valley group home requires hours of candy sales by parolees and recovering addicts without providing any rehabilitative programs for the residents.

The Desert Sun’s Rebecca Walsh has the story. Here’s a clip:

At Victory Life, treatment for as many as two dozen men seems to consist of days of chocolate-selling punctuated by church services Sunday morning and Tuesday evening. There is no counseling, no job or life skills training. Residents simply beg, day in and day out, for their upkeep.

“That would never happen in any of our programs,” says Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Where a parolee goes to find comfort with a church is their business. But that is very different from what we consider rehabilitation.”

Read on. It’s an interesting tale.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, immigration, Innocence, media, Must Reads, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Juvenile Justice Cuts, Death Penalty Deterrence, The Controversial LA Times Photos….& More

April 19th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

by Taylor Walker


More than three decades after the moratorium against capital punishment was lifted, the prestigious National Research Council released a report that, after reviewing dozens of studies, failed to find reliable evidence that the death penalty is actually a homicide deterrent. In fact, the Committee of Deterrence and the Death Penalty said that any past research on the subject should be disregarded in death penalty debates as incomplete and unsupportable.

The LA Times has the story.

Here’s a clip:

The Committee of Deterrence and the Death Penalty concluded that studies on the death penalty and its potential effect on homicide rates — both pro and con — contain fundamental flaws that essentially make them moot.

For example, the studies do not include the effects of other forms of punishment – such as life in prison without possibility of parole, and whether it too acts as a deterrent. The studies, study authors wrote, don’t “consider how the capital and noncapital components of a regime combine in affecting the behavior of potential murderers.”

In other words, previous studies don’t determine whether potential killers think about the possibility of spending their lives in prison or ending up on death row before they commit their crimes.

The lack of comprehensive information makes the research inconclusive, the study authors said. “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty,” committee Chairman Daniel Nagin said in a telephone news conference.

“Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment,” he said.


Funding for juvenile justice programs is likely about to get slashed—again.

The Crime Report’s Ted Gest has the story.

Here’s how it opens:

Federal funding for state and local juvenile justice programs seems likely to take another big hit as Congress continues to slash federal “discretionary” spending.

The Republican-controlled House committee that appropriates money for the Justice Department today issued its proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. It would cut juvenile justice funding to $209 million–a figure that stood at $424 million in fiscal year 2010.

Federal aid for juvenile justice already had fallen more than 50 percent to its lowest level in more than a decade, says the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which represents state advisory committees in Washington, D.C. The coalition is asking Congress for $80 million for “formula grants” that helps states comply with mandates in a key 1974 juvenile crime law, such as separating juvenile and adult defendants in jail and keeping minor offenders out of custody.

House appropriators, rather than adding funds for those purposes, would cut them to $33 million.

The Obama administration’s funding request of $140M for three important juvenile justice programs would be slashed to just $53M under the House committee’s proposal.


A Senate committee hearing for the End Racial Profiling Act featured testimony from 225 different organizations on Wednesday. If passed, the legislature would forbid officers from using race as a component in standard law enforcement decisions.

Salon’s Jefferson Morley has the story.

Here’s a clip:

….as profiling has become entrenched in drug enforcement, counterterrorism and immigration control, said criminologist David Harris, research shows it is an ineffective law enforcement tool. “In many contexts, in many types of police agencies, the results all fall in the same direction: when racial or ethnic profiling is used, police are less likely, not more likely, to catch bad guys,” Harris said.

Ron Davis, police chief in East Palo Alto, Calif., said his experience as a cop on the streets confirmed that finding. Admitting that he himself had engaged in profiling, he called profiling “an ineffective tactic that wastes scarce law enforcement resources and it harms our relations with communities whose cooperation we need.”

Davis said passage of S. 1670 would help police nationwide.

“Without the legislation and updated Department of Justice guidance
we will continue business as usual and only respond to this issue when it surfaces through high-profile tragedies such as Oscar Grant case in Oakland, Calif., and the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Fla.,” he said.

The Obama Administration has yet to have joined the bill’s supporters.


There has been, and continues to be, a lot of controversy around whether or not the LA Times should have posted the two graphic photos of American soldiers posing with dismembered Afghan corpses. The Pentagon asked the Times not to publish the photos, contending that the publication would incite violence.

It is a thorny question. I happen to think the Times did the right thing.

Yet, I’m grateful that I wasn’t one of those who had to make the decision.

On To the Point, Warren Olney interviewed David Zucchino, the award-winning LA Times reporter who wrote the story accompanying the photos.

The New York Times has a report on the Pentagon’s objections—and how the Times’ came to be in possession of the photos in the first place.

And here the Poynter Institute weighs in, with two stories.

As of this writing, there are more than 2000 comments on the LA Times website regarding the issue.

Photo by Phil Sandlin for the AP

Posted in Death Penalty, juvenile justice, Los Angeles Times, media, Must Reads, race, racial justice | 1 Comment »

On The Young Turks Network Show – the Point…Talking Death Penality

April 16th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

NOTE: I don’t know why the video vanished between last night and this morning. I”m at the jails commission right. Will figure it out when I get back.

The Young Turks, which is partnered with YouTube,
is billed as the worlds largest online news show, and has gained further popularity now that it is also airing on Current TV.

The Point is the newest show on The Young Turks Network and launched earlier this year.

With all this in mind, when show producer Malcolm Fleschner told me that The Point was doing an all criminal justice themed show, and asked me to be a panelist, I agreed right away. I was interested in the topic, of course. But also I welcomed the chance to get an inside look at the new web-only model that the very smart Young Turks folks (and others like them) are pioneering with The Point and the rest of the shows on the TYT network.

My esteemed fellow panelists are actor and longtime activist and death penalty expert, Mike Farrell, and LA Deputy District Attorney and one-time DA candidate, Steve Ipsen.

The show is hosted by TYT’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Oh—who, as you’ll see, is himself a former prosecutor and is impassioned and informed on issues of criminal justice.

The conversation centers around the death penalty, but winds through other issues as well.

In any case, enjoy.

Posted in Death Penalty, media, prison, prison policy, Unequal Justice | No Comments »

THE MANHATTAN BEACH 18: Should a Misdemeanor Arrest Mean You Must be Publicly Shamed?

April 11th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Since the news described in the following story broke, we have been bothered by the seemingly blithe disregard for the lives of those most affected, on the part of those who really ought to have known better. So we asked WitnessLA reporter David Lynn to look into the matter. This is what he found.

by David Lynn

Devices known as pillory stocks have been used for centuries to shame public offenders by trapping their head and hands and forcing their body into a ninety-degree angle stoop. They were all the rage in colonial America, but at some point we got it together and decided enough was enough. Fret not, colonial enthusiasts – thanks to the Internet, the good old days are back.

After the Manhattan Beach Police Department wrapped up its sting investigation of a beach bathroom they say had recently become a popular sex den for gay men, eighteen men were arrested on charges which include soliciting or engaging in lewd conduct in a public place, loitering in and around a public toilet for the purpose of engaging or soliciting a lewd or unlawful act, utilizing a restroom peephole, invasion of privacy, resisting arrest and indecent exposure. All of the charges are misdemeanors.

Once the objects of the sting were safely booked, the Manhattan Beach PD thought it would be a swell idea to distribute the booking photos, names, birth dates, and cities of residence of the eighteen men arrested to media outlets. They did so in the form of a press release.

Upon receiving the release, a string of the news outlets dutifully posted, published and/or broadcast the 18 mugshots. The Daily Breeze was one of the first to post the photos and personal information to their website. The L.A. Weekly followed suit and later wrote, “We were a little surprised ourselves to receive said PDF from the Manhattan Beach Police Department….”

They may have been surprised, but they sure ran with it, taking the time to also post links to some of the suspects’ Twitter accounts, LinkdIn and Facebook profiles and, in the case of one suspect, his IMDB profile.

KTLA and NBC4 covered the story in their broadcasts, both of which featured footage of MBPD’s press release. The L.A. Times posted KTLA’s video to their website and the Huffington post did the same with NBC4′s coverage.

WitnessLA spoke to MBPD’s Press Information Officer, Stephanie Martin, and asked her what exactly the department was thinking in posting photos of the 18 men, one as young as 20-years old, none of whom have actually been convicted of anything.

“Whenever we issue a press release and we have access to mugshots and booking information at the time, we include it. Even in the case of misdemeanor crimes,” Martin said.

Well, did Officer Martin think the MBPD foresaw this press release gaining the amount of attention that it has?

“We anticipated that it was going to be a fairly large story since it was a significant arrest for us,” said Martin, “but really it’s just another arrest, another press release.”

There is no question that using public spaces for sex acts—straight or gay—is illegal. The offenders should have been arrested and given due process. But should they have been publicly shamed for it, especially without having the benefit of a conviction? By posting their names, faces and towns of residence online, the MBPD and their media collaborators effectively pilloried these men in a virtual town square. In the age of Google, even if some of the men are found to be innocent of any charges, they will never really be released.

WitnessLA contacted the Daily Breeze’s Assistant City Editor, Josh Grossberg for comment, since his paper was among the first to publish the information.

“We always run mugshots and booking information when it’s available. It’s not any different than anything else we’ve covered,” Grossberg said. “We also put up a picture of the mother who killed her family who was arrested for texting in her car while holding a baby on her lap.** We have a long record of doing this, it’s not the first time. If it’s an issue because they may be gay, then you’re asking us to exclude people based on their sexuality.”

Well, no, that’s not what we’re saying. The bathroom sting is not a high profile case where the public’s right to know demands immediate and detailed reporting. We are talking about men arrested for misdemeanor offenses, but misdemeanors that, in many circles still carry a daunting social stigma.

The day after the mugshots hit the news, The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center issued a statement to that effect.

“The consequences of being ‘outed’ or perceived as gay in such a homophobic society are very real. The publication of these photos serves no purpose other than to embarrass them, and has the potential to destroy their lives,” said the center’s press release.

When we questioned the Center further, Communications Manager Stevie St. John told WitnessLA in an email that since the story broke, “…at least three of the men arrested have contacted the Center for counseling. From one of the callers, we learned that one of the 18 made a suicide attempt.”

WitnessLA spoke to attorney/journalist and law professor Henry Weinstein about the ethics of the matter. Weinstein, a former longtime staff member at the L.A. Times, is currently a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.

“I would love to hear their rationale for why they chose to run those men distinct from other, more serious criminals. A lot of people are accused of crimes and most don’t have their pictures in the paper. Murderers, sure. But what about mortgage fraud or armed robbers?” When was the last time we saw them in the papers, Weinstein asked.

“It seems like a double standard to me, and a troubling one at that,” said Weinstein. “Society has made a lot of progress, but there are still places where there’s a stigma to being gay. If someone chooses to keep their sexual orientation a secret, they’re entitled to that privacy.”

One would think.

With the 43rd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, an event which many credit as the start of the Gay Rights movement, only a few months away, it seems like a good time to take the pillory stocks out of the town square once and for all.

**CORRECTION: I have no idea how we garbled this quote so thoroughly. But, Daily Breeze editor Josh Grossberg has kindly given us the correct reference. WitnessLA strives to be extremely careful with the words of others entrusted to us. Thus we are grateful for the note informing us of our error.

Posted in crime and punishment, LGBT, media | 17 Comments »

SCOTUS Healthcare Arguments Today (We Hope), & Thinking About Trayvon Martin

March 26th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Say what? Can it be true that, after all this lead up, the Supreme Court won’t begin hearings on the Affordable Health Care Act on Monday? Really????

Uh, yeah. Apparently it’s quite possible the Supremes may decide that, legally speaking, they’re jumping the gun in hearing the case—or at least on the most important part of the challenge. (No matter what, the court will hear the Medicare expansion part of the arguments on Wednesday).

Both David Savage of the LA Times and Robert Barnes of the Washington Post have stories on this perplexing turn of events.

As an introduction, you need to know that everybody involved—the Obama Administration and the challengers from the various states, et al—want this sucker—ahem….this Constitutional challenge—to move forward now, for crying out loud.

Here’s a clip from Savage’s article (which I’ve excerpted from the Sac Bee, although it will also be in the LA Times but, as I write this, it isn’t on the LAT site yet).

The Supreme Court’s opening day of arguments on the health care law will not focus on whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. Instead, the justices will consider whether the legal challenge to it has arrived too soon.

The problem is the Anti-Injunction Act, which dates to 1867. It says, “No suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person.”

Question: How does this figure in the health care case?

Answer: It could block a suit against this key part of the health care law if it imposes a tax. The law seems to say that no one can sue over a tax provision until he or she has paid the tax.

Q: How is the Affordable Care Act a tax law?

A: During the debate over it, President Barack Obama insisted it did not impose new taxes. However, people who do not have minimum health coverage in 2014 will be assessed a “penalty” to be paid on their tax return, which will be due in April 2015.

And here’s a clip from Barnes in the WaPo.

The Supreme Court begins its constitutional review of the health-care overhaul law Monday with a fundamental question: Is the court barred from making such a decision at this time?

The justices will hear 90 minutes of argument about whether an obscure 19th-century law — the Anti-Injunction Act — means that the court cannot pass judgment on the law until its key provisions go into effect in 2014.


At the heart of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the requirement that almost all Americans either obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. The question the court will consider Monday is whether that penalty should be considered a tax. And if it is, does the Anti-Injunction Act mean that courts must stay out of the way until someone is actually required to pay it?

The first time that could occur is when someone files a tax return in 2015, because that is how the penalty would be collected.


Thus far, WLA hasn’t commented or reported on the heart-shattering story of Trayvon Martin’s death, in part because so much has already been said and written, thus I wasn’t sure what exactly we could add to the conversation.

But speaking personally, the main reason I’ve not written about the issue is because every time I stare at Travon’s photo, rather than being inspired to post something wise and meaningful, I find that I am simply struck dumb with grief for his mother—and for his dad, and the rest of his family of course too. But I am a mother of a son, so it is to Sybrina Fulton that my deepest sorrow goes.

If course, Trayvon is far from the only young person to die tragically and violently these past weeks. LA’s Youth Justice Coalition head, Kim McGill, tells me they’ve buried five of their own young members in the past two months. (I’ll have more on the five in the future.)

But some deaths get to you more than others; perhaps in that way they stand in for stand in for all the others. Travon Martin’s is one of those deaths.

Still, as much fearful empathy as I feel for Travon’s mother Sybrina, I do so with the understanding that there is one part of her experience that I cannot adequately feel into, at least not in the bone-deep way that many other American parents, sadly, can.

That difference has to do with the fear described in this story by Jesse Washington writing for the Associated Press. It is titled “Trayvon Martin, my son, and the Black Male Code,” and I’ve excerpted it below. But I urge you to read the whole thing.

I thought my son would be much older before I had to tell him about the Black Male Code. He’s only 12, still sleeping with stuffed animals, still afraid of the dark. But after the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I needed to explain to my child that soon people might be afraid of him.

We were in the car on the way to school when a story about Martin came on the radio. “The guy who killed him should get arrested. The dead guy was unarmed!” my son said after hearing that neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman had claimed self-defense in the shooting in Sanford, Fla.

We listened to the rest of the story, describing how Zimmerman had spotted Martin, who was 17, walking home from the store on a rainy night, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. When it was over, I turned off the radio and told my son about the rules he needs to follow to avoid becoming another Trayvon Martin — a black male who Zimmerman assumed was “suspicious” and “up to no good.”

As I explained it, the Code goes like this:

Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.

Read the rest. It’s worth it.


Howard Kurtz asked that question on CNN on Sunday, and opened it for a round-table discussion you can read here.

I can’t say that the discussion is brilliant or even all that insightful, frankly, but listening in may stimulate your own thinking. (Really, I think Jon Stewart had the right take when he said of another big story that the media has two settings: blackout….and circus.

In truth, I think, the better question is what made the mainstream media finally snap awake. I credit Trayvon’s parents who refused to let the injustice of their son’s death go unnoticed and, together with supporters, were able to frame a clear narrative around the shooting of their son, together with a good picture, that gradually got the press’s attention—and has kept it. In a similar way, Kelly Thomas’s father in Fullerton exhibited the same well-focused determination, in which he was clear about what the story needed to be, and managed to keep it in the news rather than letting it be reported on once or twice and then vanish without a trace. As a result, Jim Thomas may get some kind of justice for his son.

Moreover, the rest of us should be grateful that Trayvon’s parents did not let their son’s death go unrecognized. As a consequence, out of their sorrow we are being shoved into having another round of the national conversion about race that we very much need to continue to have, but too often avoid.


Here’s Marion Wright Edelman (pictured above) president of the Children’s Defense Fund, with her own thoughts about Trayvon Martin, what his death should signify.

Here’s a clip:

….Just as sadly, Trayvon’s death was not unique. In 2008 and 2009, 2,582 black children and teens were killed by gunfire. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the child population, but 45 percent of the 5,740 child and teen gun deaths in those two years. Black males 15 to 19 years-old were eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims. The outcry over Trayvon’s death is absolutely right and just. We need the same sense of outrage over every one of these child deaths…

Photo by AP, for the Children’s Defense Fund

Posted in health care, media, race, racial justice | 13 Comments »

Foxconn, Apple, This American Life….and Reactions to the Great News Retraction

March 20th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

On January 6, of this year Ira Glass’s This American Life aired a show about the FoxConn factory
in China, where so many of our nice, shiny, perfect Apple products are made (including, I assume, my brand new iPad), and which has become infamous for its brutal working conditions.

The TAL broadcast, which was to become the most downloaded in the show’s history, centered around monologuist Mike Deasey’s popular one man show about Apple and Foxconn called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

The TAL segment was such a powerful and disturbing portrayal of factory conditions that it triggered a slew of other media reports on the Chinese factories used by Apple and other American tech companies.

Then last Friday, TAL’s creator and host, Ira Glass, announced that although the show had vetted a lot of Deasey’s material, it hadn’t been able to vet it all, and Glass and crew had now discovered that some of Deasey’s “facts” were far more theatrical than truthful.

But Glass didn’t stop with the written statement. He and his producers turned all of this past weekend’s show into one giant retraction that included a deconstruction of the various errors, an interview with Deasey’s Chinese translator, and a painfully uncomfortable conversation between Glass and Deasey— all of which turned out to be wildly compelling radio.

The retraction, and Deasey’s subsequent blogging remarks after the TAL broadcast has triggered a flood of commentary from other journalists and media types.

The collective discussion about truth, facts and journalism has been largely a very good one, and worth your while to wander through if you have a mind.

But first listen to the two TAL episodes. They are utterly fascinating, especially given what we know now.

Here are some links to and clips from some of the better commentary.

This is from the NY Times’ David Carr:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.


It’s worth examining that question now that we have learned about the lies perforating the excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show on Apple’s manufacturing processes in China, broadcast in January on the weekly public radio show “This American Life.”

No one is suggesting that everything about Apple’s supply chain is suddenly hunky-dory, but the heroic narrative of a fearless theater artist taking on the biggest company in the world is now a pile of smoking rubble.

Mr. Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” closed its very successful run at the Public Theater in New York on Sunday. The show played a significant role in raising public consciousness, not just about the ethics of offshore manufacturing, but about whether those of us who fondle those shiny new iPads every day are implicated as well….

And this is also from the NYT, this time from Charles Isherwood:

in his own statement on Friday Mr. Daisey said: “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.” He also said he regretted allowing parts of his work to be heard in the context of a factual program.

Mr. Daisey may not claim to be a journalist, but there is little question that in his show, which he has been performing since 2010, he gives no indication that some of the events he describes as having witnessed himself were embellished or based on incidents that took place elsewhere. The program at the Public Theater described it as “nonfiction.”

Nonfiction should mean just that: facts and nothing but the facts. For its part the Public released a statement saying: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

Certainly Mr. Daisey uses language more evocative than a reporter would in describing his encounters with workers at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. But in an hourlong segment of “This American Life” released for broadcast on Friday that delved into the reasons behind the retraction, it became clear that this was not a matter of reordering events or using colorful description for maximum theatrical effect, but of presenting as firsthand experience incidents that never happened.

Rebecca Greenfield has some good stuff to say at the Atlantic.

Here’s a link to the story by Rob Schmidt, the NPR Marketplace reporter who flagged some of Deasey’s truthiness in the first place.


The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in the matters of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the twinned cases that aim to test the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.

Professor Douglas Berman of Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, along with a group of second and third-year students at Moritz filed an amicus brief in the two cases. In the video above, Doug Berman explains in layman’s terms what’s in the brief and what are some of the things you should know is you’re watching these cases. (Doug Berman also runs the wonderful Sentencing, Law and Policy.)

With an eye toward the SCOTUS hearing of the cases, Sandra McElwaine at the Daily Beast interviewed former inmates who were convicted of murder as teenagers but who did not get life. Their insights regarding the paths of their own individual redemption is very much worth reading.

Andrew Cohn over at Atlantic Wire has a well-reasoned look at which justices might go what direction in the juvenile LWOP cases, and that the fact that Chief Justice Roberts has two kids who are about to become teenagers may have bearing on the matter. (But in the end, it’ll likely come down to Justice Kennedy—again.)

The Guardian’s story on the twinned cases features a video with an incarcerated man in his 20′s named Quantel Lotts who killed his stepbrother when he was fourteen.

Here’s a clip from the Guardian’s article on the cases:

There is a singularly brutal quality to this aspect of US justice. America is the only country in the world, bar none, that is known to sentence children to die in prison without any hope of release. Even in a country that practices the death penalty it has the ability to shock, because this is a living death.

“All I want is another chance,” says Lotts. “A shot at living an actual life. I’ve been in prison since I was 14, so I don’t know too much about anything – I’ve never been anywhere, done anything. I’ve never lived a life.”

Posted in Civil Rights, media | 2 Comments »

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