Category Archives: U.S. News

The American Dream Redux

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

In the wake of our most recent economic calamity, there is renewed focus on the social responsibilities of the businessperson.  That is, to what extent should the profit motive be governed or, more aptly, curbed by one’s sense of the social and real-life impact of one’s profit-driven actions.  In today’s New York Times is a report of yet another lawsuit filed by a major city (Memphis, TN) against the bank (the other one being Baltimore; story here), Wells Fargo, which, like other cases before it, accuses the bank of engaging in discriminatory lending practices aimed primarily at blacks and Latinos.  Lawyers for the cities claim that such practices have essentially devastated entire minority-centric neighborhoods as unpaid mortgages have given way to foreclosures and ultimately to abandoned homes.  This premise, according to the Times report, has already been rejected by the judge presiding over the Baltimore case.

Whether the judge is correct on that score is perhaps an open question; there may be sense of indignation among those who feel that borrowers of high-interest loans should have known better.  Simply stated: don’t buy it if you can’t afford it.  At the end though the pressure to buy and borrow could not have been entirely generated by the banks, not matter how discriminatory their actions were.  Rather, it is the belief, woven into this country’s collective psyche since time immemorial, that home ownership is one if not the key to social mobility.  Coupled with the  reckless lending practices of the past few years and the historically depressed state of most minority-based communities, it is easier to grasp, by which, I mean, understand, what has now befallen the cities-turned-litigants.

A True Subversive

The story of Adam Stoddard, the sheriff’s deputy in Arizona who lifted a document in open court from the files of a defense attorney is by now well-known, particularly among the legal community and especially the criminal defense bar.  If you haven’t seen the video of the officer’s despicable conduct, I invite you to do so here:

The latest on this is that the judge in whose courtroom Stoddard worked ordered him to jail for contempt of court after Stoddard refused to apologize to the attorney for stealing the document from her case file.  Stoddard was recently released from custody and praised by his boss, the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.  For what, I’m not entirely sure.

The most disturbing thing about Stoddard’s conduct is the sense of entitlement and arrogance he exhibited throughout the incident, continuing through the hearing.  That is, it doesn’t seem like Stoddard thought he did anything wrong at all.  That it was his duty to pry into the defense attorney’s files because, well, she’s a defense attorney, and her clients are the scum of the earth.

Justice Denied

A recent report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department did little or nothing to enforce the civil rights of Americans during the Bush administration.  The Times has the story here.  This is by no means a surprise.  The press had reported early on during Bush’s tenure about the ineptitude and sheer corruption that had infected the division.  In fact, Charlie Savage, the reporter who wrote the Dec. 3rd Times article, had a hand in writing one of the earlier stories on the division.

Whether the division will be more effective under the Obama administration is an open question.  Yet one should also ask whether a governmental agency, one that is part of the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Department of Justice, should even be in the business of vindicating the civil rights of Americans.  Not that the intent and mission of the division aren’t laudable.  But getting the division to act, however more willing it may be to do so under the current administration, is, without question, a feat in itself, what with all the red tape to unravel and governmental inertia to counteract.  Perhaps the bus should be driven instead by a public-private partnership, where private attorneys enter into pacts with the Justice Department committing them to the civil rights cause, and, in turn, receive governmental support in the form of subsidizing the cost of litigation or even providing the use of governmental investigators.  Just a thought…

All the Prosecution’s Men

“At the end of the day, all we’re seeking is the same thing these students are: justice and truth.”

This was the response of the prosecutor’s office in Cook County, Illinois, when asked why they decided to subpoena academic records and emails of journalism students who worked at the Medill Innocence Project, an investigative journalism program affiliated with Northwestern University’s journalism school.  The N.Y. Times has the story here.

You see, the folks at Medill have had remarkable success in uncovering and establishing cases in which individuals have been wrongfully convicted.  This, of course, makes the prosecutors, who push for these convictions (some would say blindly) look bad.  So in an attempt to turn the tables on the students, the prosecutors are asking for records that they say may demonstrate that the students are motivated not by the search for truth but better grades through exonerations.  No doubt a serious charge.  Lawyers for the school are, of course, fighting the prosecutors tooth and nail.  And they should.

To be sure, the allegation that kids at Medill are motivated by grades is partially true.  But this, I think, has less to do with the ultimate result of their investigations, than with the work and effort that precede them.  I would venture to guess that there may be some correlation between the legwork that goes into a case and the prospect that it may result in an exoneration.  With their heavy caseloads, prosecutors may not have the ability to devote the amount of time and effort to a case that a group of journalism students can.  Yet that gives them no right to leech off of the students’ hard work, much less seek to intimidate them through subpoenas and unfounded accusations.  Moreover, if the prosecutor is going press for a person to be put away for years or life, he or she better damn well have the evidence to back it up.  If they don’t have the evidence then say so or don’t push for a conviction.  In fact, when Justice Black was a prosecutor in Alabama, he and his assistants would inform a jury whenever there existed reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.  Imagine that.  A prosecutor who looks out for the innocent.  So it is no use shouting and pouting, like the Cook County prosecutors are doing, and certainly proper, when their sham of a trial is exposed and the innocent freed.

The link to the Medill Innocence Project is listed in my Links section.

Lovely Rita Meter Maid

Jaqueline Fegan, a traffic ticketing supervisor, recently won a $1.553 million jury verdict against the City of Chicago in a rather unusual civil rights suit.  Fegan alleged that police had falsely arrested and battered her after she refused to rescind a parking ticket that a subordinate of Fegan’s had issued to an officer’s private car.  The Chicao Sun-Time has the story here, the Tribune, here.

Apparently a heated argument ensued when Fegan refused to comply with the officer’s demand that the traffic ticket be “non-suited” and the officers ultimately arrested Fegan for what they claimed was a jaywalking offense.  In the process, Fegan claims they injured her wrist and shoulder and also conspired to cover up the episode by crafting a story that Fegan was the one who was throwing her clout around and had fought back against and injured the officers.

One wonders why the City took the case to trial rather than settle.  Perhaps the City attorneys thought they had the moral highground here: police officer ticketed while on official duty?  If so, they were sorely mistaken.  I would argue that arresting a colleague, especially for the dubious crime of “jaywalking,” after a heated argument about rescinding a traffic ticket, is indefensible before most juries.   It’s unclear from news reports how the judgment was apportioned, i.e., compensatory or punitive damages, but I imagine a large chunk of it was directed at punishing the rather outlandish actions of the officers.

If you’re interested in learning more about the case, the complaint can be downloaded here.

Intermission is Now Over

Sorry for the long delay in posting.  Things have been a bit hectic around here but I hope to continue posting regularly.

Here’s what you may have missed in my absence though:

A federal judge in the Northern District of Georgia sentenced Joshua David Lowe, an ex-jail sergeant at the Polk County Jail, to 21 months in prison for beating an inmate who was strapped to a restraining chair.  A fellow jailer and witness to the beating said that the inmate was “spewing blood” and that there was “blood everywhere.”  Lowe pleaded guilty, which, perhaps, explains the unusually lenient sentence.  And let’s not forget that Lowe is a law enforcement officer, after all, who is nothing but well-intentioned.  The case was prosecuted by the United States Attorneys Office, one of several that has been brought by the feds in recent moths (see here and here).  Of course, police brutality against inmates, whether it’s of the violent or non-violent variety, are common, and one wonders why the feds don’t pursue more of these cases.  Because what happens at the county jail stays in the county jail.  Ultimately, it is up to the better officers, those with a conscience and a heart who see their colleagues go to town on an inmate, to break this cycle of secrecy and violence.

Texas continues to make its mark as the capitol of injustice in criminal and death penalty prosecutions.  The 2005 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of setting fire to his home and killing his three children has returned to the media spotlight after Texas Governor Rick Perry took some swipes (some would say unwarranted) at Willingham, calling him a “monster” and a “bad man.”  This came after Perry pulled some strings last minute to change the composition of an official forensic science commission that was about to issue a report on whether Willingham really did commit arson and murder his three kids.  Grits for Breakfast has the story here.  Texas injustice also made news with the release of Richard Miles, who was serving 15 years in prison for shooting two individuals, one of whom died.  The release came after Centurion Ministries, a prisoner advocacy group, uncovered police files that show that someone else – not Miles – had actually confessed to the shooting.  Evidence that was withheld by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office headed by Craig Watkins.

“We F****ed Up”

Scott Greenfield over at Simple Justice picked up a story on Anthony Arambula who was shot in the back 6 times by the police who mistook him for a robber.  Of course, the cover up, as they say, is often worse than the crime.  And here, the police apparently tried everything short of bribing witnesses to cover up their tracks.  The incident took place in Maricopa County which also happens to be playground of infamous Sherrif Joe Arpaio.

According to the report of the incident by Courthouse News Service:

A homeowner says a Phoenix police officer shot him six times in the back during a 911 home-invasion call, and the 911 tape recorded the officer’s partner saying, “That’s all right. Don’t worry about it. I got your back. … We clear?” The family says the officers were not aware that the 911 call was still recording as they spoke about covering up the shooting.

In their complaint in Maricopa County Court, Anthony and Lesley Arambula say an armed intruder “crashed through the front window” of their home on Sept. 17, 2008 and ran into one of their son’s bedrooms.

Anthony, worried about his son who was still in his bedroom, says he “held the intruder calmly at gunpoint” and called 911.

Phoenix Police officers already in the neighborhood heard the crash of the Arambulas’ window. When they approached the house, Lesley says, she told Sgt. Sean Coutts that her husband was inside holding the intruder at gunpoint. Lesley says Coutts failed to pass on that information to the two other officers.

Inside the house, the Arambulas say, Officer Brian Lilly shot Anthony six times in the back while he was still on the phone with the 911 operator – twice when he was on the ground. 
The officers ran into the bedroom after Anthony told them, “You just killed … you just killed the homeowner. The bad guy is in there.”

The entire Courthouse News Service article can be found here, Steve Greenfield’s take, here.

Making of a Terrorist Part II

Another month, another terror prosecution.  This one involves Najibullah Zazi, his father Mohammed, and an imam, Ahmad Wais Afzail.  Prosecutors are alleging in characteristically vague fashion that the Zazis had plans to execute a London-style bombing of mass transit vehicles in New York and perhaps elsewhere.  Two of the more notable pieces of evidence that have been recovered from the Zazis are a scale (yikes!) and bomb-making notes (double yikes!).  The legal blogosphere has been abuzz about the decision of the younger Zazi to speak to the Feds which ultimately netted him several false statement charges.  No surprise there.  Even though his attorney, Arthur Folsom, has had minimal federal criminal defense experience, he should have known better.  At the very least, he could have conducted his own investigation to see what information the Feds might have had (yes, he’d probably have a hard time doing this, you know, state secrets, FISA, all that) on Zazi before serving his client up on a platter as he did.  Mr. Afzail, in contrast, is being represented by Ron Kuby, a well-known criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New York who’s clients in a quasi-partnership with William Kunstler, included Colin Ferguson (LIRR shooter), Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, and other unsavory characters.

TalkLeft has great coverage of the Zazi matter.  It’s author is a criminal defense lawyer based in Denver, where the Zazi’s are currently being held and will eventually be prosecuted.

Back to Square One

There is new news In the continuing saga of the infamous Julia Tuttle Causeway turned homeless shelter.  As reported today in the Miami Herald, a judge has rejected the ACLU’s attempt to block enforcement of the sex offender law that was responsible for creating the controversial shantytown of registered sex offenders who, because of the law’s restrictive provisions, were prohibited from living elsewhere.  It is interesting to see the spin the ACLU used in its argument before the court – that, it sought to block enforcement of the law because only then would officials be able to properly and effectively track the whereabouts of sex offenders.  I would argue that this is precisely the ill that has to be remedied.  But what do I know?

The story in the Herald can be found here.

The Machinery of Death is Sputtering

I came across two death penalty-related stories recently, both of which confirm what has been a widely-held belief among death penalty opponents for many years: our scheme of capital punishment is inherently flawed.

In the September 7, 200p issue of the New Yorker is the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, an inmate on Texas’ death row who was convicted of burning his three children to death in their home.  The article’s long but well worth the read.  It’s hard for me to pluck out an excerpt  mostly because of how well the story is written; it’s the kind of reporting that put the New Yorker on the map of journalistic excellence.  The reporter, David Grann, does devote one section of the story to a general survey of death penalty jurisprudence in the U.S., which he ends with the following Scalia anecdote:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2006, voted with a majority to uphold the death penalty in a Kansas case. In his opinion, Scalia declared 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.”

Is a feature length story in a national magazine on a wrongful execution the equivalent of “shouting from the rooftops”?  How many more of these stories do we need before people like Scalia come to their senses?

In another story, Anthony Caravella of Broward County, Florida, was released after DNA tests cleared him of wrongdoing in a 1983 rape and murder case.  Caravella has spent 26 years in jail and had confessed to committing the crimes, but only after, according to his attorney, he was coerced to do so by the police.  Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty against Caravella but were rebuffed in their efforts by the jury (11-1 against the death penalty).  Caravella has an IQ of 67 and his conviction rested largely on his own admissions of guilt.

The Miami Herald has the story here, the Sun-Sentinel has a timeline of the case here.