June 13, 2008
Juvenile courts unsure how to deal with dangerous teens incompetent for trial
The 17-year-old with a slash of a scar between his eyebrows frustrates Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas F. O'Malley. The teen leveled a silver handgun, robbing a woman gardening in her yard and drivers delivering milk and chips, police say. Others, like the man pumping gas, he threatened with a pipe. But in the detention center, without a weapon or adults urging him on, he was prey. The other kids were taking his food.
His lawyer says the teen doesn't grasp what was going on - why he was charged or why he can't go home. He keeps asking the same questions.
"Sometimes you are talking to these kids and you just see the blank look," lawyer Brian Sharkin said.
The court has deemed the teen with an IQ of 52 incompetent to stand trial. The reports told the judge something else. If released, the teen would likely hurt himself or someone else within 24 hours.
"What do I do with him?" O'Malley asked.
The question is echoed in juvenile courts across the state.
In Ohio's juvenile courts - unlike the adult system - no written rules dictate how to determine if a juvenile is competent to be tried in court.
Courts have to fashion their own. [Mark Godsey]
June 12, 2008
Scheck speaks, raises funds for Innocence Project
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said in a speech last night that West Virginia – and dozens of other states – were ready for bipartisan criminal justice reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions. Scheck spoke at an Innocence Project fundraiser in Charleston last night and this afternoon at a West Virginia lawyers’ conference.
We are heading into (a judicial reform) era right now," Scheck said. "The Innocence Project is something Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives can both support.
"It's all about public safety and all about getting things right."
One of the events sponsors, attorney Troy Giatras, said he was proud to help the organization, which he called a worthy cause.
"It's a shame that there needs to be such an organization, but the Innocence Project does great work," Giatras said. "It helps address one of the worst nightmares a victim of the American legal system can face, being wrongfully convicted." [Mark Godsey]
Despite Concerns Local police departments look to increase use of Taser
While the investigation continues into the death of drug suspect Tony Curtis Bradway hours after Town of Southampton police shocked him with a Taser, Long Island and the New York Police Department are following a national trend that could one day make the electric weapon as common as the baton.
The Suffolk police department plans to add 250 Tasers in the coming months to its current level of 91. Nassau County restricts its use to fewer than 30 police personnel. The New York Police Department yesterday expanded its Taser program following recommendations in a Rand Corp. report on the Sean Bell shooting released this week.
More than 12,000 agencies in the U.S. now employ the weapon, according to the manufacturer of the most popular of the devices.
"Eventually, everyone in patrol will have one," said Suffolk police commissioner Richard Dormer. [Mark Godsey]
Killer put to death in Texas' 1st execution in 9 months
A remorseful convicted killer was executed Wednesday night for the rape and slaying of a woman in Dallas 17 years ago, the first Texas prisoner in nearly nine months put to death in the nation's most active capital punishment state. Karl Eugene Chamberlain, with a big smile on his face, addressed relatives of his victim, staring directly at the son, parents and brother of Felecia Prechtl as they stood just a few feet away, looking through a glass window.
Chamberlain said he understood if his victim's relatives would like to hurt him, but he wanted them to know it was his memories of her and her life that contributed to his remorse.
"I love you. God have mercy on us all," he said as the drugs began taking effect. Still grinning, he blurted out: "Please do not hate anybody because ... "
He was unable to finish as he slipped into unconsciousness. Nine minutes later at 6:30 p.m. CDT, he was pronounced dead.
"One question I ask myself every day. Why does it take so long for justice to be served?" Prechtl's mother, Ina, said after watching Chamberlain die.
Chamberlain lived upstairs in the same apartment complex as his victim but denied any knowledge of the crime when questioned by police the day of the 1991 slaying. He was arrested five years later after his fingerprint was matched to a print on a roll of duct tape used to bind Prechtl. Chamberlain's prints had been entered into a database after he went on probation for an attempted robbery and abduction in Houston.
When he was arrested in Euless in suburban Dallas, he confessed.
"It was just total terrible bad luck," Chamberlain said, describing the slaying in a recent interview on death row. "Not that my actions were luck, but bad luck that I didn't get interrupted and stop." [Mark Godsey]
June 11, 2008
Plea Bargaining's Survival: Financial Crimes Plea Bargaining, a Continued Triumph in a Post-Enron World
This article examines the war on financial crimes that began after the collapse of Enron in 2001. Although many believed that the reforms implemented following this scandal led to greater prosecutorial focus on financial crimes and longer prison sentences, an analysis of data from 1995 through 2006 reveals that little has actually changed. The statistics demonstrate that the government's focus on financial crimes has not increased and prison sentences for fraud have remained stagnant. How could this be the case? It is this author's hypothesis that although prosecutors could have chosen to use new statutes and amendments to the United States Sentencing Guidelines passed in the wake of Enron to increase prosecutions and sentences, they did not. Instead, prosecutors are using their new tools to encourage defendants to accept plea agreements that include sentences similar to those offered before 2001, while simultaneously threatening to use these same powers to secure astounding sentences if defendants force a trial. The result is that the promises of post-Enron reforms aimed at financial criminals were hollow and served only to reinforce plea bargaining's triumph. [Lucian Emery Dervan]
Ohio lethal injection executions unconstitutional, Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge rules
Ohio's lethal injection process is unconstitutional because it could cause pain and the state mandates that an inmate's death be painless, Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge ruled Tuesday. He ordered the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to stop using the drugs that paralyze muscles and stop the heart and simply administer a lethal dose of an anesthetic.
It's not known if the state will follow the ruling, which includes removing the phrase "or combination of drugs" from state law. Burge ruled in the cases of Ruben Rivera and Ronald McCloud, who are charged with aggravated murder. It was the first time in the U.S. that the lethal injection issue was reviewed before a trial. Their attorney, Jeffrey Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, hopes the ruling has a wide-ranging effect. "We had hoped he would have taken death off the table for these guys, and that is disappointing," Gamso said. But Gamso was pleased Burge ruled against the combination of drugs currently used to execute people in Ohio and elsewhere. "We have been fighting from one end of the U.S. to the other about this set of drugs," he said. The Ohio attorney general's office, the department of corrections and the Lorain County prosecutor's office are reviewing the decision to determine the ramifications of Burge's order and how to respond, officials said. This is a very fact specific determination and quite frankly not anything anyone has seen," said Prosecutor Dennis Will. [Mark Godsey]
US: Improve Prison Conditions at Guantanamo
More than two-thirds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including many cleared for release or transfer, are being housed in inhumane conditions that are reportedly having a damaging effect on their mental health, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The 54-page report, “Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantanamo,” documents the conditions in the various “camps” at the detention center, in which approximately 185 of the 270 detainees are housed in facilities akin to “supermax” prisons even though they have not yet been convicted of a crime. These detainees have extremely limited contact with other human beings, spend 22 hours a day alone in small cells with little or no natural light or fresh air, are not provided any educational opportunities, and are given little more than a single book and the Koran to occupy their time. Even their two hours of “recreation” time – which is sometimes provided in the middle of the night – generally takes place in single-cell cages so that detainees cannot physically interact with one another. [Mark Godsey]
Pittsburgh shows slight drop in major crimes in '07
Crime in Pittsburgh dropped in most major categories last year, mirroring nationwide declines in both violent and property offenses, according to FBI statistics released this week.The FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report shows 3,455 violent crimes -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- reported in Pittsburgh last year, a slight decrease of about 0.52 percent, down from 3,473 in 2006. Violent crime nationwide dropped 1.4 percent. Property crime -- burglary, theft and car theft -- fell by 8.6 percent in the city and 2.1 percent nationwide.
But while aggravated assault dropped 1.2 percent nationally, the report shows a 5.3 percent uptick locally. The number of rapes also rose. It's hard to say what caused the increase, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said yesterday.
"It's still a very vicious and violent society," Chief Donaldson said. Nevertheless, he noted that the number of gun-related aggravated assaults dropped from 660 in 2006 to 509 in 2007, thanks in part to ongoing police efforts to pull illegal firearms from the streets. Pittsburgh police arrest about 600 people for possessing illegal firearms and recovered more than 1,000 guns, but those numbers haven't changed much over the past five years, he said.
Police saw an increase in aggravated assaults with knives and situations where objects such as rocks were thrown at occupied vehicles, but, again, it was unknown why, Chief Donaldson said.
The FBI reported 53 homicides in 2007, but the Police Bureau reported there were 57 last year. Chief Donaldson said such discrepancies could be due to differences in the way the agencies classify certain crimes. The FBI's report includes totals for the city only and could change by the time final statistics are released later this year. [Mark Godsey]
Ohio Court Rules Lethal Injection Protocol Violates State Statute
"Then, in what legal experts said was a first, the judge instead ordered the state to start using a single large dose of barbiturate, common in animal euthanasia." Read the rest of the article here. [Mike Mannheimer]
June 10, 2008
OK'd for transfer, but going nowhere
Mike Meyer says that in his 13 years locked inside Minnesota Sex Offender Program facilities, he's gained insight into why he molested 36 children and young adults, and how to stop himself from doing it again. "When I was offending I felt like I was a freak -- like I couldn't talk to anybody," said Meyer, 38. Now he recognizes secrecy as "a big red flag."Meyer completed all the required phases of treatment in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program four years ago and has an 18-page Predischarge Plan listing his strategies for not reoffending. But he remains locked up.
One technique psychologists taught him is privately repeating a deviant thought over and over until it loses its allure. Another is telling on himself -- confessing to a counselor or support group when he feels a taboo attraction. Both are supposed to break the cycle of thoughts and behaviors that led to his crimes. Of similar programs in 19 states, only the 14-year-old MSOP and three others that are much newer have released no patients. While most states leave release decisions to the courts, Minnesota is one of only two states that until this year put that authority in the hands of a political appointee, the human services commissioner, and a paid review board he or she appoints. Their decisions could go to a court only on appeal. [Mark Godsey]
Alternative courts gain ground for petty criminals
The new courts sentence "frequent fliers" to treatment plans and social services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, instead of jail.
"It's the new frontier," says Amy Solomon, who studies criminal justice at The Urban Institute in Washington. "There is a new realization and recognition" that incarceration is not the best solution. "I think it'll grow and continue to pick up."
Lincoln (Neb.) Police Chief Tom Casady says that his list of people arrested more than 200 times each has grown from 17 in 2002 to 83. "The overall impact of the 'frequent flier' on the criminal justice system is great," Casady says. "If you can stop that trend in one way or another, there's a huge amount of money that can be conserved" — perhaps thousands of dollars in Lincoln alone. [Mark Godsey]
Current and Former ADAs Who Helped Convict Exonerated Men Reflect
In fewer than two years in office, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has become a star for who he is not — namely legendary DA Henry Wade. Watkins has embraced the help of the Innocence Project and has worked to free the wrongfully convicted, blaming the "conviction at all costs" mentality of his predecessors' administrations as a reason for the injustice.
Watkins has received national media attention: CBS' "60 Minutes" chronicled his efforts to exonerate numerous inmates based on new DNA testing and newspapers have written flattering profiles about Watkins' rise to power. He has been lauded for setting up a Conviction Integrity Unit in the office. And Watkins made news last month when he suggested that Texas law be changed so that prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense in criminal cases could be charged criminally.
But until now, the current and former prosecutors responsible for sending 17 men to prison for years — a total of 282 years to be exact — have rarely been heard from. So Texas Lawyer filed an open-records request with the Dallas County DA's office to receive the names of all 29 prosecutors who tried and helped convict the 17 men. [See "The Exonerated, the Prosecutors and the Judges," below.] [Mark Godsey]
California Obscenity Prosecution Challenges Lawyers and Jurors
What violates community obscenity standards in the nation's reputed pornography capital? Federal prosecutors think they have a case.
Ira Isaacs readily admits he produced and sold movies depicting bestiality and sexual activity involving feces and urine. The judge warned potential jurors that the hours of fetish videos included violence against women, and many of them said they don't want to serve because watching would make them sick to their stomachs.
"It's the most extreme material that's ever been put on trial. I don't know of anything more disgusting," said Roger Jon Diamond — Isaacs' own defense attorney.
The case is the most visible effort of a new federal task force designed to crack down on smut in America. Isaacs, however, says his work is an extreme but constitutionally protected form of art.
"There's no question the stuff is disgusting," said Diamond, who has spent much of his career representing pornographers. "The question is should we throw people in jail for it?"
Isaacs, 57, a Los Angeles advertising agency owner who says he used to market fine art in commercial projects, calls himself a "shock artist" and says he went into distributing and producing films about fetishes because "I wanted to do something extreme."
"I'm fighting for art," he said in an interview before his federal trial got under way. "Art is on trial."
He plans to testify as his own expert witness and said he will cite the historic battles over obscenity involving authors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.
One of his exhibits, he said, will be a picture of famed artist Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," a porcelain urinal signed by the artist in 1917.
Diamond said Isaacs also will tell jurors the works have therapeutic value for people with the same fetishes depicted on screen.
"They don't feel so isolated," Diamond said. "They have fetishes that other people have."
Isaacs makes a brief appearance in one of the videos he produced; others that he distributed were imported from other countries.
The business has been lucrative. At one point, he has said, he was selling 1,000 videos a month at $30 apiece. Then his office was raided by FBI agents who bought his videos online with undercover credit cards.
The government obtained an indictment against Isaacs on a variety of obscenity charges, including importation or transportation of obscene material for sale. Prosecutors have declined to comment about the case.
Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at University of Southern California, said such prosecutions were rare until the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. Child pornography cases are handled by a separate unit.
"The problem with obscenity is no one really knows what it is," she said. "It's relatively simple to paint something as an artistic effort even if it's offensive."
The test of obscenity still hinges on a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that a work is not legally obscene if it has "literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
Jurors also are asked to determine whether the material in question violates standards of what is acceptable to the community at large.
"This task force was quite controversial and many in the Department of Justice felt that it was a waste of resources," Rosenbluth said. "Because of the pressure, they seem to have chosen the worst cases they can find to prosecute."
Each of the four counts against Isaacs carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. Prosecutors also are seeking forfeiture of assets obtained through his video sales. Two of the original six counts were dropped.
"A lot of this is about sending a message — 'Don't make this stuff. Don't put it on the Internet. We don't want it here,'" Rosenbluth said.
Rosenbluth said prosecutors would be emboldened to pursue similar cases if Isaacs is convicted, though there would be lengthy challenges on appeal.
In an unusual twist, the trial is being presided over by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, under a program that allows appellate judges to occasionally handle criminal trials at the District Court level. Kozinski is known as a strong defender of free speech and First Amendment rights.
Eight men and six women were chosen for the jury Tuesday. Two will be designated alternates later. The panel was to hear opening statements Wednesday before viewing the movies.
When jury selection began Monday, he urged prospects to be open about their opinions and incurred an onslaught of negative statements. Within the first hour, he dismissed 26 men and women who said they could not be fair to the defendant because they were repulsed by the subject matter. By day's end, half the panel of 100 had been excused.
Continue reading article here. [Brooks Holland]
French Judge Aids in San Francisco Homicide Investigation
A French judge has arrived in
San Francisco to oversee an unusual probe into the death of a French
citizen whose stabbing has puzzled police investigators for more than a
year. Police have said they are handling the June 2, 2007, death of
36-year-old Hugues de la Plaza as a possible homicide, although they
have also angered his acquaintances by suggesting he killed himself.
The chief medical examiner's office has been unable to determine what
caused the 36-year-old sound engineer's death.
A French judge has arrived in San Francisco to oversee an unusual probe into the death of a French citizen whose stabbing has puzzled police investigators for more than a year.
Police have said they are handling the June 2, 2007, death of 36-year-old Hugues de la Plaza as a possible homicide, although they have also angered his acquaintances by suggesting he killed himself. The chief medical examiner's office has been unable to determine what caused the 36-year-old sound engineer's death.
De la Plaza's body was found inside his locked apartment on Linden
Street in Hayes Valley. Police first said he may have stabbed himself
after ingesting drugs, but no bloody knife was recovered and no drugs
were found in his system. Investigators said a surveillance video that provided partial
coverage of the apartment showed de la Plaza returning home from a
nightclub early the morning he died, but no one else entering. They
theorized that he might have washed a knife after stabbing himself,
something friends dismissed as preposterous. No note was found, but de la Plaza had written on a notepad, among
other things: "Learn as if you were to live forever," and, "Live as if
you were to die tomorrow." Friends of de la Plaza, led by his ex-girlfriend Melissa Nix,
mounted a campaign and worked with de la Plaza's family in France to
persuade San Francisco police to conclude the case was indeed a
homicide. The government in Paris soon offered assistance and has had a French investigator working in San Francisco for several months. As part of France's involvement, a number of witnesses in the case
have been subpoenaed under the authority of the U.S. District Court to
appear June 17 before French Judge Brigitte Jolivet to give "testimony
of potential violations of French law, including murder." San Francisco
police will be involved in the questioning at the Hall of Justice. The French judge is more an independent investigator than a final arbiter of facts.
De la Plaza's body was found inside his locked apartment on Linden Street in Hayes Valley. Police first said he may have stabbed himself after ingesting drugs, but no bloody knife was recovered and no drugs were found in his system.
Investigators said a surveillance video that provided partial coverage of the apartment showed de la Plaza returning home from a nightclub early the morning he died, but no one else entering. They theorized that he might have washed a knife after stabbing himself, something friends dismissed as preposterous.
No note was found, but de la Plaza had written on a notepad, among other things: "Learn as if you were to live forever," and, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow."
Friends of de la Plaza, led by his ex-girlfriend Melissa Nix, mounted a campaign and worked with de la Plaza's family in France to persuade San Francisco police to conclude the case was indeed a homicide.
The government in Paris soon offered assistance and has had a French investigator working in San Francisco for several months.
As part of France's involvement, a number of witnesses in the case have been subpoenaed under the authority of the U.S. District Court to appear June 17 before French Judge Brigitte Jolivet to give "testimony of potential violations of French law, including murder." San Francisco police will be involved in the questioning at the Hall of Justice.
The French judge is more an independent investigator than a final arbiter of facts.Continue reading article here. [Brooks Holland]
NYPD Advised to Expand Taser Program
The NYPD could prevent some police-related shootings from escalating into deadly confrontations like the Sean Bell case by giving cops Tasers, a new report says.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly hired the high-powered Rand Corp. to review weapons training six weeks after officers fired a combined 50 rounds at Bell and his pals in November 2006 in Queens.
A review of 455 police-involved shootings found 25 cases - including three fatalities - where Tasers might have prevented the gunplay, according to Rand's 114-page study released yesterday. The study did not review the Sean Bell shooting.
"If a Taser had been used, the situation would not have progressed to the point where guns were necessary," said Bernard Rostker, who directed the $350,000, 16-month review.
Continue reading article here. [Brooks Holland]
June 9, 2008
Asking the Right Questions on the Crime Beat
Back-to-back sessions at the Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference in Miami on Thursday emphasized the importance of digging deeper: of asking the right questions about crime, the government agencies we pay to investigate crime, and those we expect to deal with criminals.
Here are a few tips and ideas I took away from three sessions on criminal justice reporting sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists and two more hour-long talks that dealt with the topic of databases -- how to get them and what to do with them. Through my crime-centric lens, the database-CJJ coupling was just the ointment I needed to help soothe my crime-scene-weary soul. [Mark Godsey]
Judge’s ban on the use of the word ‘rape’ at trial reflects trend
Bowen’s case is part of what some prosecutors and victim advocates see as a national trend in sexual assault cases.
“It’s a topic that’s coming up more and more,” said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. “You’re moving away from what a criminal trial is really about.”
In Jackson County, Senior Judge Gene Martin recently issued a similar order for the trial of a Kansas City man charged with raping a teenager in 2000. Despite the semantic restrictions, the Jackson County jury last week found Ray Slaughter guilty of forcible rape and two counts of forcible sodomy.
Slaughter’s attorney, who requested the pretrial order, declined to comment because she is preparing a motion for new trial. The judge also declined to comment.
Bowen’s case gained national notoriety and drew the attention of free-speech proponents after she filed a lawsuit challenging the judge’s actions as a First Amendment violation. A federal appeals court dismissed the suit, but Bowen’s attorney plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although he dismissed her suit, a federal judge said he doubted a jury would be swayed by a woman using the word “rape” instead of some “tortured equivalent.” [Mark Godsey]
Coming Home After a Reduced Sentence
Those Released Since Disparities in Cocaine Penalties Were Offset Find a Different World
Days after her release from prison, Nerika Jenkins made a bold prediction: "I'll bounce right back into society." Although the world changed considerably over the 11 years of her imprisonment, she said, "I'm not afraid." She took vocational classes -- masonry, carpentry, painting, culinary arts, Microsoft Excel and horticulture -- while serving time in Philadelphia and Danbury, Conn. "I'm just ready to achieve my short-term goal, building a nursing home," she said. "They're always in need of places for the elderly."
More than 7,000 crack cocaine offenders such as Jenkins, 36, have received reduced sentences since March, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission put retroactive sentence guidelines into effect to offset what the commission felt were overly harsh punishments for crack cocaine related crimes, and it is an open question whether they will succeed or return to a life behind bars.
The majority of the reductions so far have been granted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, covering Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, according to a report by the Sentencing Commission on retroactive crack cocaine sentencing released in May. By contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, covering California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, as well as other states and territories, has granted about the same number of reductions as the smallest jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington. [Mark Godsey]
June 8, 2008
Cops Target L.A. Gangs' 'Shot Callers'
Los Angeles is the most gang-saturated city per capita in the world.
In the nine square miles that make up Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood alone, there are 65 different gangs and roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members. If you are a cop working the streets of Los Angeles, most of the calls you respond to are gang-related.
Gangs have been a problem in Los Angeles for generations now, but they weren't as lethal in the past. It used to be that gangs were more concerned about tagging and turf than committing crimes. Now gangs are more like criminal syndicates — like the mafia. And law enforcement is changing its techniques to break them up. [Mark Godsey]
In Philadelphia, 10,000 men's 'call to action' is cut short
Wazier El remembers the excitement that day in October, when nearly 10,000 men gathered in a stadium to send a message to drug dealers, gang members and gun-toting criminals: The violence must stop.
In a matter of days, the men vowed, they would patrol the streets of this city, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.
But seven months later, many volunteers who once felt so full of hope have given up. The movement -- "Call to Action: 10,000 Men -- It's a New Day in Philadelphia" -- has faced organizational and financial struggles. Frustrated with leadership, some volunteers have had second thoughts.
In the meantime, things in Philadelphia are not much better.
This month, police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was killed during a bank robbery -- the third cop killing in two years. Two days later, a news helicopter captured more than a dozen white police officers kicking and using batons to hit three black shooting suspects. Parts of the footage aired on television stations nationwide and reached audiences across the world through the Internet. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the beating "worse than Rodney King."
The latest incidents of violence have exposed a split in Philadelphia.
In one letter to the editor, a newspaper reader wrote: "It seems that the Police Department has declared it's hunting season on young black men." Another, however, expressed this point of view: "Here we go again. Punks are shooting up Philly as though it's the Wild West. And who gets the heat? The cops who catch up with some of these cowards." [Mark Godsey]