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Media & Crime & Race…Emotion Makes Bad Law…..Were SF Jail Deputies Behind Inmates Gladiator Fights?…A SF Jail Deputies Behind Inmates Gladiator Fights?

March 30th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


DEAR MEDIA, ABOUT THE CRIME & RACE THING…YOU’RE NOT HELPING

We know that, statistically, poor minority defendants fair far less well when they come in contact with the American criminal justice system than do non-minorities.

Now, according to a recent report by Media Matters, it turns out that the media also tends to give disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving African-American suspects, over those involving non-black suspects.

Think progress has more on the story.

Compared to the percentage of crimes they actually commit, African Americans are grossly overrepresented on local news broadcasts about criminal activity, according to a new report from Media Matters for America. In New York City alone, black people make up 75 percent of criminals discussed on local channels, whereas they only make up 51 percent of the actual arrest rate.

Summarizing the report, the Color of Change, a black advocacy organization, concluded that all four [NYC] channels [studied] failed to contextualize the crimes that were reported, making no mention of discriminatory policing that targets African American communities or systemic factors that contribute to crime, such as unemployment. By portraying black people as the vast majority of perpetrators, the news stations detracted from criminal activities perpetrated by non-black persons and fueled racial bias.

Unfortunately, media bias parallels extensive research that shows how African Americans are far more criminalized than their white counterparts, nationwide. One study about “who looks criminal” determined that police officers frequently associate black faces with criminal behavior. According to a 2010 survey, white people overestimated African Americans’ participation in burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime by 20-30 percent. Additionally, white people support stricter criminal justice policies if they think that more black people are arrested as a result.

There’s more, so read the rest.


EMOTION MAKES FOR BAD LAW—PARTICULARLY WHEN IT COMES TO SEX OFFENDERS

California Proposition 83—otherwise known as Jessica’s Law—passed easily in 2006, and has made a mess ever since, as evidenced by two recent court decisions. Jessica’s law, in case you don’t remember, set down a bunch of regulations and prohibitions about where sex offenders could and could not live after being released from prison. The answer too often was nowhere, which has resulted in homeless sex offenders living on the street, under bridges, in cars—hardly safe situations for anyone.

The LA Times editorial board lays the matter out in a strong and sensible editorial that includes some suggestion solutions.

Here’s how it opens:

Jessica’s Law — California’s version of it, anyway — was a mess from the beginning. Voters here adopted it (as Proposition 83 in 2006 )because they mistakenly believed they were cracking down on horrific crimes against children. They were urged on by nightly harangues from national TV commentators who campaigned on-air for swift action following the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida, a crime that touched an especially sensitive nerve here because the circumstances nearly mirrored the nightmarish killing of Polly Klaas in California a decade earlier. But emotional outpourings of fear, revulsion and collective guilt too often translate poorly into policy and law, and that was surely the case with Proposition 83.

The latest reminder of the law’s failure came last week, when state parole officials announced that they would no longer enforce the measure’s blanket ban on paroled sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children regularly gather.

That decision follows a state Supreme Court ruling this month invalidating the ban as it applied in San Diego County.

Californians have every right to protect their children from child molesters, so it would be understandable if they were perplexed by the actions of the court and corrections officials — until they realize that the residency restriction did nothing of the sort.

In fact, it likely undermined public safety for everyone, children included, by pushing paroled sex offenders from their homes and compelling them to live homeless or as transients, leaving the public in the dark as to their whereabouts and making parolees harder for agents to find.

Besides, it is important to remember that the law did not single out child molesters. It did not distinguish parolees at high risk to commit new crimes, or those more likely to target children, from any of the other 6,000 parolees required to register as sex offenders — or indeed any of the approximately 80,000 Californians not on parole but with a sex offense on their record….


SAN FRANCISCO JAIL DEPUTIES ALLEGEDLY FORCED INMATES TO FIGHT WHILE THEY PLACED BETS

San Francisco’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, announced on Thursday that at least four of the county’s jail deputies reportedly had a little side bets on gladiator-like fights they threatened and cajoled inmates into staging.

(Really, people? After all the scandals in and around the jails in LA, you still think this is a good idea?)

In any case, Vivian Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle has the story.

Here’s a clip:

San Francisco sheriff’s deputies arranged and gambled on battles between County Jail inmates, forcing one to train for the fights and telling them to lie if they needed medical attention, the city’s public defender said Thursday.

Since the beginning of March, at least four deputies at County Jail No. 4 at 850 Bryant St. threatened inmates with violence or withheld food if they did not fight each other, gladiator-style, for the entertainment of the deputies, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

Adachi said the ringleader in these fights was Deputy Scott Neu, who was accused in 2006 of forcing inmates to perform sexual acts on him. That case was settled out of court.

“I don’t know why he does it, but I just feel like he gets a kick out of it because I just see the look on his face,” said Ricardo Palikiko Garcia, one of the inmates who said he was forced to fight. “It looks like it brings him joy by doing this, while we’re suffering by what he’s doing.”

An attorney for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Association said that the allegations were “exaggerated,” and that what happened was basically “horseplay.”

District Attorney George Gascón called the allegations “deplorable.”

Vivian Ho provides has a lot more about the accusations, so read on.


Posted in Civil Liberties, crime and punishment, jail, media, prison policy, race, race and class | 7 Comments »

Study Shows LA County Probation Kids Not Getting Needed Help…. Mass Murder Meets Prosecutorial Madness….Local FBI Agent Indicted

March 27th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



INFORMATION LACKING FOR LA COUNTY PROBATION KIDS

Up until now, LA County juvenile probation—the largest juvenile justice system in the nation—knew very little about the kids in its care, what challenges those kids faced, which methods might be best suited to address a kid’s challenges, and whether or not those methods were actually working—and if not, why not.

On Thursday, however, all that changed with the release of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study, a 155-page report that took almost four years to complete, and that will hopefully be difficult to ignore.

The report shows, for example, that one-third of the kids who wind up in the county’s juvenile camps or the probation run group homes, get arrested again within a year of their release. But we pretty much already knew that. So it is more interesting to note that nearly all of the kids in either the homes or camps had been on probation prior to the arrest that sent them into the county’s care, and had not gotten the help they needed when on home probation either. Moreover, the report digs into what broke down in the kids’ lives that could have and should have been addressed for better results for all concerned.

Yet, in addition to delivering those and other pieces of bad news, the report looks deeply at the kinds of problems these youth face, then makes a series of recommendations designed to improve the probation kids’ chances of rebooting their lives. The researchers also lay out what they call “targeted reforms” to help LA County Probation fundamentally transform its approach to the youth it serves.

DATA MATTERS

In many ways, the best news out of this study is the fact that the study was done at all. Prior to its release this week, there was—as mentioned above—very little to tell us about the LA County kids who land in LA County’s care, what got those kids there, and how well or poorly they did when they got out.

As a consequence, nearly all the decisions made about how LA County Probation dealt with the kids in its care were, up until now, done flying blind. (Not that this is surprising news in that we are talking about the same probation agency that a few years ago misplaced a full third of their workforce. But those were very dark times, so we won’t return there.)

Now, thankfully, we have a rigorous piece of research and data gathering to provide a baseline, and that, by its existence, demands ongoing research and data gathering.

Moreover, the study was led by Cal State LA’s Dr. Denise Herz, who is considered one of California’s go to researchers in the realm of juvenile justice, gang violence and the like. Plus, the report was a collaborative effort that included other top notch researchers as consultants, plus youth advocates such as the Children’s Defense Fund, with the Advancement Project providing oversight in addition to getting the money to fund the thing (from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation).

To their credit, probation fully cooperated—even if, at times, reluctantly..

“What is encouraging,” said Michelle Newell from the Children’s Defense Fund, who was one of the study’s authors, “is that many county leaders, including the Board of Supervisors, probation, and judges, seem committed to using the findings in this study to both strengthen data collection, and to improve outcomes for youth.”

We’ll have more about the study early next week. So stay tuned.


AND IN OTHER NEWS….HOW DID ORANGE COUNTY’S WORST MASS SHOOTING TURN INTO A PROSECUTORIAL DISASTER?

Impossible though it sounds on its face, Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas and his prosecutors managed to spectacularly blow the sentencing hearings in a high profile mass murder case in which the murderer confessed. The OC Weekly’s Scott Moxley lays it all out for you, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Here’s how the story opens:

Orange County’s worst mass shooting, the so-called 2011 Seal Beach hair-salon massacre, began as a traumatizing event for all, but it has devolved into one of the most polarizing legal struggles to hit our legal system. The question isn’t about Scott Dekraai’s guilt. Dekraai admitted to police that he was the killer within minutes of the shooting. Controversy swirls, however, around the tactics of prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies trying to impose a death-penalty punishment rather than a 200-plus-year prison sentence without the possibility for parole. With one embarrassing revelation after another, the battle has grown painful, especially for the baffled families of the victims. To help understand why Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, himself an accomplished former prosecutor, this month made a historic decision to recuse Tony Rackauckas and his district attorney’s office (OCDA), we are providing a chronology of events:

Read on.


LOCAL FBI AGENT INDICTED FOR….LOTS OF THINGS

On Thursday, a local FBI agent (who had a very, very small part in the feds’ investigation of the LASD) was indicted for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and more. In short, he got WAY more involved than was even vaguely appropriate with a federal witness.

ABC7′s Lisa Bartley has the story. Here’s a clip:

FBI Special Agent Timothy Joel worked out of the Los Angeles FBI Field Office. The indictment relates to Joel’s alleged relationship with a woman who was arrested at the Otay Mesa border in 2007. The woman, a Korean national, was being smuggled into the United States to work as a prostitute. Joel allegedly helped her stay in the U.S. by claiming she was an important witness in a human smuggling investigation.

According to the indictment, Joel provided the woman with regular cash payments from his personal bank account totaling nearly $20,000 and later moved in with her in an apartment in Los Angeles.

In 2013, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Joel’s alleged actions.

Here’s the full text of the indictment. Special Agent Joel Indictment

Posted in children and adolescents, crime and punishment, FBI, juvenile justice, Probation, Prosecutors | No Comments »

After 24 Years, Juvie LWOP Lifer Paroled…2 Supremes Blast US Justice System…Recognizing Good Prosecutors

March 26th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


CONVICTED OF MURDER AT 16, RELEASED 24 YEARS LATER IN ONE OF FIRST SB 9 PAROLES

In 1991, the year that LA’s gang violence was at its most deadly, Janet Bicknell, a 49-year-old teacher’s aide, was driving home from a Westminster supermarket. Five gang members—four of them adults—were looking for a car to jack with the idea of using the car in a drive-by shooting against some “enemy” gangsters and they spotted Bicknell’s car. One of the five, 16-year-old named Edel Gonzalez, a gang member since he was 11 and the only kid of the group, stepped in front of Bicknell’s car then tried to yank open the driver’s side door. When Bicknell attempted to drive away, one of the adult gangsters raised a .44-caliber pistol and shot Bicknell in the head, killing her.

The senseless brutality of the murder shocked Westminster. Although Gonzalez did not himself kill Bicknell, the crime was committed in the course of a robbery, so the other four—including Gonzalez—could legally be tied to it along with the actual shooter. Gonzalez was the first of the group to go to trial and, in 1993, he became the youngest person in Orange County to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole

Fast forward more than twenty years, to September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown—after much dithering—signed AB 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allows some of those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, to apply for resentencing hearings if they have served 15 to 25 years, and have met certain strict criteria.

So it was that that Gonzalez became the first person in California to apply for resentencing under the new law. In December 2013, Judge Thomas Goethals changed Gonzalez’s sentence from life without to 25 years to life with parole.

Then in 2014, a second law known as Senate Bill 260, went effect requiring parole commissioners to consider the diminished culpability of youth at the time of their crime.

The combination of the two laws, plus Gonzalez exemplary behavior in prison along with his ongoing expressions of responsibility and profound regret about the murder of Bicknell, helped his pro bono lawyers at USC’s Post Conviction Project successfully advocate in his behalf.

On Tuesday of this week, Gonzalez was released from custody.

Back in 2013, Gonzalez told the judge that, if he was released, he hoped to work with kids to help them stay out of gangs. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of the wrong, the harm and the pain I’ve caused,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who was brought to the US by his parents as a small child, is not a citizen. As a consequence, he will deported to Mexico shortly. He already has plans in place in Tijuana, where he will work at a local church counseling kids about staying out of trouble, in addition to other tasks.

Here’s what Marshall Camp, one of Edel’s earlier lawyers, said about his client to Super Lawyers after his 2013 resentencing. “He lived a model life in prison, avoiding gangs, drugs, and violence, while taking advantage of educational opportunities and finding religion. I can’t imagine how someone could do that with no realistic prospect of ever getting out.”

Merisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times has more.

In California, about 310 prisoners are serving life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the corrections department. Nationwide, about 2,500 prisoners are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, said James D. Ross, spokesman for Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The California legislation, SB 9 — which comes into effect as Gov. Jerry Brown has been paroling more “lifers,” including adults convicted of murder — shows how the state has “evolved,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.

“It really shows that California is on the right track,” she said, “that it’s trying to shape its laws with what we know is true: That young people have a capacity to turn around their lives.”

But Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who helped found the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, said she was concerned about setting violent offenders back into the community.

“If anybody dies because this guy got let out, what are you going to say to those people?” said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and her husband were killed in 1990 by a 16-year-old in a suburb of Chicago. “I know everyone loves to believe every human being is fixable. I used to believe that — sadly, I know differently now.”

Two landmark court decisions also paved the way for the laws that resulted in Gonzalez’s Tuesday release.

First, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole was cruel and unusual. (Superstar civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson argued Miller v. Alabama before SCOTUS.)

Then in May 2014, the California Supreme Court handed down its own ruling to modify California’s sentencing law, with People v. Gutierrez, which affirmed that juveniles are different from adults, and that these differences must be taken into account in sentencing, even in very serious cases.

While it (obviously) had no effect on Gonzalez’ case, it is interesting to note that in Florida, that state’s supreme court ruled last week that juveniles not convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life in prison, and that even those convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life without parole.


TWO SCOTUS JUSTICES SLAM THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM IN CONGRESSIONAL HEARING

In testimony on Monday before a house subcommittee, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Bryer surprised many observers by blasting the U.S. Justice System for, among other things, over incarceration, “terrible” sentencing minimums, and the use of solitary confinement.

Justice Kennedy, the much watched swing voted on the court, was up first, and was asked about the nation’s “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding.” Think Progress’s Jess Bravin has this about what Kennedy said:

“In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. Doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation.

Kennedy, who seemed to be more voluble in his testimony than Breyer, also slammed the nation’s overuse of incarceration.

“This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” said Kennedy. In many instances, he said, it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation and other supervised release programs.

The whole thing just wasn’t cost effective, Kennedy told the committee, and wasn’t helpful to public safety.

Justice Breyer added that mandatory minimum sentences were “a terrible idea,” and urged Congress to “prioritize” improvements to the criminal-justice system. Breyer has long been an opponent of mandatory minimums, which he says “set back the cause of justice.”


LET’S RECOGNIZE THE MAJORITY OF GOOD PROSECUTORS SAYS INNOCENCE PROJECT LAW SCHOOL PROF

We at WitnessLA are often critical of prosecutorial overreach and misconduct, in which winning seems all important, and seeking justice falls by the wayside.

Yet this Op Ed for Politico by Lara Bazelon—associate clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School and director of the school’s Project for the Innocent—is an important reminder that, like journalists and cops, the majority of prosecutors are doing their damnedest to use their profession to make things better.

Here’s a clip:

….It is a misconception that prosecutors simply take the job to put people behind bars. Yes, there are bad apples, but they are a minority whose misdeeds attract a disproportionate share of media attention. The vast majority of prosecutors go into this line of work to ensure that citizens get justice—and, in a growing number of cases, that means helping to free wrongly convicted felons.

Last year, 125 men and women were released from prison because they were wrongfully convicted, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That is more than two people per week and a record number of exonerations for a given year. More than half of these cases—or 67— were overturned because of prosecutors like Mark Larson either cooperated or led the charge to set the record straight and ensure that justice was done.

The irony of my writing this essay is not lost on me. Before directing the innocence project at Loyola Law School, I spent seven years working as a deputy federal public defender where my role in the system was to vigorously defend the criminally accused regardless of whether they “did it” or not. My job description emphatically did not include singing the praises of prosecutors. But it is important to do that. We should call out bad prosecutors and punish their misconduct, of course. Just as importantly, we should make sure that honorable prosecutors get the attention and respect they deserve.

Many exonerations receive extensive media coverage, searing into the national consciousness the image of the prisoner’s emotional reaction at the moment of freedom as we learn about the long road from hopeless, unmitigated suffering to sudden and complete redemption.

Afterwards come the recriminations. Prosecutors lied and withheld evidence. Witnesses who claimed to be 100 percent positive were in fact 100 percent wrong, coaxed or coerced into finger-pointing by overzealous police officers. Our system of justice, we are told over and over again, is irretrievably broken.

What receives less discussion is the powerful, positive narrative behind the recent statistics: the story of the good prosecutor. The National Registry of Exonerations records not only the number of exonerations, but their cause.

Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Sentencing | No Comments »

San Jose Veteran Officer Killed by Suicidal Shooter After Answering Call for Help

March 25th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


When 14-year veteran San Jose police officer Michael Johnson
was fatally shot Tuesday evening, he was responding to a call for help from a family member who reported a despondent drunk man, possibly suicidal, possessing one or more guns.

The SJPD community is reeling as they mourning the loss of a fellow officer who gave his life in the line of duty, on a callout to protect the safety of others.

The San Jose Mercury News has additional details.

Here’s a clip:

San Jose officers were initially called at 6:48 p.m. Tuesday by a female family member who said that [shooting suspect Scott] Dunham was intoxicated, despondent and possibly meant to harm himself or others, {SJPD Chief] Esquivel said. As the officers approached the apartment building on Senter Road and spotted a person on a balcony, they were fired upon without warning.

Police dispatch recordings show that officers told dispatchers they believed the man they were searching for had one or two handguns in the apartment.

At one point, as they approach the apartment, an officer says, “we have movement from the blinds at the apartment.”

An officer calmly reports that a male has stepped out onto the balcony, describing him as having gray hair, a gray mustache and a black T-shirt. Seconds later, the “shots fired” call can be heard, followed almost immediately by the “officer down” call.

Dispatchers immediately called for the area to be secured and put out a citywide call for assistance. Another officer reported that shots were fired at the suspect, and that he possibly “went down as well.” Esquivel confirmed the gunfire exchange and the possibility that Dunham was wounded.

“This person had the nerve, the audacity, to shoot at our officers who were on a call for assistance,” Esquivel said.

An outpouring of grief flowed from both members of the public and law enforcement agencies throughout California and across the nation Tuesday night. Hundreds of social media users sent their condolences to San Jose police through the department’s Twitter account.

WitnessLA joins San Jose in grieving for their brave officer.

Posted in law enforcement, Life in general | No Comments »

John Oliver Blasts Municipal Fine Swindle-System, LAPD Empathy Training, LA City Crime Rates, and Former LA DA Paid to Lobby for New Jail

March 25th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

JOHN OLIVER SHINES A LIGHT ON MUNICIPAL FINES AS ABUSIVE MEANS TO FUND CITIES

Many cities use the revenue from tickets for municipal violations to fund public services, and happily heap on further penalties for inability to pay—fines for the fines. Obviously, this system disproportionately affects the poor. In addition to incurring impossible debt, people who cannot pay their tickets can also lose their drivers licenses in many states. This, in turn, means that they can no longer drive to a job to earn money to funnel into the city’s coffers, and the pockets of private probation debt-collecting companies. Sometimes an inability to pay these fines can even land them in (debtor’s) prison.

On Last Week Tonight John Oliver took on the issue, sharing some deeply troubling tales, including the story of a grandmother who racked up thousands of dollars in insurmountable late fines. The grandmother lost her car, lost her license, and spent ten days in jail.

We highly suggest watching the above segment in its entirety.


NEW LAPD TRAINING: EMPATHIZING TO DE-ESCALATE

LAPD officers are receiving a new one-week empathy-focused training on how to de-escalate encounters with people who are mentally ill and showing signs of aggression. The goal to equip cops with better techniques for interacting with people suffering a mental health crisis who do not pose an immediate threat, to avoid unnecessary use of lethal force. Officers are taught to use humor, first names, and other non-threatening conversational strategies while slowly backing away. The safety of officers and the public are, of course, still of highest priority.

Participants are also taught about various types of mental disorders they may come in contact with. Thus far about 1,000 of the 10,000 sworn have taken the new course.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the new training. Here are some clips:

The scene was tense: Two Los Angeles Police officers approach a man yelling and screaming at the end of a cul de sac. He looks angry and aggressive as he paces back and forth in the middle of the street.

“I just got back two weeks ago,” he shouts. “Two weeks ago!” The man is an Iraq War veteran.

“Tell me about it,” an officer calmly asks. He is met with anger. “What are you trying to do? Don’t try to talk to me. Nobody understands what it was like over there.”

“Sir, I’m here to help you,” the officer responds. He watches the man’s hands closely to see if he grabs a weapon.

The man is unarmed. He starts to calm down.

Suddenly, lights come on.

The two officers are standing in front of a screen inside the LAPD’s “force option” simulator.

[SNIP]

Peter Moskos, who teaches at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the techniques taught at this class only work if everyone uses them.

Too often, he said, a patrol officer may be bringing down the stress when a more aggressive “obnoxious” cop swoops in and makes a mess of things.

“This frustrates cops to no end,” said Moskos, a former Baltimore City police officer. “You could be de-escalating the scene, and someone in your squad shows up, and you go, ‘Oh, my god, now it’s going to explode, because they just don’t know how to talk to people.’ Because they don’t have that empathy.”


BIG FLUCTUATIONS IN LOS ANGELES CRIME RATES

The LAPD reported Tuesday that shootings have risen 31% (54 incidents) over last year. Violent crime went up 27% overall, and property crime increased 12%. Several other types of crime experienced similar spikes. Homicides, however, dropped 2%.

The sizable disparity in crime numbers may be due, in part, to the LAPD correcting crime classification issues (more on that here), but it’s hard to tell this early. Department officials believe gang-related violence may be behind the the jump in shootings.

The LA Times’ Richard Winton and Ben Poston have more on the numbers. Here’s a clip:

“We are putting our officers in corridors that are the hottest for crime,” said Assistant Chief Jorge Villegas.

The department is also relying more on crime data to help predict where hot spots might develop and deploy extra resources there, Beck said.

[SNIP]

Officials said fixing the classification process has resulted in more serious assault cases on the books.

But the crime increase in 2015 goes beyond this one offense.

Villegas cited a jump in robberies, particularly in downtown L.A. and surrounding areas. Robberies are up 19% citywide compared to this time last year. Police have reported 7% more rapes this year compared to 2014.

Some of the crime, Villegas said, is connected with the skid row homeless population fighting over territory as well as an increase in street crime. Central Division, which includes skid row, has recorded a 73% surge in violent crime this year compared to 2014.


FORMER LA DISTRICT ATTORNEY STEVE COOLEY LOBBYING FOR NEW JAIL DEAL

Former LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley has taken up lobbying for an Adelanto jail plan…for pay.

Back in December, the Adelanto City Council voted 4-1 in favor of building a new 3,264-bed jail, with the idea that LA County would lease the $324 million facility and fork over what, for the small San Bernardino city, would be some much-needed cash.

Private developer Doctor R. Crants hired the former DA to throw his weight behind the controversial jail proposal, and hopes to pitch the idea to the LA County Board of Supervisors as soon as possible.

The Hesperia Star’s Brooke Self has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We’re working on it (but) we haven’t been able to schedule a vote yet (with the Board of Supervisors),” Johns said about progress and potential support from LA County. “We (hope) to be able to have a presentation with the Sheriff next week. Once we meet with the Sheriff and get the green light there — we won’t go to the Supervisors until we get encouragement from the Sheriff.”
When asked how he thought Cooley’s influence might impact L.A. County’s decision, Johns said “trust me, we wouldn’t hire him if we didn’t think so.”

“He’s one of the foremost public safety officials in the state,” Johns said of Cooley. “He’s been serving in that capacity for a very long time. I would think his support would be meaningful for those people looking to receive direction and input. I think he’ll be very helpful.”

Cooley, 67, was the longest-serving DA in L.A. County history, serving from 2000 to 2012. He worked for 39 years and four months as a county prosecutor. Last year, he was a public supporter of new L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s successful campaign for the top law enforcement post.

McDonnell’s office is in charge of producing the county’s jail plans and making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. On Thursday, Cooley said the two have been friends for 15 years, but he didn’t believe that there were any ethical concerns with him lobbying his office.

“I don’t have legal issues,” Cooley said. “I’m a private person, an attorney to practice law. I have some degree of expertise in this arena and I can advocate for whatever I think is in the client’s best interest. And certainly this is in the county’s best interest. The fact that I have a 15-year relationship with the county Sheriff is irrelevant. Adelanto wasn’t even a blip on my radar screen when I was out there supporting McDonnell. Any suggestion of any ethical issues are misplaced and not even logical. When I do register as an L.A. County lobbyist, then certain rules come into place and I’ll honor those rules.”

Posted in District Attorney, jail, Jim McDonnell, LAPD, Mental Illness, prison policy, racial justice | No Comments »

LA Jail Settlement over Disabilities Law, Drunk CA Prison Guards with Guns, Recording Studio in Juvie Lock-up, and Gradual Reentry

March 24th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

US DISTRICT JUDGE OKAYS LA COUNTY SETTLEMENT OVER NONCOMPLIANCE WITH AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Dean Pregerson gave the final approval for an LA Sheriff’s Department settlement of a federal class action lawsuit alleging jail conditions that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Peter Johnson, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was arrested for petty theft in 2007. Johnson was shot in the spine when he was fifteen, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down and wheelchair-bound. There were no accessible toilets in the inmate reception center, so for more than 8 hours while being booked into jail, Johnson had to sit in his own waste. Neither were there accessible drinking fountains. Jail officials took Johnson’s personal wheelchair and replaced it with a broken jail-issued wheelchair. The seat was falling out, and there were no foot rests, so Johnson’s feet dragged on the floor. And because there were no brakes, Johnson would fall onto the floor when he tried to move from the chair to the bed or toilet.

Although, the battle over the lawsuit raged for the last seven years, the suit has, nonetheless, stimulated the county to make recent major changes to jail facilities’ accessibility for inmates with mobility disabilities.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell told ABC7 on a recent jail visit, “You’ve got to provide a location that is humane. You’ve got to treat people as well as you can treat them. When you look at the environment we’re in–ADA compliance, all of those issues–these facilities were built before any of those rules were in place.”

Here’s a clip from the Disability Rights Legal Center’s announcement detailing the progress:

The settlement has already resulted in significant changes in the massive jail system, including the construction of wheelchair accessible toilets in the Inmate Reception Center, new housing for inmates with disabilities in the jail’s Twin Towers complex, nearly doubling the jail’s capacity to accommodate inmates with mobility impairments, and a new system to deliver working wheelchairs to inmates. The County has also agreed to provide equal access to employment, educational and vocational programs, offer physical therapy in the jail, appoint an ADA coordinator to address complaints from inmates or family members, and create a new ADA complaint system that will allow secondary review of wheelchair accommodations.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, the sheriff’s department said, “As exemplified by the settlement and its approval by the Court, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is committed to complying with the American’s with Disabilities Act, which includes housing mobility impaired inmates in accessible locations in the jails.”

Melinda Bird, Litigation Director for Disability Rights California, talked about the settlement as a “tribute to the persistence and courage of people like Mr. Johnson, who spoke out for the rights of people with disabilities…”

The ACLU SoCal’s Jessica Price said, “This settlement is a huge step in the right direction towards ensuring that inmates with mobility disabilities receive basic accommodations, but it is just the beginning. Now inmates, their family members, the Office of the Inspector General, and the lawyers must be vigilant to ensure these important protections are enforced.”


CDCR’S INSPECTOR GENERAL SEZ DEPT. NEEDS TO REVOKE CONCEALED CARRY PERMITS FOR DRUNKEN, GUN-WEILDING PRISON GUARDS

In a recent report, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Inspector General Robert Barton said many California prison guards are having trouble refraining from drunkenly brandishing their weapons in public, shooting them, and leaving them in their kids’ toy chests (yes, really).

This is the third time Barton has called on the CDCR to put a policy in place to revoke prison guards’ concealed carry permits when they are found to be carrying firearms while drunk.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“Such behavior is not only dangerous to the public but brings discredit to the department,” Inspector General Robert Barton wrote in a report that tracks departmental and criminal investigations of Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees…

It’s the third time Barton has made the recommendation in the last 18 months, but the department said in its response that it is still working on “a statewide, comprehensive policy to address the issues surrounding concealed weapons permits.”

Meanwhile, Barton said the incidents keep piling up:

— A correctional officer was found to have a handgun in his pants pocket when he was arrested for being drunk and urinating outside a business.

— An officer was arrested for child endangerment after he drunkenly left guns scattered around his house where his three children could find them, including a loaded firearm in a toy box…


RECORDING STUDIO AN EMOTIONAL OUTLET FOR KIDS IN SF JUVENILE LOCK-UP

The San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department and the nonprofit Sunset Youth Services have teamed up to bring music recording equipment to kids in juvenile detention.

Through the unique program, locked-up kids record their own songs using one of Sunset’s mobile recording studios. The non-profit’s record label, UpStar, is run by at-risk kids and young adults, and has recently expanded into SF’s Juvenile Justice Center. UpStar provides a therapeutic outlet for kids behind bars, as well as those on the outside, to work through their emotions and past traumas.

The San Francisco Examiner’s Laura Dudnick has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

Luis Recinos, director of the Juvenile Justice Center, said the partnership aligns with the center’s goal to give kids as many opportunities as possible while in custody. “Sometimes it takes a program such as this to spark something in them that changes the way that they want to live their lives,” Recinos said.

The recording equipment kept at the Juvenile Justice Center is one of Sunset Youth Services’ two mobile recording studios, which includes a portable sound booth and computer.

The mobile studios are also brought to San Francisco high schools for students to record music on their lunch breaks.
But professional-quality recording studios at the Sunset Youth Services center on Judah Street at 44th Avenue is where much of the music magic happens. There, in the brightly decorated facility, at-risk youths and young adults are offered hands-on experience recording, mixing, mastering, releasing, distributing and promoting their own music and videos.

Sunset Youth Services’ youth-run label UpStar Studios has even produced five albums that are annual compilations of the best work created by musically inclined, at-risk youths.

Through speaking with teens at the Sunset district center — many of whom are on probation — Dawn and Ron Stueckle, who co-founded what would become Sunset Youth Services in 1992, moved forward last year to bring the music to the juvenile inmates.

The program at juvenile hall allows inmates to use the recording equipment three days a week.

“Kids from different units on different days [gather] to record with staff,” Dawn Stueckle said. “What we’re doing right now is giving kids an opportunity to just write their own songs and learn the gear.”

Another male inmate at the Juvenile Justice Center, age 16, has been using the mobile recording studio since it arrived late last year. Before he was in custody, the youth first learned of Sunset Youth Services at age 14 through a friend.

“I grew up kind of troubled, but I always tried to make it better,” the Mission native said. “I didn’t find an outlet up until I came to Sunset Youth Services, where I could finally express all my anger.”

The 16-year-old participated in an internship at Sunset Youth Services before being hired as a studio technician, specializing in beat production.

His lyrics chronicle his personal experiences leading up to his life at the juvenile facility.
“Even tho I’m looked down my name is said thru all my fans / Shot at but never ran and I made another year / three bullets hit my body but I still ain’t got a fear.”

“We want the kids to make music they’re proud of ... but our goal is bigger than music,” Dawn Stueckle explained. “Music is the vehicle by which we can gain entry into their lives and begin to earn trust, and earn the right to journey with them and support them over the long haul.”


MERITS OF CAREFULLY LEADING OFFENDERS THROUGH GRADUAL REENTRY HOUSING AND EMPLOYMENT

Vox’ Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken, and Ross Halperin have a lengthy, but worthwhile essay exploring graduated reentry services (incremental freedom through housing and employment) as a way to greatly reduce mass incarceration and the seemingly neverending cycle of recidivism.

Here’s a clip:

Start with housing. A substantial fraction of prison releasees go from a cellblock to living under a bridge: not a good way to start free life. Spend some of the money that would otherwise have financed a prison cell to rent a small, sparsely furnished efficiency apartment. In some ways, that apartment is still a cell and the offender still a prisoner. He can’t leave it or have visitors except as specifically permitted. The unit has cameras inside and is subject to search. But he doesn’t need guards, and doesn’t have to worry about prison gangs or inmate-on-inmate assault.

Drug testing and sanctions can avoid relapse to problem drug use; GPS monitoring can show where the re-entrant is all the time, which in turn makes it easy to know whether he’s at work when he’s supposed to be at work and at home when he’s supposed to be at home. This makes curfews enforceable and keeps him away from personal “no-go” zones (the street corner where he used to deal, the vicinity of his victim’s residence). GPS would also place him at the scene of any new crime he might commit, thus drastically reducing his chances of getting away with it and therefore his willingness to take the gamble.

The apartment functions as a prison without bars.

In some ways, it’s a fairly grim existence, especially at the beginning: the offender starts off under a strict curfew, allowed out only for work, job hunting, and necessary personal business (food shopping, medical care, service appointments), as well as to meet the correctional officer in charge of his supervision. And he’s required to work full-time at a public-service job, earning a little less than the minimum wage. On top of that, he has to spend time looking for an ordinary paying job (being supplied with appropriate clothing and some coaching in how to do a job search). He never touches money except for small change; he makes purchases as needed with an EBT or debit card, and only for approved items. The “no-cash” rule both makes it harder to buy drugs or a gun and reduces the benefits of criminal activity. Since he’s eating at home, he needs food, some minimal kitchen equipment, and perhaps some simple cooking lessons. (Whether groceries are delivered or whether he’s expected to shop for his own food right away is another detail to work out.)

Minor violations — staying out beyond curfew, using alcohol or other drugs, missing work or misbehaving at work, missing appointments — can be sanctioned by temporary tightening of restrictions, or even a couple of days back behind bars, in addition to slowing the offender’s progress toward liberty. Major violations — serious new offenses, attempts to avoid supervision by removing position-monitoring gear — lead to immediate termination from the program and return to prison. Not, on the whole, an easy life. But it’s much simpler than the challenge of a sudden transition from prison to the street.

Moreover, if you were to ask a prisoner who has now served two years of a five-year sentence (for drug dealing, say, or burglary), “Would you like to get out of prison right now and into the situation I just described?” the odds of his saying “Yes” would be excellent. And if he didn’t, his cellmate would. Indeed, entry to the program could be offered as a reward for good behavior in prison, improving matters for those still “inside” — and those guarding them — as well as those released.

And — this is the central point — the offender’s freedom increases over time, as long as he does what he’s supposed to do.

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, guns, Inspector General, LA County Jail, LASD | No Comments »

SCOTUS to Consider How Cops Deal with Mentally Ill, Asking the Right Questions About Police Killings, Gov. Brown Sez Hire Ex-inmates, and Trafficked Foster Kids

March 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

US HIGH COURT TO HEAR ARGUMENTS ON HOW POLICE HANDLE ARMED, MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE

This week, the US Supreme Court will consider in what capacity law enforcement officers must adhere to the Americans With Disabilities Act during an encounter with a mentally ill (or otherwise disabled) person who is armed and violent.

In San Francisco v. Sheehan, officers shot a woman with schizoaffective disorder in a group home who, in midst of a psychiatric crisis, had locked herself in a room with a knife after threatening her social worker. Sheehan survived the shooting. She has since sued the police department for resorting first to lethal force instead of attempting to deescalate the confrontation.

The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah and Sam Hananel have more on the case and why it is so important. Here’s a clip:

Law enforcement groups are keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court case, which they say could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk, force departments to spend thousands in new training and open them to additional liability.

The ADA was designed to regulate institutional policies, not an individual officer’s behavior, said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which filed a brief supporting San Francisco.

Stephens said that while departments around the country receive training to de-escalate and avoid using force in a situation with an unstable person, it’s not always possible to do so.

But mental health advocates say the ADA requires police to act less aggressively when arresting or detaining people with disabilities. Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s disability rights program, said the ADA should apply to all situations, especially emergencies when the disabled most need to be accommodated.

“This case is not unusual. There are a lot of Sheehan situations out there where there is an opportunity not to rush in, and take a moment,” Center said.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC: RADLEY BALKO SAYS WE ASK THE WRONG QUESTIONS ABOUT POLICE KILLINGS

Last summer, Dallas police officers shot and killed Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man who police say threatened them with a screwdriver. Late last week, Harrison’s family members, who are suing the Dallas Police Dept., released footage captured by one of the officers’ body cameras during the encounter. (You can watch it here.)

The police department concluded their internal investigation into whether or not the officers broke any laws and chose to turn it over to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko says that instead of just looking at whether the killing was lawful and within department policy, we should also ask whether the killing was necessary, or whether it could have been deescalated by the officers. Balko also says that if the killing of this man suffering from mental illness could have been reasonably avoided, we must also determine what needs to change in order to prevent such shootings in the future. Here’s a clip:

Asking if a police shooting was legal tells us nothing about whether or not we should change the law. Asking whether or not it was within a police agency’s policies and procedures tells us nothing about the wisdom of those policies and procedures. Of course, both of those questions are important if your primary interest is in punishing police officers for these incidents. But while it can certainly be frustrating to see cops get a pass over and over again, even in incidents that seem particularly egregious, focusing on the individual officers involved hasn’t (and won’t) stopped people from getting killed.

Let’s go back to that Dallas shooting. Unfortunately, the video camera doesn’t capture the critical moments immediately prior to the shooting. But it does capture the initial police contact with Harrison. Let’s assume for a moment that the police account of the incident is 100 percent true — that Harrison did come at them with the screwdriver. The question we should be asking isn’t whether or not the police decision to shoot Harrison at that moment was justified. The question we should be asking is whether the interaction ever should have reached that moment. Or, to go back to our more basic question: Was this shooting necessary?

The video strongly suggests that it wasn’t. Why were two patrol officers responding to a call about a possibly schizophrenic man? Would it be better for a mental health professional to have accompanied them? If Dallas police officers are going to be the first responders to calls about mentally ill people who have possibly become dangerous, are they at least given training on how to interact with those people? Are they taught how to deescalate these situations?

From the video, it seems clear that these particular police officers did the escalating, not Harrison. It’s the cops who begin yelling and who take a confrontational stance. Yes, Harrison was holding a small screwdriver. And yes, in the right circumstances, even a small screwdriver can do a lot of damage. That doesn’t mean you pull your gun on everyone who is holding a small screwdriver. Now, there’s probably nothing illegal about a police officer unnecessarily escalating a situation with his words or his body. There’s certainly nothing illegal about his failure to deescalate.

But that’s precisely why Was this illegal? is the wrong question. The better question is, Was this an acceptable outcome? And if the answer is no, then the follow-up question is, What needs to change to stop this from happening again?


GOV BROWN CALLS ON CALIFORNIA BUSINESSES TO EMPLOY EX-OFFENDERS TO REDUCE REVIDIVISM

At a employer forum at Merritt College in Oakland, California Governor Jerry Brown urged businesses to hire former offenders to give them the means to successfully transition back into their communities. Brown called the issue one of public safety as well as about “being a human being.”

KQED’s Sara Hossaini has the story. Here are some clips:

Brown says a lack of work will keep them locked out of a permanent place in their communities and, too often, locked up behind bars once again.

“This work I see is, yes, about public safety, but it’s also about being a human being,” says Brown.

[SNIP]

Now, Brown is hoping that providing employers with information and incentives will encourage more of them to do their part. That means tax breaks, talent matching, bond reimbursements and training subsidies of between $5-10,000 per employee.

Businesses can also take part in a Joint Venture Program that offers what officials call attractive benefits for employing people while they’re still in custody, in the hopes of providing them a seamless transition once they’re out.


LA COUNTY DISAGREES ABOUT HOW TO KEEP SEX-TRAFFICKED KIDS FROM BEING PULLED BACK TO THE STREETS

Within the last few years, LA County has shifted away from criminalizing and locking up sexually exploited minors as “prostitutes,” instead treating them as victims and diverting them from juvenile detention into foster care. But placing trafficked girls into foster care and connecting them with services and mentors does not always work. Sometimes the young girls run away, and return to the streets and their pimps.

The LA County Board of Supervisors and head of the Department of Children and Family Services, Philip Browning, don’t all agree on how to address this complex problem.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

…as county supervisors debate establishing a treatment center for these youth, the issue of locking up foster children has become a quagmire.

On one side are those who say the state should act like a responsible parent to stop children from leaving their home to meet pimps and johns. On the other side are those who say that locking up children mirrors the confinement that predators subject them to, and will ultimately fail to cure the problem.

“This is really the issue that everyone keeps coming back to,” said Allison Newcombe, an attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who represents sex-trafficked children. “Everyone has such strong opinions.”

Law enforcement officials say criminal gangs have increasingly turned from selling drugs to selling children for sex because a drug can be sold once, but a child can be sold repeatedly. According to the California Child Welfare Council, a child’s life expectancy after being involved in sex trafficking is seven years, with AIDS and homicide being the leading causes of death.

Pimps capitalize on the porous barriers between foster care facilities and the outside world, advocates say, by calling vulnerable children, sending them letters and infiltrating group homes with young recruiters. In some cases, the pimps persuade children to get tattoos of their names.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who opposes efforts to allow locking up foster children who are at risk of being lured into sex trafficking, said the recruitment for prostitution in the county’s juvenile detention facilities proves that confining children is not a solution.

Leading the push to establish a locked facility for some foster youth are Los Angeles County’s child welfare chief, Philip Browning, and Supervisor Don Knabe. Both are lobbying Sacramento lawmakers to change laws that currently prohibit confining foster care youth who are at risk.

Browning said he reluctantly came to support such an option after social workers watched children as young as 10 and 11 run from county foster care facilities to rendezvous with pimps and johns.

“We have a small number of youth in foster care where our current programs simply haven’t worked,” Browning said. “Frankly, I’m not certain that the current facilities provide the level of security that I would like.”

Posted in Child sexual abuse, DCFS, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Mental Illness, Reentry | No Comments »

A New Complaint by the Texas State Bar Suggests That Prosecutorial Misconduct May Have Caused the Execution of an Innocent Man

March 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


THE TROUBLING CASE OF TODD WILLINGHAM THAT WON’T GO AWAY

In a startling and painfully belated turn of events, the State Bar of Texas has filed a formal complaint alleging misconduct against John Jackson, the prosecutor who tried one of the most controversial death penalty cases in recent American history, that of Cameron Todd Willingham.

It reads in part:

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, Respondent [aka prosecutor Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel. Specifically, Respondent failed to make timely disclosure to the defense details of an agreement of favorable treatment for Webb, an inmate, in exchange for Webb’s testimony at trial for the State.”

“Webb” is a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Bar then went on to tic off several very nice things Jackson allegedly did for informant Webb, namely to get the charge of which he was convicted reduced substantially, to push for his early parole, and to get him transferred out of prison to county jail. (The Bar did not mention that Jackson also allegedly introduced Johnny Webb to a wealthy rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., who gave Webb a job, money, and various other forms of help.)

The Bar also noted that Jackson told the court that he had no evidence that was favorable to Willingham. “That statement was false,” wrote Linda Acevedo, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the State Bar of Texas with terse brevity.

The complaint is a welcome and very unusual instance of a prosecutor being held to answer by the legal profession. Yet it is more than a decade too late.

On February 17, 2004, Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for deliberately setting the fire that killed his three young daughters.

Maurice Possely of the Marshall Project, who is the latest smart reporter to get hooked by the Willingham case, has more on the events behind the Texas Bar’s decision to propose sanctions against prosecutor Jackson. And in reports co-sponsored by the Washington Post, Possely wrote of previous evidence of Jackson’s misconduct, and other irregularities pertaining to the case.

But, for those of you unfamiliar with the whole troubling Willingham matter, a little back story.


THE TWO PILLARS

On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Corsicana, Texas, home that Cameron Todd Willingham, then twenty-three, shared with his twenty-two-year-old wife and three young daughters. The girls’ mother was not home at the time of the fire, but was at the Salvation Army buying Christmas gifts for the kids. Willingham was asleep when the fire broke out and was able to burst out of the house nearly unscathed, but screaming to the neighbors that his “babies,’ were still inside. By that time, however, the house was engulfed inflames. All three girls died in the fire.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutor Jackson told the jury that Willingham had set the fire to kill his children, although no convincing motive for the arson murders was ever established. Willingham, a man with many less than likable traits, was sentenced to death on October 29, 1992.

Willingham maintained his innocence to the end. Prior to his trial, he refused the state’s plea bargain offer that would have saved his life. Rather than seeing this as the action of an innocent man, however, the prosecution viewed his refusal as the arrogance of an unrepentant killer.

Jackson’s primary evidence against Willingham was, as he put it, held up by “two pillars.” First there was the analysis of the state’s leading arson investigator, a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, whom David Grann of the New Yorker described as having cultivated a Sherlock Holmsian aura of invincibility.

Vasquez concluded that the deaths of the three little girls were the a result of a clear and deliberate act of arson. Willingham, the only other person in the house, had poured liquid accelerant around the children’s room, even under their beds. Fire sleuth Vasquez described a heinous crime about which he maintained there could be no doubt.

The other primary evidence against Willingham was the testimony of the jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who had been in the same county jail as Willingham when the latter was awaiting trial. Webb said that Willingham had confessed to him that he took “some kind of lighter fluid, squirting [it] around the walls and the floor, and set a fire.”

This supposed confession matched the analysis of Vasquez, who claimed to have found more than “twenty indicators” of arson. With these two “pillars” holding his prosecutorial theory aloft, Jackson concluded that his case was impregnable.

In March 2000, however—four years before Willingham’s execution—Webb sent prosecutor Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, stating that “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.”

No one in the prosecutor’s office thought to mention this recantation to Willingham’s attorney.

Nor did Jackson mention the legal favors he gave Webb in what appeared to be a quid pro quo exchange for testimony. In fact, he maintained there were no favors.

Shortly after his reversal, Webb recanted his recantation, with timing that seemed to correspond with some of Jackson’s written assurances of help for Webb.

For instance, in an August 2014 story for the Marshall Project and the Washington Post, Possely reported that “…letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line:”

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

When questioned about the flip-flops half a decade after the fact by the New Yorker’s David Granny, Webb, who had by that time been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, first claimed a bad memory, then asked, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”

Earlier this month, the Marshall Report’s Possely published the most detailed account to date of how Webb came to testify against Willingham, based on two days of interview with the former informant:

“I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate,” Webb said. “I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so,” Webb said. “I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.

In 2010 Webb similarly described threats and coercion by Jackson on camera to reporters from PBS’s Frontline.

“During Willingham’s three-day trial in August 1992, Jackson pointedly asked Webb on the witness stand whether he had been promised a lighter sentence or some other benefit for his cooperation. Webb told the judge and jury that he had not.

Documents published last year by the Marshall Project and The Washington Post showed that during and after Webb was in state prison, he received thousands of dollars in aid from a wealthy local businessman, Charles S. Pearce Jr. Webb said in interviews that Pearce had helped him at the behest of Jackson, Patrick C. Batchelor, the district attorney, and the county sheriff. Jackson later denied that claim, saying that any support Pearce gave “had no connection” to Webb’s testimony in the Willingham case.


JUNK SCIENCE AND “PERSONAL BELIEFS”

In January 2004, a few weeks before Willingham was to be executed, the other pillar of Willingham’s guilt began to crumble when Willingham’s lawyer, along with a pen-pal turned platonic friend named Elizabeth Gilbert, talked acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, into reexamining the case file pro bono.

When Hurst subjected Vasquez’ prior report to exhaustive examination and testing, he concluded that the analysis of the Willingham fire on which the prosecution based its case did not conform at all with scientific knowledge about fire behavior. Based on the evidence, Hurst concluded that there was no indication at all of arson, that the fire was accidental and likely caused by a space heater in the house or faulty electrical wiring. Not a single article of physical evidence supported the conclusion of Arson, Hurst wrote. A man was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

The analysis did no good. Although it was sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and also to Governor Rick Perry, either of whom could have issued a stay so that the countervailing evidence could be presented in court. The requests for a stay were denied. Willingham’s execution went forward as scheduled.

Not content to let the matter drop, a few years later, the Innocence Project assembled five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts to again review the evidence in the case. In 2006, the group issued a 48-page report finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid. He was convicted, they wrote, “using what is now known to be bad science (or no science.,”

Three years later still, on August 25, 2009, a team of Texas state-hired experts released their own findings in a 64-page report on the Willingham fire. The team, headed by Dr. Craig L. Beyler, found the same thing that Hurst had found in 2004, and the Innocence team had found in 2006. No evidence of arson.

In a scathing analysis, Beyler wrote that original fire investigator Vasquez’s conclusions seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and were more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”

“Vasquez’s opinions are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

And now we have the complaint against prosecutor Jackson filed by the State Bar of Texas.

In 2006, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion that in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Perhaps it is time to start shouting.


NOTE: Even though it is dated, if you’d like to know more about this complex and alarming case, the best account is still to be found in the 2009 New Yorker story, “Trial by Fire” by David Grann.


Photo courtesy of Willingham Family

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Innocence, Prosecutors | 4 Comments »

LA Sheriff McDonnell, LAPD Chief Beck, CHP’s Farrow and More Meet with Religious Leaders for Post-Ferguson Conversation

March 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



On Tuesday afternoon, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and a cluster of other LA law enforcement figures got together with around two dozen local religious leaders for a two-hour, no-press-allowed post-Ferguson chat in the hope that everyone might speak candidly about the tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

The meeting, which took place on the 8th floor of the newly renovated Hall of Justice, on Temple Street in downtown LA, was the inaugural event for the historic building.

Judging by what WitnessLA was able to gather as everyone was dispersing, most came away with the feeling that some real and relevant things had been said. Moreover, everybody wanted to do it again.

“We don’t want to have this be one-and-done,” said Sheriff McDonnell when we spoke after the event. The idea was to build ongoing relationships, he said.

The gathering was billed as being co-hosted by McDonnell, Beck and CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow. District Attorney Jackie Lacy, LA City Attorney Mike Feurer, and Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Yonekura were also on hand.

But, it was clearly an LASD-organized affair. Still everyone had reportedly had things to say—a lot of it straight talking from both the faith leaders and the cops. “It was not a booster club,” said McDonnell.

Interestingly, the faith leaders didn’t just raise issues with law enforcement, they also spoke frankly to each other. One issue in particular that reportedly caused discussion, according to those present, was the necessity of the clergy to engage when there is a police/community problem “not Just read about it.”

On this topic, one pastor reportedly said, ‘It breaks my heart that [when something happens] we close the doors of he churches.”

Another subject that caused much discussion was the religious leaders’ acknowledgement that affluent communities tend to view—and experience—the police very differently than do lower income communities

McDonnell and Beck both talked about interaction with the clergy as a being “critical piece of community policing.” They also spoke of the need to bring what occurred on Tuesday, “to the station level,” said McDonnell, for the LASD and the LAPD.

Community oriented policing is not something law enforcement agencies should do on the side or merely to appease critics,” he said. “Rather, a focus on community oriented policing ensures law enforcement is viewed by the community as legitimate.”

“We are very fortunate in this community to have law enforcement leadership that recognizes and understands the importance of strengthening community relations,” said Reverend Chip Murray, in a pre-meeting statement. “This timely event will help us build upon the strong foundations that already exist and enable us to do even more, working together.”

A pastor from Compton, who was leaving just as WLA arrived, pronounced the meeting, “Good. Very good.” Things were said that needed to be said, he told me. “And that’s a very good thing.”

Posted in Charlie Beck, City Attorney, District Attorney, Jim McDonnell, LAPD, LASD, law enforcement, U.S. Attorney | 19 Comments »

A Tale of Planted Guns & Rogue Sheriff’s Deputies

March 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



In this week’s LA Weekly, reporter Gene Maddaus writes about how a marijuana dispensary’s surveillance video
and an allegedly-planted handgun may have finally led the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the LA District Attorney’s office to pay attention to the actions of a cluster of rogue LASD deputies.

The story pertains specifically to a deputy clique known as the Jump Out Boys, the existence of which was first reported by the LA Times. The clique drew its members from within the ranks of Operation Safe Streets (OSS), the gang investigation unit within the department.

Two years ago, in February 2013, after news of the clique’s existence became a larger and larger story, the LASD under Sheriff Baca fired seven of the Jump Out Boys, ostensibly for “belonging to a secret law enforcement clique that allegedly celebrated shootings and branded its members with matching tattoos,” and related conduct unbecoming. The information that Maddaus has uncovered, however, suggests that the firings may have had more to do with straight-up criminal behavior—and that there may be more such behavior that has yet to come to light.

Here’s a clip from the story. As we are coming into the tale in its middle, you need to know that both “Martinez” and “Paez” are Jump Out Boys. “Yang,” is a young man who works at the Superior Herbal Health marijuana clinic.

Martinez was one of the clique’s “shot callers,” according to a sheriff’s source. He would later write a three-page narrative of the events of that day. His report would help generate two sets of criminal charges — first against Yang and then, when discrepancies emerged, against himself.

According to Martinez’s report, he and Paez were driving along 84th Place when they saw a black man exit a building. The report states that the man appeared to engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction with another man. When the first man saw the officers, the report states, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like the butt of a handgun.

The man — later identified as Antonio Rhodes, who’s a barber working in Long Beach — ran back into the building. Martinez got out of his car and tried to chase him, but the door was locked. Martinez wrote in his report that he could smell marijuana. He demanded that the door be opened, then ran to the side of the building.

The report says that, through an open window, Martinez could see Rhodes inside and witnessed him stash something next to a white trash can. Martinez returned to the front of the building and pounded on the door some more. Finally it opened.

He and Paez went inside, where they found a small waiting room full of people. There was no signage outside, and it was only then, the report states, that they realized they were in a dispensary. They ordered everyone out.

Another locked door led to a display room. Again, Martinez demanded that the door be unlocked. Once inside, he ordered the employees to exit with their hands up.

Martinez wrote that he could see “large amounts of marijuana in every room” and that they did a “protective sweep” of the building — finding three black handguns. Martinez’s report states that one was on Yang’s desk, where they also found his ecstasy pills. Then they discovered what the report described as Rhodes’ gun behind the white trash can. It was loaded. When they ran it through their system, it came back unregistered.

Read on for a story of false charges, and what appears to be the planting of two guns.…and more.

Posted in LASD, Medical Marijuana, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca | 10 Comments »

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