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WA’s Marijuana Law Already Has an Effect….’Script Drugs Have a Deadly Effect.. Prop 8 & SCOTUS

November 12th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Although the Washington State marijuana law won’t kick in for another month, both law enforcement and prosecutors decided, as one county prosecutor put it, “There is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month.”

Jonathan Martin of the Seattle Times has the story. Here’s a clip:

Prosecutors and police in Washington moved Friday to swiftly back away from enforcing marijuana prohibition, even though the drug remains illegal for another month.

On Friday, the elected prosecutors of King and Pierce counties, the state’s two largest, announced they will dismiss more than 220 pending misdemeanor marijuana-possession cases, retroactively applying provisions of Initiative 502 that kick in Dec. 6.

In King County, Dan Satterberg said his staff will dismiss about 40 pending criminal charges, and will not file charges in another 135 pending cases. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he will dismiss about four dozen cases in which simple marijuana possession was the only offense.

“I think when the people voted to change the policy, they weren’t focused on when the effective date of the new policy would be. They spoke loudly and clearly that we should not treat small amounts of marijuana as an offense,” Satterberg said.

Although it is unclear how the newly passed Washington State and Colorado laws will fare in the long term, given the fact that the are in conflict with federal laws. But they are a welcome step in beginning to address the illogic of crowding our jails and prisons with people arrested on marijuana possession charges—arrests that, by the way, cut disproportionately against minorities [See WLA post here for most recent FBI figures on marijuana arrests.]


Scott Glover and Lisa Girion of the LA Times have a an important story about the uptick in prescription drug overdose deaths in the US, and the fact that, in Southern California, nearly half of those drug deaths were caused by medications that were legally prescribed by a physician.

In their exceptionally well-researched and alarming story, Glover and Girion examine the unusual number of deaths attributed to one particular Huntington Beach physician.

Here’s a clip from the story that gives some of the relevant stats:

….Prescription drug overdoses now claim more lives than heroin and cocaine combined, fueling a doubling of drug-related deaths in the United States over the last decade.

Health and law enforcement officials seeking to curb the epidemic have focused on how OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and other potent pain and anxiety medications are obtained illegally, such as through pharmacy robberies or when teenagers raid their parents’ medicine cabinets. Authorities have failed to recognize how often people overdose on medications prescribed for them by their doctors.

A Los Angeles Times investigation has found that in nearly half of the accidental deaths from prescription drugs in four Southern California counties, the deceased had a doctor’s prescription for at least one drug that caused or contributed to the death.

Reporters identified a total of 3,733 deaths from prescription drugs from 2006 through 2011 in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties.

An examination of coroners’ records found that:

In 1,762 of those cases — 47% — drugs for which the deceased had a prescription were the sole cause or a contributing cause of death.

And how many people died from marijuana in So Cal during that same period? I mean, just on average? (crickets.)

(NOTE: LAT staffers Hailey Branson-Potts and Anh Do contributed to the story.)


David Boies, who along with Ted Olson, is representing the challenge to California’s Prop. 8, was unusually optimistic when on Friday at an awards event he answered some questions on how he thought the high court would respond to the request to hear the case, and to the case itself.

The Mercury News has the story. Here’s a clip:

David Boies, a lawyer for two couples challenging California’s Proposition 8, predicted in San Francisco Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case and will eventually rule in his clients’ favor by a greater than 5-4 majority.

“I believe we will get more than five votes,” said Boies, speaking of a possible future decision by the nine-member court on the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

“This is a civil rights case of the same importance as Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia,” Boies said. The two cases were the court’s unanimous decisions outlawing school segregation in 1954 and striking down a ban on interracial marriage in 1967.
“I think the justices have a history of coming together and rising above their personal views to enforce the Constitution’s guarantees of equality,” he said.

Boies, of Armonk, N.Y., spoke in an interview shortly before receiving an award from the University of San Francisco Law School’s Public Interest Law Foundation in a Friday evening ceremony.
Boies and Theodore Olson, of Washington, D.C., are the lead attorneys for a lesbian couple from Berkeley and a gay couple from Burbank who filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 to challenge the ban enacted by state voters in 2008 as Proposition 8.

The two lawyers were on opposite sides of the Bush v. Gore presidential election recount battle in 2000, with Olson representing Bush and Boies representing Gore.

Posted in crime and punishment, How Appealing, LGBT, Marijuana laws, Medical Marijuana | 1 Comment »

Three-Strikes Reform, Former Inmates & The Joy of the Right to Vote

November 7th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Norman Williams, who is in the photo above, was voting for the first time when the picture was snapped.
Williams is a former 3-striker who was sentenced to life in prison for a third strike of petty theft. (He stole a floor jack out of a tow truck.) Williams’s other two strikes were not as minor as jacking a jack. But nor did they signal he was a man who so threatened public safety that he needed to be removed from our midst forever and post haste, as the 3-strikes law—passed in 1994– had dictated.

As the NY Times reported in 2010:

In 1982, Williams burglarized an apartment that was being fumigated: he was hapless enough to be robbed at gunpoint on his way out, and later he helped the police recover the stolen property. In 1992, he stole two hand drills and some other tools from an art studio attached to a house; the owner confronted him, and he dropped everything and fled

Fortunately for Williams, in 2005 when Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley had instructed his office to look for 3-strikes cases for whom a 25-to-life sentence clearly didn’t fit, they found Williams, and the Stanford 3-strikes Project at Stanford Law School subsequently agreed to take him on as a client and eventually gained his release.

And so it was that he cast his first vote on Tuesday, and thus was able to vote YES on Proposition 36, the state ballot measure to reform the over-broad law that had once put him behind bars for life. (As it happens, the Stanford 3-Strikes Project co-sponsored the measure.)

On Tuesday night, Prop 36 passed handily, gaining support in both conservative and liberal California counties.

I don’t know Williams personally, but I do know Wil Lopez, a bright, personable man and a former inmate who is now on staff for Homeboy Industries. While not a three-striker, on Tuesday Lopez was another joy-filled first time voter who marked his ballot for Prop 36 with a strong sense of purpose.

Here’s what Lopez wrote about the matter on Facebook on Monday of this week.

“I remember being in the ASU [Administrative Segregation Unit] in Corcoran state prison in 2005 and my cell mate from El monte was telling me how he had received a third strike for possession of burglary tools, which were regular tools in his car, and now he’s sentenced to life. I sat there and said I wish people would change the laws by voting. Wow, it’s been over five years and I never thought this day will come but I can honestly say I’m doing my part. I’m voting tomorrow, first time in my life, I’m f***ing voting tomorrow. Please, friends, go out and vote. Help make a change.”

Above is a photo of a euphoric Lopez taken on Tuesday after his own voting experience.

Luis Aguilar is another man I know who, like Lopez, was never a 3-striker himself, but who, through his own stints in prison, got to know people who were.

“Some guys deserved to be there, but for other guys I saw, it was just a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Luis told me when he called on Tuesday night from his job site to ask if I knew how the various ballot propositions were faring. Aguilar is former gang member who is now married with a family and a good union career working massive construction projects for LA County. Luis works the night shift so he and his wife had voted before he left for the job. He was relieved when I told him it looked like 36 was winning.

“I had this cellie one time when I was locked up who got struck out for stealing three pairs of Levis from Sears,” he said. “His other strikes weren’t nothing violent either. He was just an addict, and when he was using he did stupid stuff.”

Luis first voted in 2004 when he was still on parole and I was writing a series of articles for the LA Weekly about him and his family during his first year out of prison. I remember the seriousness with which he took his newly acquired enfranchisement then, a seriousness that appeared now to have only deepened—as demonstrated when he called multiple times to ask for updates.

He was most interested in Prop. 36, but wanted to know about rest too, especially the union-hobbling Prop. 32 (He was against it), and Prop. 30, Gov. Brown’s sales tax raise to benefit education, which Luis strongly favored. “I voted against everything else that the voting pamphlet said would cost the state more money,” he said. “But on 30 I voted yes, because schools are important.”

In terms of candidates, he voted a straight Democratic ticket, Luis said. “The only time I didn’t look at parties was for DA, then I voted for the lady—I don’t remember her name…”

“Jackie Lacey.”

“Yeah. That’s right. Because I liked the way she talked better than the guy, who looked like he mostly wanted to show he was all tough.”

Luis rang me for the last time Tuesday night just as Obama was beginning his victory speech. He said the radio in the county truck he was driving was broken. I told him CNN had just called a victory for Prop 36, then put him on speaker phone so he could hear the president talk. We listened silently for the duration:

….I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions…

“He was good, right?” Luis asked when Obama had finished and the pundits were beginning their commentary.

I took the phone off speaker and put it back to my ear, muting the TV as I did so. “I thought he was really good,” I said.

There was a pause.

“It feels good to vote,” I said, “It matters.”

“Yep,” he replied. And with that I heard his county-issued walkie-talkie squawk in the background. He thanked me for my help, and he had to go.

Posted in 2012 Election, crime and punishment, criminal justice, elections, Homeboy Industries, Propositions, Sentencing | No Comments »

The WitnessLA November 2012 Elections Endorsements

November 2nd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

With voting day looming on Tuesday,
a quickie rundown of our thoughts and recommendations.


30 – YES! Jerry Brown’s must-pass initiative is a desperately needed budget patch providing funds for California’s educational system—both K-12 and higher education—while also funneling fiscal aid to other crucial state programs.

Prop 30 looked like it would pass easily, mainly because most Californian’s understand that our schools and other essential programs are in need of $$$, and the governor has devised the least painful way to raise the necessary bucks.

Unfortunately, wealthy Californian Molly Munger muddied the water by floating a competative ballot proposition (Prop. 38) then, along with her brother, using tens of millions of her own money to blast voters with TV ads designed to shake confidence in 30, in the hope of getting voters to embrace 38. Now, while 38 looks unlikely to pass, it has managed to erode just enough of Prop. 30′s support to put it in serious jeopardy.

So here’s the deal: Not only should you vote for Prop 30, but you should threaten, cajole, emotionally blackmail everyone you know, are related to, or pass randomly on the street into voting for it. Otherwise, we’re in for some dark days in terms of public education. (Not to put too fine a point on the matter.)

31 – NO. A messy and badly conceived attempt to reform the way the state legislature behaves. Heaven knows some serious reform is needed, but this ain’t it. Prop 31 will cut money from schools and other vital programs and create a pile of bureaucracy. Read what the Courage Campaign has to say here.

Even CA’s conservative newspapers are fleeing from this badly written item.

32: NO WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE – If you loved Citizen’s United then you’re going to adore Prop 32. Listen, many of us are furious when certain unions (cough) CCPOA, prison guards (cough, cough) swing their weight around to ill effect. But this proposed law is a union-hating, Koch Brother’s special that pretends to rein in corporate campaign spending and special interests. Instead, it favors big corporate interests and hobbles everybody else.

For a humorous (and kinda scary) look at Prop 32 supporters read our own Matt Fleischer’s account of what he heard when he parachuted in behind the lines of Prop. 32 central—namely the Lincoln Club.

33: NO! – This creepy little piece of work is auto insurance bait and switch that is the baby of Mercury Insurance founder George Joseph, and does not have your and my best interests at heart. Run!

34: YES – Replaces the death penalty in California with life without the possibility of parole.

I’ll let Jeanne Woodford (the former head of the CDCR and former Warden of San Quentin who oversaw four executions), plus my friend Frankie Carrillo speak on the topic, as they each are uniquely qualified to do so.

35: NO – The sex trafficking and slavery initiative is extremely well meant but is a morass of unintended consequences. Yes, of course, we must do everything possible to take the predators it targets off the streets and put them behind bars. But this problematically-structured law, the project of former Facebook privacy officer, Chris Kelly (who would like to ride this law into the office of CA Attorney General), causes more problems than it solves—sadly.

The good news is that it opens the dialogue on this pressing issue, where victims remain tragically unprotected.

36: YES – Reforms 3-Strikes so that bad guys get put away, and the people who don’t need to be the guests of the state for the rest of their lives (on our tab) don’t. Even LA DA Steve Cooley & SF DA George Gascon like this prop that fixes the flaws in a well-intentioned but overbroad law.

37: YES– Requires that genetically engineered foods (GMOs) be labeled before being sold in California.. The LA Times is against it. We disagree.

The issue is not whether GMOs are good or harmful. Many likely are not, and may have great benefit. The point is that, as a consumer, I’d like the right to know what’s in my food and whether or not the items I buy contain GMOs. Wouldn’t you?

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and some of the most famous chefs in America are in favor of GMO labeling.

So is the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Monsanto, Dupont, Pepsico and Dow are not and have thrown upwards of 40 million to try to persuade you that their opinion is the righteous one.

For a lengthier and highly informed counter-opinion to that expressed by the LAT and some of the other CA papers that are urging a NO vote, read what NY Times food writer Mark Bittman has to say about Prop. 37—and the missinformation put out by its mega-buck-funded opposition.

You also might want to read this also from the NY Times, by Michael Pollan (one of the gurus of the food movement, and author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, among other food-related books)

Oh, yeah, and if you don’t believe those guys, you might want to see what Bill Moyers has to say on the topic.

38: NO/YES.or WHATEVER. This prop, which has set itself up as the alternative to Jerry Brown’s Prop 30, is a scheme to raise some taxes in order to fund the state’s ailing public school system. The prop, as mentioned above, has been almost exclusively funded by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger. Munger is the co-head of the Advancement Project, along with the excellent Connie Rice, and we really, really like Munger for that, and for her many other accomplishments as a lawyer and an advocate. However, we are extremely vexed at her I-know-better-than-all-of-them-Sac’to-fools-do attitude in this instance, which could mean that neither prop passes, and that California schools suffer terribly as a result.

Karin Klien, the editorial board writer for education lays the matter out perfectly:

Proposition 30 is a superior measure on several fronts. It would avoid trigger cuts that would cause immediate and drastic harm to schools, which would probably be forced to cut the school year by up to three weeks, as well as $250 million in cuts to the University of California and an equal amount to the California State University system.

Beyond that, one aspect of Proposition 30 that has been little noticed is that it also provides money for community colleges; right now, more than 200,000 students at those colleges cannot find a seat in a single class, let alone enough courses or the courses they need to graduate. There’s little point to rescuing only K-12 schools when the graduates would have nowhere to go.

Polls suggest that Prop 38 doesn’t have a chance. And, yet, Munger’s ads and those of her conservative brother, wrongly claiming, as Klien writes, “…’politicians’ would get their hands on money intended for schools..” are still running. The non-passage of 30, once a sure thing until the Mungers threw tens of millions at the issue, is now hanging by a thread.

So vote for 38, don’t vote for it. Just make sure you vote for Prop. 30.

39: YES – Would remove a tax break that mainly benefits multistate companies based outside of California, a tax loophole that has actually encouraged these companies to take their jobs out of state. As KCET points out, Prop 39 would level the playing field by making multistate companies play by the same rules as companies that employ Californians, and would produce an extra $1 billion for the state coffers.

That’s the short version. If you want more, KCET has the details.

40: YES - Basically re-approves California’s newly redrawn state Senate districts. Every major newspaper in the state, whether conservative leaning or liberal leaning, urges a YES vote. A few disgruntled politicians urge otherwise, but most of them have quietly gone away.


In terms of candidates, we favor Janice Hahn, Howard Berman, Julie Brownley, Henry Waxman, if you’re in an area where they are on the ballot.


We firmly recommend Jackie Lacey.

Look: Alan Jackson is a skilled prosecutor, but he does not appear to have the temperament or the experience to manage the District Attorney’s office effectively. During the campaign, he has consistently tailored his message to the crowd, rather than giving us a clear idea of what his policies would be, if elected.

Lacey is more conservative than we would like, but she’s a listener, and has already appeared to grow in the course of the campaign. In short, she’s up to the job now and we believe would become stronger and better, while in office.

For more, read the very smart LA Times endorsement that I’m guessing was written by our pal Rob Greene.


(But you probably knew that.)

In any case, whatever and whomever you vote for: PLEASE VOTE

Posted in CCPOA, Civil Liberties, crime and punishment, CTA, District Attorney, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), elections, Innocence, Presidential race, Propositions, Springsteen, unions | 8 Comments »

Once Lifer Mario Rocha Celebrates Anniversary of Freedom, FBI Stats on Weed Arrests & Funding for Smart Research on Realignment

October 30th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

EDITOR’S NOTE: While we keep an eye on the safety and well being of our family and friends on the east coast who are wrestling with Sandy, here are a few criminal justice stories from this end of the world.


As of Monday, Oct. 29, it has been four years that 33-year-old Mario Rocha finally knew he was really and truly, no kidding —- free. His double life sentence was overturned in March of 2005 after Mario had spent 10 1/2 years in prison for murder and attempted murder. But although he was out of lock-up, it wasn’t clear for how long. While Rocha had been released, he had not been cleared. The judge had merely determined that the young man had received unconscionably lousy legal representation by his asleep-the-wheel lawyer. This meant the DA’s office had the option of refiling charges. And while the hot shot lawyers who had taken on his case pro bono believed he was factually innocent, the prosecutor didn’t. Or, said he didn’t, at the very least. It is worth noting that the LA DA’s office has been notoriously loath to admit it may have screwed up on a case, and put away an innocent person.)

The legal battle that ended four years ago, had its genesis on the night of February 16, 1996, when Rocha was sixteen-years-old and attended a keg party in Highland Park where a bunch of high school kids were celebrating a win for Cathedral High School’s basketball team.

Here’s a clip from WLA’s coverage at the time:

There was drinking at the party, and eventually a fist fight broke out. An extremely well-liked 17-year-old honors student named Martin Aceves, tried to break up the fight, but matters escalated fast. Two kids had guns. Aceves was shot and killed. Another kid was shot in the hand.

A week later, police burst into Mario’s bedroom, guns drawn, yelling: “Don’t move! Hands up! Get down!”

Mario Rochas was tried as an adult and, although the case against him rested on the word of one eyewitness, he was defended by an attorney who spent little time on his case, and failed to call other witnesses who had exculpatory evidence. By the trial’s end, although Mario had no previous record or gang affiliation, he was convicted of murder and attempted murder, together with two other party goers—gang members who had been seen to flash weapons in the crowd.

Unlike most young men in such a position, Mario turned out to be lucky. When he was in Eastlake Juvenile Hall awaiting trial, he participated in a new writing program called “Inside Out,” that had been set up by juvenal hall chaplain, Sister Janet Harris. Although Mario had not been an underachiever during his time in high school, he was clearly very bright, with an intellectual bent and a real talent for writing—all of which the writing class at juvie seemed to bring out in him.
After reading some of his writing, Sister Janet became interested in Mario’s personal story. Although she meets kids on a regular basis who swear they are innocent, the more she looked into Mario’s case, the more convinced she became that Mario was the real deal. She couldn’t imagine he would be convicted. When he was, she said she was too stunned to cry.

“With Mario it was so egregious,” she told ABC News much later, “so horrible that I said to myself whether I win or lose, I am going to fight for justice,” Sister Harris said. “His life was stolen by a system that’s flawed. A system where we need to look out and say: Have we lost our moral compass?”

A slender woman in her 70′s with enough nervous energy to light several medium-sized cities, Sister Janet began working on Mario’s case on her own. She reviewed thousands of pages of trial transcript, and tracked down new witnesses. Armed with what she’d found, Sister Janet managed to interest others in Mario’s case, including the high-powered LA legal firm of Latham & Watkins, whose lawyers agreed to take the case pro bono after Mario passed a polygraph, and a review of case documents, plus Janet’s personal discoveries, indicated that his original attorney did not pursue evidence that indicated Mario was innocent….

Here, also, is a link to Jack Leonard’s 2008 story for the LA Times about the DA’s decision not to retry Mario for the crime.

Mario Rocha’s ordeal was portrayed in an award-winning and deeply affecting documentary, that you can check out here.

Right now Mario Rocha is a social justice activist living in Washington D.C. while he gets his degree in organization science from George Washington University. He will graduate in 2013.


On Monday, marijuana activist organizations like L.E.A.P. (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) latest FBI stats show that there were 1.2 million reported drug arrests in the U.S. in 2011.

Of those arrests, according to the FBI, 81.8% were for possession only. And of those possession arrests, by far the largest portion (just under half, or 49.5% to be exact) were for marijuana.


Does this seem smart?

This is from LEAP’s Monday announcement:

“Even excluding the costs involved for later trying and then imprisoning these people, taxpayers are spending between one and a half to three billion dollars a year just on the police and court time involved in making these arrests,” said Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop who now heads the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “That’s a lot of money to spend for a practice that four decades of unsuccessful policies have proved does nothing to reduce the consumption of drugs. Three states have measures on the ballot that would take the first step in ending this failed war by legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. I hope they take this opportunity to guide the nation to a more sensible approach to drug use.”

A-a-a-aaannnd we wonder why we have overcrowded jails and prisons.


So, beyond all the political rhetoric on CA’s prison realignment and the often lousy reporting on same (with some bright spot exceptions like Rob Greene on the LA Times Editorial Board and Michael Montgomery for KQED), it is refreshing that the Department of Justice and a list of other folks have forked over some bucks to Stanford’s stellar Criminal Justice Center in order for them to assess, measure, and analyze how this whole realignment thingy is really working, county by county. In other words, the SCJC folks are gathering the facts of the matter.

Whatta concept.

Here’re are some clips from the announcement from SCJC:

Realignment puts the onus back on counties to make decisions about how they wish to punish their local convicted offenders,” said Joan Petersilia, Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “Counties can decide to expand jail capacity. They can expand drug treatment programs or mental health courts. They can hire new staff. They can expand the ranks of probation officers or sheriff’s deputies. We want to know what approaches are working best in California counties and why.”


“California has the largest prison system in the country,” said Robert Weisberg, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “And California Realignment represents the biggest change in sentencing and corrections in the last six decades. Through our research, we want the data to tell us exactly what the effects are of shifting responsibility and discretion from the state to the county— how that impacts rates of incarceration versus probation supervision versus community programs, and so on. We want our research to help California get Realignment right.”


Well, yeah.

$650,000 is not a lot for this kind of painstaking work. And the SCJC team is absolutely the best in the business, beginning with the amazing Dr. Joan Petersilia, who is the Center’s co-director.

It is essential, when the state (or the county or the city) makes a big policy change like the prison realignment program that the new systems be evaluated by competent outsiders (who know what they’re doing and can be trusted to keep politics out of it).

Fortunately, thanks to these grants and some others like them, that’s precisely what the SCJC is doing.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, How Appealing, Medical Marijuana, Realignment | 2 Comments »

The Outrageous Costs of Inmate Calls to Families….Conservative Voices Call for Jerry to Sign SB9….and More

September 24th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Because of the type of reporting I do, for over two decades, I have gotten occasional collect calls from prison and jail inmates.

With the exception of maybe the cost of using certain satillite phones, these are the most expensive phone calls in the world.

I can call China less expensively than the cost of accepting the average call from a California state prison.

And even with the already usurious per minute rates in place, the phone companies seem to find ever more devious ways to levy additional charges.

Take, for example, the experience I had last week when I wanted to be able accept a collect call on my cell phone while I was out of state in Montana.. The call was coming from inmate in the LA County Jail system whom I’d heard wanted to talk to me.

In order to accept the call, the Globel Tell Link operator cheerily informed me I had to prepay a minimum of $25 just to have the possibility of accepting a single call on my cell, no matter how short that call might end up being. (My landline is set up to accept collect calls on a normal basis, with a extra charges tacked on to my monthly phone bill for any collect calls I might receive. However, my cell phone isn’t. But since I was away from my home office, the cell was the only alternative if I wanted to accept this guy’s call.)

I explained to the operator that I only would be accepting a single call on a single occasion, and that it was unlikely to be long. And I wasn’t 100 percent sure, that the call in question would come through at all anyway. Plus I was already a Globel Tel Link customer on my home phone. Surely, I said, I could buy maybe $10 worth of prepaid minutes, instead of $25?

Nope, said the operator. It was $25 or nothing. She further informed me that if I failed to use up that $25 credit in, I think it was 90 days, the credit went dead and could no longer be used to cover calls at all. Globel Tel Link would simply keep the money.

Part of the problem is that, since each county or state contracts with a single phone company, there is no competition; it’s a take it or leave it situation for mothers, fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters hoping to keep in touch with their incarcerated family members, but for whom the cost of accepting calls quickly becomes prohibitive.

(Did I mention that the states and counties are getting multimillion dollar legal kick backs from the phone companies that have these big bucks contracts?)

Now, however, there is finally some real movement to change all that.

Sunday’s NY Times has an editorial calling for those changes in clear, no-nonsense terms.

Here’s a clip:

Members of Congress and civil rights groups are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to rein in telephone companies that, in many states, charge inmates spectacularly high rates that can force their families to choose between keeping in touch with a relative behind bars and, in some cases, putting food on the table.

The time is long past for the F.C.C. — which has been weighing this issue for nearly a decade — to break up what amount to monopolies and ensure that prisoners across the country have access to reasonably priced interstate telephone service.

The calls are expensive because they are placed through independent telephone companies that pay the state a “commission” — essentially a legalized kickback — that ranges from 15 percent to 60 percent either as a portion of revenue, a fixed upfront fee or a combination of both. According to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group based in Massachusetts, depending on the size of the kickback, a 15-minute call can cost the family as little as $2.36 or as much as $17.

Prison officials and phone companies that defend the system of commissions say that extra charges are necessary to pay for the security screening required when inmates make calls. But this presents no problem in New York State, which banned the kickbacks several years ago and required its prison telephone vendor to provide service at the lowest possible cost to the inmates and their families…..

Read the rest. It’s ridiculous that these policies are still in place—punishing the families in our communities who can least afford it.


As the clock ticks down on the bills that remain on Governor Brown’s desk, late-ish last week one piece of legislation got some welcome support from some unexpected sources when the San Diego Union Tribune ran an op ed by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan, a former Republican leader of the California State Assembly, and president of Justice Fellowship, urging the governor to sign SB9, the bill that would allow the possibility of eventual parole after 25 years for some of those inmates who’ve been locked up for life for a crime committed when they were kids as young as 14 years old.

The governor has until the end of this month to sign—or not.

Here’s a clip from Newt and Pat’s excellent essay:

…Teenagers often don’t make very good decisions. Our laws take this into account in many ways: We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they can’t sign contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18.

But there is one area in which we ignore teens’ youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws. Our laws often ignore the difference between adults and teens, and some youngsters are sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP). Despite urban legends to the contrary, this law has no exceptions: A teen sentenced to LWOP will die in prison as an old man or woman. No exceptions for good behavior, no exceptions period. No hope.

You might expect that these LWOP sentences are limited to the “worst of the worst,” but that is not the case. A young teen can be a bit player in a crime, e.g., act as a lookout while his buddies go in to steal beer from a convenience store. None of them is armed, and there is no plan for violence. Then it all goes haywire. The clerk pulls a gun, and one of the kids tries to grab it away. In the struggle that ensues, the gun goes off and the clerk dies.

Under California’s “felony murder” rule, every person involved in that crime, no matter how minor their role, is equally guilty of murder, even if they did not plan or expect a murder to occur. According to the fiction of our law, the lookout is as much to blame as the person who pulled the trigger. About 45 percent of the inmates serving LWOP for a teenage crime were not the person who caused the death. Yet they will die in prison of old age, with no chance for release.

But should these youngsters die in prison for something they did when they were so young? Wouldn’t it be better to re-evaluate them after serving a long stretch in prison and consider whether they have matured and improved themselves?

We are conservative Republicans, and we believe that some people are so dangerous that we must separate them from our communities. That is what prisons are for. But sometimes we overuse our institutions. California’s teen LWOP is an overuse of incarceration. It denies the reality that young people often change for the better. And it denies hope to those sentenced under it…..

Such common sense is refreshing. Let’s hope that the governor sides with facts rather than the fact-challenged diatribes of those lobbying against this bill that is a long time coming.


The Great Falls Tribune has the story. Here’s how it opens:

A conservative political group opposed to the death penalty is calling for an end to capital punishment in the wake of a recent court ruling that found the state’s method of execution unconstitutional.

“Conservatives dislike waste and inefficiency. That is why we should cast a critical eye when the state is involved with the business of executing people,” said former Republican state Sen. Roy Brown of Billings.

Brown is on the advisory committee of Montana Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

“When it takes over 20 years and hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars for extra legal fees and court costs, it is obvious that the process is full of waste and inefficiency,” Brown said.

Brown worked across the aisle with Democrats in the state Senate in past legislative sessions to try to end the death penalty in Montana.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

The NY Times on CA’s Trust Act, the Fiscal Incentives for ICE Enforcement….the MacDonald Murders… and More

September 4th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


The Trust Act is one of the bills that are sitting on Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting a signature. This weekend the NY Times features an editorial explaining why he should sign it.
Here is how the NYT opinion piece opens:

There is a significant and immediate step Gov. Jerry Brown of California can take to protect community safety and civil liberties in his state.

He can sign the Trust Act, a recently passed state bill that prevents local police departments from turning their jails into immigration holding cells for noncriminals or minor offenders whose sentences are up or who should otherwise be out on bail. The act would require the police to let such people go, even if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have issued voluntary requests, known as detainers, that they be held until they can be picked up for deportation. Only those who have been convicted of or charged with serious or violent felonies would continue to be detained at ICE’s request.

The purpose of the act is to bring state enforcement in line with federal deportation priorities — which is to focus on dangerous criminals, national-security threats and repeat offenders. It was prompted by a troubled ICE program called Secure Communities, which enlists local authorities in immigration enforcement by doing checks on everyone they fingerprint. The program has led to the deportation of tens of thousands of minor offenders or those with no criminal records. The Trust Act is one state’s way to prevent such overkill.

Most of the state’s sheriffs, LA’s Sheriff Lee Baca most prominently included, oppose the Trust Act saying that it would force them to decide whether to violate State law or federal law.

Baca has gone so far as to say he won’t enforce the thing, even if it is signed by the governor.

Only Santa Clara Sheriff, Laurie Smith, has broken from the pack to announce that she is fine with the Trust Act. In fact she took the same stance that the LAPD has long taken with Special Order 40, maintaining that forcing local police to engage in immigration enforcement to makes immigrants less likely to report the kind of serious crimes that are a genuine threat public safety, simply because they’re fearful of being deported.

And about the claim that the Trust Act, if it is allowed to go into effect, will force local law enforcement to break either federal or state law, according to more than 30 legal scholars, this either-or interpretation of the law’s potential affect is utter nonsense. Here’s the letter the profs from such schools as Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, NYU, Penn State, Davis, Georgetown, UC Irvine, Hastings, Brandeis, and more, sent to the governor on the issue.

The letter is 8-pages of legal language, which you may find interesting, but it’s bottom line may be found in the following two statements:

The Constitution does not allow the federal government to command that local sheriffs enforce a federal regulatory regime. The regulation of immigration is no exception to this rule.

The Immigration and Nationality Act makes clear that local participation in immigration can only take place with the consent of localities.


Interestingly, while most of the state’s sheriffs oppose the Trust Act and embrace Secure Communities or S-Comm, many police chiefs, like San Francisco’s and Oakland’s— are in favor of the Trust Act.

LA’s Charlie Beck has long expressed concern about the potential negative effects of enforcing S-Comm while, as mentioned above, Lee Baca is an ardent S-Comm supporter and says, if the Trust Act is passed, he won’t enforce it.

So what could cause such a difference in perspective between county and city law enforcement agencies?

Perhaps Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff has the key. Sniff, who wrote an letter urging Brown to veto the Trust Act, told David Olson of the Press-Enterprise that the bill would “… jeopardize federal funding to help pay the cost to house illegal immigrants.” Riverside, he said, has received up to $1.8 million annually for S-Comm enforcement. In other words, not locking up as many immigrants would make most or all of those nice dollars vanish.

So maybe the Trust Act isn’t a legal problem for the sheriffs as much as it is a fiscal one.

The governor has until Sept. 30 to jump one way or the other on the bill.


On Tuesday, Sept 4, the third major book on the Jeffery MacDonald murder case is being released. It is called A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, and in it, author Errol Morris, pretty much decides MacDonald is innocent of the murders of his wife and two young daughters, although Morris concedes he cannot prove MacDonald’s innocence to a certaintly.

When I say Morris’s is the third major book, I mean there have been several lessor volumes other than the two well-known examinations of the case, Fatal Vision, the monster best seller by The Selling of the President author, Joe McGinnis, and The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, a book that—love it or hate it—is now a staple in non-fiction literature courses.

The author of the newest book is, of course, the highly regarded writer/director of such stellar documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, which actually exonerated a man after it was released, and The Fog of War, which completely reframed the reputation of Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara while winning Morris an Academy Award.

Sunday’s NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic and others have features on the new book.

Here’s the opening of the story in the Atlantic:

It was not quite the case of the century, but Americans of a certain age are likely to remember the savage, 1970 murders of Army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and daughters and his subsequent convictions on first and second degree homicide. Or, they remember the story of the case popularized by Joe McGinniss in Fatal Vision and, perhaps, the story of McGinniss and MacDonald, told by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer.

Now comes documentary filmmaker Errol Morris with his new book A Wilderness of Error, a devastating expose of the incompetence and corruption that enabled MacDonald’s conviction and continues to obstruct his appeals. MacDonald, now 68, has been imprisoned for 30 years, denied parole because he continues to deny his guilt, as his efforts at exoneration continue, decades after conviction. Last April, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing in his case, scheduled in September 2012.

As Morris observes, it’s impossible to know “with absolute certainty” whether MacDonald is guilty or innocent. But evidence of innocence wrongly excluded from his trial, including multiple confessions from other suspects, seems considerably stronger than evidence of guilt, and Morris, a dogged, discerning investigator, makes clear that MacDonald was “railroaded.” Personally, I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that in a fair trial, a relatively unbiased jury would not have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (and I’ve contributed to his defense fund).

What went wrong in this case? The short answer, Morris suggests, is that military police and, eventually, civilian prosecutors assumed a conclusion and selected evidence to support it. “When police arrive at a scene, like any of us, they try to formulate an idea of what happened … they take the seeming chaos of a crime scene and interpret it. Often the explanation is based on convenience. It’s easier to pick one narrative about an explanation than another.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Just to be clear, we aren’t taking a side in this. We’re just noting that the case continues to fascinate and frustrate a bunch of smart people, each of whom seems to read a different answer in the facts available.


In Tuesday’s NY Times Adam Liptak takes a look behind the metaphorical curtain to find out what kind of process the Supremes and their respective staffs go through when they deal with requests to stay executions.

This isn’t a news story but rather a peek backstage to look at one small part of the way SCOTUS works and it’s quite intriguing. Here’s a clip:

John Balentine was an hour away from being put to death in Texas last month when the Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution.

The unseemly and unsettling spectacle of a last-minute legal scramble in the shadow of the ultimate deadline, with the condemned inmate waiting for word of his fate just outside the death chamber, may suggest that the Supreme Court does not render considered justice when it is asked to halt an execution.

But it tries. Indeed, the court goes to extraordinary lengths to get ready, and its point person is a staff lawyer named Danny Bickell.

“Cases where there is an execution date,” he said with a sigh, “that’s where I come in.”

Mr. Bickell’s formal title is emergency applications clerk, but capital defense lawyers have an informal title for him, too. They call him the death clerk.

In remarks at a conference of lawyers specializing in federal death penalty work at a hotel here last month, Mr. Bickell provided a rare inside look at the Supreme Court’s oversight of the machinery of death in the United States.

It starts with a weekly update…..

Posted in American artists, American voices, crime and punishment, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), immigration, LAPD, LASD, Realignment, Sheriff Lee Baca, Supreme Court, writers and writing | 1 Comment »

DOJ Opposes CA Bar Admission for Undocumented Law Graduate, The Difference in Coverage of 2 American Tragedies….and Title IX in London

August 14th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

There is a pile of Amicus Briefs filed in support of admission to the California state bar
for Sergio Garcia, a 35-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant who was brought to the US when he was 17 months old, worked his way through law school, and passed the bar on his first try. Garcia’s application for a green card, sponsored by his father, has been pending for 18 years.

According to the LA Times’ Maura Dolan there are only two groups or people who have filed briefs in opposition to Garcia’s admission to the bar. One is a former state bar prosecutor. The other is the U.S. Government.

Dolan has the rest of the story. Here are some clips:

An illegal Mexican immigrant who wants to be licensed to practice law in California has received support from the state’s top law enforcement officer, the State Bar of California, civil rights groups, county bar associations and law professors — but not from the Obama administration.

In a brief to the California Supreme Court, theU.S. Department of Justice said federal law prohibits giving a public benefit, such as a bar license, to an “unlawfully present alien.”

The federal law was “plainly designed to preclude undocumented aliens from receiving commercial and professional licenses issued by states and the federal government,” a lawyer for the Justice Department wrote in a brief requested by the state high court.

The Justice Department’s position surprised and dismayed some supporters of Sergio C. Garcia, 35, the immigrant who has passed the bar examination but cannot be licensed unless the state’s highest court approves.


Retired California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, who now practices law in Los Angeles with Irell & Manella, said he had expected the Obama administration to take a more neutral position.

“It does seem contrary to recent efforts by the Obama administration to make immigrants like Garcia a low (enforcement) priority,” said Moreno, who wrote a brief in favor of Garcia on behalf of bar associations.

[WLA NOTE: As it happens, Justice Moreno is also on the Jails Commission.]

Moreno said the federal government’s position, if accepted by the state’s top court, could affect licensing for undocumented immigrants for a wide array of jobs, from cosmetology to building contracting. “If you take the broad interpretation they are taking, it could have wide ramifications for cities and counties and hundreds of professions that require some kind of license,” Moreno said.

Jerome Fishkin, Garcia’s lawyer, called the U.S. position “disappointing but not fatal” and described it as based on a “pretty thin” legal analysis.

As mentioned above, Garcia’s father, whom Dolan reports is now a U.S. citizen, sponsored his son for a green card 18 years ago when Garcia was 17.

That application is still pending.


Late on Monday, the state legislature passed the so-called Middle Class Scholarship act. The San Francisco Chron has the story. Legislature watchers say that state senate may not be as easy to bring across the line.

Here’s a clip:


The New Yorker’s Naunihal Singh writes about the two recent American shooting tragedies, the difference in how they have been covered by the media and the politicians—and why it is important that we care.

Here’s how it opens:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

The tragic events in the Milwaukee suburb were also treated differently by political élites, many fewer of whom issued statements on the matter. While both Presidential candidates at least made public comments, neither visited, nor did they suspend campaigning in the state even for one day, as they did in Colorado. In fact, both candidates were in the vicinity this weekend and failed to appear. Obama hugged his children a little tighter after Aurora, but his remarks after Oak Creek referred to Sikhs as members of the “broader American family,” like some distant relatives. Romney unsurprisingly gaffed, referring on Tuesday to “the people who lost their lives at that sheik temple.”


Mother Jones Magazine reports that, if American women were their own country, they would have gotten the 5th highest number of medals of any of the countries competing—behind the U.S., China, Great Britain and Russia, and before Germany—and everybody else but those top four.

Just thought you’d like to know.


The National Park Service says that P-22 seems to be a shy creature with no interest in pouncing on humans.

Martha Groves from the LA Times reports.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, immigration, women's issues | 4 Comments »

Protests Continue In Anaheim Over Police Killings, LA City Council Goes Med Weed Crazy….and Considering Insanity Pleas

July 25th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


The U.S. Attorney’s office has agreed to review the weekend shootings, according to Anaheim mayor Tom Tait. He will meet on Friday with members of U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI. The AP report has more.

In addition, the mother of Manual Diaz, the man who was killed by Anaheim police on Saturday has publicly and emotionally condemned the violent protests, the AP reports. (NOTE: I’m linking to the Atlanta Journal Constitution version of the AP story because they have posted a video of last night’s violent mess of a demonstration.)

Tuesday night marks the fourth day of protests in Anaheim over the Saturday shooting of an unarmed man, Manual Diaz, who was said to be running from Anaheim officers when he was reportedly shot in the leg and the back of the head.

The community was further upset when, in the minutes after the Diaz shooting, distressed residents and onlookers began arguing with police, at which point officers shot non-lethal projectiles at the crowd that included small children. At one point, a K-9 police dog raced into the same crowd and visibly fastened its teeth to one man’s person or shirt, it’s hard to tell which. Much of this was caught in the KCAL 9 video posted above in a scene that is undeniably disturbing.

Then on Sunday, a second Anaheim man, 21-year-old Joel Mathew Acevedo, was shot and killed by police after he allegedly opened fire after a car chase involving a stolen vehicle, although there is some dispute over the details that account.

Columnist Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly broke the news of the second shooting after noting a Facebook post by the dead man’s mother, whom it turns out he knew.

Whether or not the Acevedo shooting was righteous, it was the last thing this on edge community needed.

Although the Acevedo shooting was reportedly righteous, coming so soon after after that of Diaz, it further inflamed the expanding groups of protesters.

On Tuesday night, protests moved into violence. The LA Times reported that protesters grabbed rocks from a construction site and “hurled them at officers.”

The LA Times also reported that, according to the police, an OC Register reporter was injured by a rock.

Some of the now ubiquitous (and often effective) freelance videographers, doing live streaming from their cell phones, reported being fired at with tiny “bean bags,” pepper balls, and “impact weapons” despite holding up press passes. One of the streaming videographers kept wishing on camera that he had brought his helmet, worrying about rock throwers as well as police. Around 11 pm, live streamers reported the sound of windows being broken at a Starbucks down the street, presumably by protestors. Meanwhile fires burned in nearby dumpsters.

The AP has an overview of events in Anaheim, where it seems anger at the police force has been brewing in the city for a while.

In their team coverage, the OC Register reports that two officers have been put on leave following the shooting of Diaz.

Here’s a clip from the OC Register’s report from the weekend:

Police described Diaz as a “documented gang member,” and said he was shot after the officers saw three men near a car in the 600 block of Anna Drive, near La Palma Avenue and State College Boulevard. Believing the activity to be suspicious, the officers approached the vehicle, and all three men fled on foot.

The officers chased Diaz and observed him throwing unidentified objects onto rooftops as he ran, Welter said. What led one of the officers to shoot Diaz remained under investigation Sunday, Welter said.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said he would be asking California’s attorney general to assist in the investigation.

“I’m asking for a full investigation,” Tait said at a Sunday news conference. “Transparency is essential. Whatever the truth is, we will own it.”

The dead man’s sister, Lupe Diaz, said Sunday that her brother was “just hanging out with friends” before the shooting.

“There is no explanation,” Diaz said. “It’s not fair.”

The Registor also reported that, according to the Anaheim police, the K-9 police dog, which evidently bit several people, got loose from a police car accidentally.

Reuters reports that Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait is now calling for both a state and federal review of the whole matter.


For 5 years, the LA City Council has been trying—unsuccessfully-–to come up with a sensible way to regulate the medical marijuana dispensaries that have been popping up in the city like….well…weeds. Now, it seems, because of the council’s inability to come up with a legally viable way to set down some firm guidelines, big pot sellers have taken advantage of the situation (how shocking!), thus our fair council members have decided to shut down all retail sales—-with the possible exception of 182 dispensaries that opened before a 2007 city moratorium, which might—or might not— have been given some kind of loophole. What kind of loophole, and what practical difference it will make, seems somewhat unclear.

In other words, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what this vote will mean for medical marijuana in LA in the future.

For the moment, however, KPCC’s Alice Walton has one of the best reports on Tuesday’s medical weed banning activities.

Here’s how her story opens:

Nonprofit storefronts that sell medical marijuana will be banned in the city of Los Angeles under a proposal approved Tuesday.

The Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to prohibit the sale of medical cannabis in retail establishments. However, exemptions will allow patients to continue growing marijuana for their own use, and primary caregivers may continue to distribute the drug.

The vote, which came after hours of public testimony and debate, drew sharp criticism from patients who use medical marijuana to tame the side effects of their illnesses. Some public speakers shouted at council members and then the police officers who took to the council chamber after the vote.

Earlier in the day, the council heard from patients and advocates of medical marijuana.

“A ban on medical cannabis collectives and cooperatives is an attack on patients. They need this. It can work in other cities,” said Don Duncan, the California director of Americans for Safe Access. “You guys have to get it together and pass regulations that protect safe access for legitimate patients for legal operations.”

The original vote against the ban was 13-1, with Councilman Paul Koretz dissenting. However, the councilman later flipped his vote so the ordinance could get to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s desk sooner. The ban will take effect in about 40 days. Dispensary owners who do not close their businesses could face fines or misdemeanors, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly also has a good report. But be sure to read through all the updates for the full story.


The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes has done a great job laying out this interesting and important question just as the Supreme Court was hearing a request to take on the issue. Here’s how Barnes’ story opens:

There’s no doubt John Joseph Delling knew what he was doing. His carefully planned 2007 crime spree lasted weeks, covered 6,500 miles and culminated in two people dead and one seriously wounded.

He had his reasons, too. Delling, then 21, had become “a type of Jesus,” he later explained, and the men he attacked, two of them former classmates he had not seen in years, were stealing his “energy.” An MRI of his brain would have revealed the damage the men had already caused, he told authorities.

I had to defend myself,” he said.

As the nation confronts another act of unfathomable madness, Delling’s story is one chapter in a distressing and violent genre: the loner who tries to impress a movie star by shooting the president; the mother who drowns her children to save them from damnation; the black-clad shooter who seems to step from the movie screen to kill.

But Delling’s case presents an intriguing legal question as well. He committed his crimes in Idaho, which is one of only four states — Kansas, Montana and Utah are the others — in which a defendant may not use insanity as a defense to criminal charges.

Delling’s lawyers are now at the Supreme Court, asking the justices to rule that the Constitution mandates that such a defense be available for those who, because of mental illness, are not responsible for the mayhem they create.

“For centuries, the moral integrity of the criminal law has depended, in part, on the insanity defense,” Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher wrote in a petition on Delling’s behalf.

Posted in Contemplating Crime & Consequence, crime and punishment, criminal justice, law enforcement, Medical Marijuana, Supreme Court | 6 Comments »

Gathering Some Thoughts About the Murders in Aurora

July 23rd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Over the weekend, it was hard to focus on news other than the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed, 58 wounded, at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. With this in mind,
we’ve set aside other issues and have gathered some reports and stories that you might have missed.


Journalist and author Dave Cullen has first hand experience about the perils of jumping to conclusions about mass murder—and mass murderers. He is the author of the excellent book Columbine, which deconstructs in harrowing detail the myriad events that led to the Columbine school massacre, after which everyone reporting on the tragedy, including Cullen himself, seemed to get it wrong.

Here’s the opening of his essay about the Colorado shooting for Sunday’s NY Times.

YOU’VE had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with “facts” and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong.

I learned that the hard way. In 1999 I lived in Denver and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked. I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them.

Not one bit of that turned out to be true.

But the news media jumped to all those conclusions in the first 24 hours, so they are accepted by many people today as fact. The real story is a lot more disturbing. And instructive.


It is nearly impossible not to talk about gun control after this shooting (pro and con). And yet the presidential candidates have managed it.
Here are some of the more articulate pleas for a real discussion on the matter.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about what the politicians—on the right and the left—won’t talk about.

The murders—it dignifies them to call them a “tragedy”—in Aurora, Colorado, have hit us all hard, though the grief of the friends and families of the victims is unimaginable. Still, it hits home, or someplace worse than home, for any parent who (as I did, as so many did) had a kid at one of the many midnight screenings of the new Batman movie last night, they having gone to see it the moment it opened. Once again, as so often before, the unthinkable news is disassembled, piece by piece, into its heartbreaking parts. After the Virginia Tech shooting, the horrifying detail, as I wrote at the time, was that the cell phones were still ringing in the pockets of the dead children as their parents tried to call them. In Colorado, you can’t expunge the knowledge of the sudden turn from pleasure to horror that those children experienced.


The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it.


The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue. Does anyone even remember any longer last July’s gun massacre, those birthday-party killings in Texas, when an estranged husband murdered his wife and most of her family, leaving six dead?
But nothing changes: the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment—despite the clear grammar of its first sentence—is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed

And then there is James Fallows’ Sunday night post at the Atlantic, after readers wrote him to say he was too pessimistic and furious in his earlier post about his certainty shootings like this would happen again.

Here’s a clip from the first post:

Like everyone, and I’d say especially like every parent, I am of course saddened and horrified by the latest mass shooting-murder. My sympathies to all.

And of course the additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else…..

Now here’s a clip from the second post that went up Sunday night (in which he doesn’t back off in the least):

….I never mean to give in to jaded fatalism, so I will reflect on this again.

….Meanwhile, this sample of the insanity of today’s “security” thinking.

The latest Colorado shooter — like Jared Loughner of Tucson, Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech, and the countless others whose names we forget after they have done their damage — could not legally have walked onto an airplane carrying a water bottle, or without taking off his shoes.

But he could walk down the street with a legally purchased assault rifle, body armor, and as much ammo as he could lift.

At some point the madness of this disproportion may sink in. To be clear on my own views: I see no reason why a civilian should be allowed to possess an assault rifle like this shooter’s AR-15, a civilian version of the military M16, or similar high-capacity weapons. These are for soldiers and others formally authorized to administer deadly force.

And while we’re on the “madness” topic, please consider:

The lasting distortion in our airport operations and travel “security” rules if these same 12 people had been killed and dozens injured on an airplane. We’d have Congressional hearings, sackings of TSA officials, new inspections and screening machines “to keep us safe,” and so on.
The military, diplomatic, and cultural consequences if the Batman murderer had happened to yell “Allahu Akbar!” or “Death to America!” before dispatching his victims….


This weekend Doug Berman, the attorney/law professor/sentencing expert who blogs at Sentencing Law and Policy, generated a LOT of heated discussion in response to this post on the shooting rampage in which he said how relieved he was that Colorado is a death penalty state.

(A little later, he revisited his thoughts on the matter with a cooler head here in his Sunday post, but he didn’t dial back his point.)

Here’s a small clip from the post that stirred everyone up:

….In the immediate aftermath of these sorts of horrific mass killings, I find it so very hard to react with my head without also listening to my heart. And in these kind of awful cases, my heart (or is it my gut) often suggests to me that ultimate punishment of death is the only one which feels fitting. I suspect Colorado prosecutors (and perhaps also federal prosecutors) will have similar feelings…..

(Readers here know that we at WLA are big fans of Doug Berman,which doesn’t mean we agree with him on absolutely everything).


In the midst of much nattering by TV talking heads on the issue, former LAPD chief Bill Bratton was refreshingly sane and specific on Meet the Press as he responded to the argument that, if only theater goers had been carrying their own guns, much of the theater shooting tragedy could have been averted.

(NOTE: You have to listen to quite a bit of blather before you get to Bratton’s comments at about minute 2:03.)

Earlier in the weekend, Bratton told FOX News that “What we need is “some sanity in our gun control laws.”

Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt

Posted in Bill Bratton, Contemplating Crime & Consequence, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, guns, media | 41 Comments »

1 Big Fireworks Fail, 2 Different Views of LWOP & NOLA’s Struggle With Crime

July 5th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

As may have already seen, for some incomprehensible reason,
all the fireworks at the Port of San Diego, originally scheduled in a multi-site show billed as the BIG BAY BOOM, “one of the largest fireworks shows in the US,” turned into the BIG BAY….Pfffttttt! when all the goodies went off simultaneously Wednesday night, producing a giganzoid fireball, followed by a few whimpers of light….and then nothing.

Dennis Romero at LA Weekly has an amusing take on the big fireworks FAIL.

And the BBB people put this out about 11:25 pm:

Approximately 5 minutes before the show was to start, a signal was sent to the barges that would set the timing for the rest of the show after the introduction. There were a number of preliminary test signals sent hours and minutes leading up to the show. All these signals tested properly according to Garden State Fireworks, the fireworks company that provides the show.

The Garden State Fireworks team will be working throughout the night to determine what technical problem caused the entire show to be launched in about 15 seconds.

We apologize for the brevity of the show and the technical difficulties.

NOTE: @BenBaller, who took the very cool photo at the top of the post, when not going to prematurely exploding fireworks shows, is a part of a company that purveys “high-end jewelry for the Hip Hop community.”


Doug Berman at Sentencing, Law & Policy, in a follow-up to last week’s Miller decision regarding juvenile LWOP, has several interesting posts that relate to the issue.

The first one, posted on Tuesday, July 3, is a letter from the mother of a murder victim who explains why she isn’t for juvenile life sentences. Here’s a clip from her compassionate but very painful letter:

I certainly never imagined that I would become a passionate advocate against life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. I had never confronted the issue until November 18, 1986, the day my world was forever changed when my 26-year-old daughter Cathy, then pregnant with her second child, was killed by two teenage boys.

This tragedy set me on an unlikely path that led me to discover that even youths who commit the worst crimes have the capacity to grow into mature, redeemed adults. I know this because I watched my daughter’s killer, Gary, become such an adult.

I spent the years following Cathy’s death studying to become a grief counselor. I became involved in a restorative justice program, Bridges to Life, that allows convicts and crime victims to open a dialogue and work toward reconciliation. In 2000, I opened myself up to this dialogue with Gary.

When I met Gary, I found that he was a very different person from the boy who once committed a horrible act. He was a remorseful grown man desperately seeking forgiveness and a chance to make up for the hurt he caused. My decision to forgive Gary does not mean that what happened is OK. It can never be OK, and Gary knows that as well as I do. But keeping him in prison for a longer period would not bring my daughter back….

Read the rest. There’s a lot more.


This second story, posted on July 4, features Berman linking to a local Australian media outlet as a way of illustrating the stark difference between Australia’s attitude toward life imprisonment and ours. And remember, Australia’s not exactly a shrinking violet as a country or as a citizenry. Here’s the opening:

A Supreme Court judge has criticised the Northern Territory sentencing regime as “unjust and unfair”. Justice Dean Mildren made the comment after sentencing Darren Jason Halfpenny to 20 years in jail for the contract killing of a man in Katherine.

Justice Mildren said he was required to impose a minimum 20 year prison term because of the mandatory sentencing regime in the Territory. “It is unjust and unfair, and contrary to the public interest, that prisoners who plead guilty … and are remorseful … are left in a situation where their earlier release is left in the hands of the executive (government),” he said.

Russell Golflam of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory agrees. “Mandatory sentencing is, in principle, obnoxious,” he said. Mr Golflam says judges should be given the power to do the job that they’re paid to do; impose appropriate penalties according to the circumstances of the case. “Parliament and governments should not take that job away from judges,” he said. He is calling for the Sentencing Act to be amended.

Justice Mildren recommended that Halfpenny be released on parole after 14 years because he will testify against his co-accused in the murder…

And here’s Berman’s compare and contrast experiment:

— in Australia, a sentencing judge is bemoaning as “unjust and unfair” a legislative requirement to impose a 20-year prison term with parole on an adult who intentionally committed a brutal contract murder. This kind of homicide in the US would clearly qualify as first-degree murder in just about every US state and in most would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. The defendant’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate would likely prompt most US prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table but likely still would make a (perhaps mandatory) LWOP sentence still possible (even probably) for the premeditated and henious crime.

— in the United States, four Justices of our Supreme Court in Miller have bemoaned the majority’s ruling that the US Constitutional prohibits a legislative requirement to impos a life prison term without parole on a 14-year-old who unexpectedly had a role in the another’s lethal shooting of a store clerk during an intentional robbery. This kind of homicide in Australia, I suspect based on this somewhat dated report on homicide sentencing patterns, would likely result in the offender getting a prison sentence of just over 10 years with the possibility of parole a few years soon.


Thursday NPR’s Morning Edition has an interesting but troubling story about how New Orleans is now the nation’s murder capital but that its citizens are unsure how to combat the rash of killings, and whom to trust to help. Here’s a clip:

New Orleans now has the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Most of the killings are concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods — places like Central City, just a few blocks north of the stately mansions that line St. Charles Avenue.

The city’s mayor is launching a new program aimed at cracking what he describes as a deeply rooted culture of violence. But victims complain that a failed criminal justice system has left the streets to vigilante justice, with innocent residents caught in the crossfire.


“Many of our political figures and police officers are in the news themselves. That stigmatizes a community,” Jackson says. She says people are often reluctant to cooperate because they see that city officials and police officers are often in trouble.

“We try to encourage folks,” she says. “We still have to do what’s right, in spite of living in a corrupt city.”

The Justice Department has found a long-standing pattern of corruption and unconstitutional behavior by the New Orleans Police Department. The result of that culture, Jackson says, is a vigilante justice system on the streets.

“Folks feel like, ‘It’s easier for me and my family to look for the perpetrator, to figure out what has happened, and get our own justice, and we’ll be at peace,’ ” Jackson says. “But that’s not the answer, either.”

Photo courtesy of @BenBaller

Posted in crime and punishment, Life in general, LWOP Kids, Sentencing | 1 Comment »

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