October 21, 2008
If you're arrested for drugs, you're more likely to get a second chance if you're white
Anthony Smith Jr. is black, poor and a native of Cleveland's East Side. So is Dontez Orr. Both are in their early 20s.
Each had a life-altering encounter with police two summers ago that grew from trivial events. Smith was jaywalking on East 65th Street near Fleet Avenue; Orr was driving south on Interstate 71 at night with an unlighted rear license plate.
Neither had a criminal history to speak of, according to court records. But Cleveland police, citing concern for "officer safety," frisked jaywalker Smith and found one rock of crack cocaine in his right front pants' pocket. Linndale police said Orr gave them permission to search his 1993 Ford. They also found a rock of crack, beneath the passenger seat.
Both are now convicted felons -- a fact, in the words of one Cuyahoga County judge, that "can ruin your job prospects forever."
Brian Biddulph is not a convicted felon, even though his offense was more serious and his record worse.
Biddulph, who is white, listed a Westlake address and could afford to hire his own lawyer. He was given a second chance to remain felony-free. [Mark Godsey]
October 20, 2008
FBI: Justifiable homicides at highest in more than a decade
The 391 killings by police that were ruled justifiable in 2007 were the most since 1994, FBI statistics show. The 254 killings by private individuals found to be self-defense were the most since 1997.
The FBI says a homicide committed by a private citizen is justified when a person is slain during the commission of a felony, such as a burglary or robbery. Police are justified, the FBI says, when felons are killed while the officer is acting in the line of duty. Rulings on these deaths are usually made by the local police agencies involved.
Some law enforcement analysts say the numbers represent changing attitudes on the streets, where police have felt more threatened by well-armed offenders, and citizens have taken greater responsibility for their own safety.
Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan Fox describes an emerging "shoot-first" mentality by police and private citizens. For several years, police departments have armed their officers with higher-powered weapons to keep pace with criminal gangs. "Clearly there is a message out there that citizens may be able to defend themselves" as well, he says. [Mark Godsey]
Experts: Fla. conviction possible without toddler's body
What they do not have is a body.
Prosecutors building a case against a single 22-year-old Florida mother accused of killing her young daughter will have to rely on forensic evidence and convince a jury that Casey Anthony lacks credibility and had a motive, legal experts say.
To help build the case, the prosecutor will be using what he described as cutting-edge forensic tests, including air testing for compounds released when a body decomposes.
"Sometimes circumstantial evidence is as powerful, or more powerful than the body itself," said Donald Jones, a professor of criminal law at the University of Miami law school.
Since 3-year-old Caylee Anthony's disappearance was reported in July, investigators have taken air samples from her mother's car trunk and tested for the presence of her DNA. Hair samples also have been analyzed. The FBI and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the University of Tennessee performed the tests.
"The investigation contains intricate forensics that are on the cutting edge of science," said Lawson Lamar, State Attorney in Orange County.
It's not known how the forensics will play in court or for a jury. [Mark Godsey]
Police camera maker is profitable for politicians
WatchGuard Video, which provides patrol car cameras to state and local police forces across the nation, points with pride to the lawmakers who helped the company grow from a tiny technology startup into a government contracting powerhouse.
And at least two of the lawmakers turned a profit in the process — after the state police began ordering millions of dollars worth of equipment and expanding far outside Texas, interviews and state records show.
Two Texas legislators who made early investments in the booming company said they'd done nothing wrong and never pulled strings on behalf of WatchGuard. But their actions might violate the state constitution and disclosure rules established by the Texas Ethics Commission.
A former Texas legislator and part-time city judge are also investors, the company says.
Government watchdogs say it's an ethical minefield for state lawmakers to have interests in companies with major state contracts.
"When the state representatives are involved it appears like they're greasing the skids with the contract," said Texas ethics watchdog Fred Lewis, who has urged the Legislature to tighten conflict-of-interest laws. "I'm not saying that's what happened, but that's what it looks like."
The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from benefiting "directly or indirectly" from a state contract authorized by the Legislature they serve in, but it doesn't say what happens to lawmakers who violate the provision.
The company president, Robert Vanman, called WatchGuard "squeaky clean" and said he resented any suggestion that the contractor had engaged in any "shady" dealings. The company has deals to sell patrol car video systems to at least a dozen state law enforcement agencies — and hundreds of local ones, according to company literature and state records.
If WatchGuard is an industry leader, Vanman said, it's because of its products, not because of political influence.
But WatchGuard's own Web site touted the company's politically connected shareholders in the first place. A published company profile boasts that WatchGuard, based in the Dallas suburb of Plano, is "privately funded and closely held by an influential shareholder group that includes three state representatives, a judge, and a number of distinguished entrepreneurs."
It doesn't name the politician-investors on the Web site, but Vanman did. They are Reps. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, Byron Cook, R-Corsicana and former Rep. Bob Griggs, a Dallas-area Republican. WatchGuard's vice president of operations, Dennis Pirkle, is a part-time city judge and jail magistrate, according to company literature. [Mark Godsey]