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Another wrongful conviction — and a chance for Worthy to step up

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy
Wayne County

Another wrongful conviction — and a chance for Worthy to step up

Jamal Segars and his friend Brian Minner were shot near the Detroit airport in 2004. Thelonious “Shaun” Searcy became the prime suspect, and investigator theorized he had meant to kill someone else and shot Segars and Minner by mistake. Officers from the scene were unable to identify Searcy, but four other random eye-witnesses did. Searcy presented eight eyewitnesses who placed him at a family barbeque.

Despite what would appear to be solid alibi evidence, then-25-year-old Searcy was convicted to first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Since then, Searcy has filed any number of appeals to get his case back before a court, but they have all been denied, many by the same judge who oversaw his conviction in the first place. Witnesses have confessed to being threatened, coerced and bribed.

Then, a break came.

Vincent Smothers is a professional hit man who is serving multiple 50–100 year sentences for several murders. He took the rap for four shootings for which the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office had wrongfully convicted 14-year-old Davontae Sanford. Sanford was exonerated last year. At the time of Sanford’s arrest in 2007, Smothers had already admitted guilt and tried to confess to the police. But, during Sanford’s appeals, Worthy’s office never gave much credence to Smothers’s confession, instead attributing her decision to drop the case to law enforcement perjury.

In 2015, Smothers wrote a note to Searcy. “I have discovered your name while searching through cases in the law library about prosecutorial misconduct,” he said, explaining that he had committed the 2004 double shooting. In 2016, Searcy filed a motion requesting a new trial based on this evidence. A taped interview and signed affidavit contain Vincent Smothers’s confession with details.

There are other reasons to be suspicious of Searcy’s case beyond Smothers’s confession. Two key players in Sanford’s botched conviction — Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Patrick Muscat and Detroit Police Homicide Investigator Dale Collins– were also part of Searcy’s trial. In his filings, Searcy alleges multiple counts of misconduct by law enforcement as well as poor representation by his defense attorney, Robert Mitchell, who died in December of 2016. There are also allegations that one of the lead witnesses against Searcy had a motive to lie that was concealed by prosecutors.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has agreed to an evidentiary hearingin Searcy’s case although no date has been set. Her response motion mostly recounts the trial testimony of the witnesses.

I’ve written previously about another wrongful conviction of another man in Detroit, opposed by Kym Worthy. The corrupt practices of Detroit law enforcement over the decades led to excessively harsh sentences and bad cases. How many more innocent people are in Michigan’s prisons waiting for their day?

Florida’s gross criminalization of disaster relief

Florida’s gross criminalization of disaster relief

When we talk about the United States being the “incarceration nation,” the facts back it up. A higher percentage of our citizens are in jail or prison than any other nation in the world. How we got there is complicated, but at the root of it all is the over-criminalization of people for things that shouldn’t be criminal. So we end up with kids in high school getting arrested and beaten by police for not putting their phones away in class, or young girls mauled and handcuffed by police because neighbors weren’t sure they had proper permission to visit a neighborhood swimming pool. The end result is not only millions of people in jail and prison, but tens of millions of people forced to operate in society with either the trauma of police brutality or the stigma of an arrest record.

What has happened this past month, though, should shock the conscience of us all. As Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, neared the coast of Florida, the Polk County Sheriff decided to use the moment to criminalize disaster relief — which is a new frontier of sorts in a country that criminalizes so much. Let me break it down.

Polk County Florida is the home of the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. It’s a landlocked county in central Florida that is frequently seen by many to be a place of refuge during storms and hurricanes. With over 600,000 residents, it’s one of the largest counties in America — so it has the capacity to take in thousands of visitors at any one time during a natural disaster.

As residents of coastal Florida began boarding up their homes and leaving them behind to seek shelter inland, Polk County’s Sheriff, Grady Judd, tweeted this:

Then just 45 minutes later, he doubled down and tweeted this:

To make clear that he wasn’t playing, Judd trotted out his spokesperson to state that ID’s would be indeed be checked at hurricane shelters and that background checks would be performed to search for any active warrants. Any person with any warrant of any kind would be arrested on the spot. When pushed on the fact that the overwhelming majority of warrants are for non-violent misdemeanors, Judd’s office didn’t relent — and said it was “their duty” to arrest all people with outstanding warrants regardless of how petty or small they may be.

This meant people who had warrants for outstanding traffic tickets who sought shelter in Polk County could face being separated from their family members and arrested on the spot during what was already a terrifying natural disaster. It also clearly meant that people who didn’t have ID’s or were undocumented immigrants would not be welcome at Polk County shelters.

At a time when people are fleeing for their safety, perhaps leaving their homes and belongings behind to be destroyed by the storm, Sheriff Grady Judd saw it as an opportunity to gleefully advance his cause of mass incarceration and strike fear into the hearts of thousands of people.

This is why millions of Americans operate in the shadows. It’s why millions of good people just flat out don’t call the police or 911 for help — even if they need it or see a crime being committed. If law enforcement sees a natural disaster as an opportunity for arrest and incarceration, our system is worse off than we all imagined.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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Safety in numbers: Will District Attorneys support saving lives?

Safety in numbers: Will District Attorneys support saving lives?

Supervised injection sites — places where IV drugs users can avoid contracting disease and deathly overdoes — have been cited approvingly by public health experts as one of the most effective ways to control the opioid epidemic. They have been popular in Canada. But, public officials in the U.S. have shied away from them.

The tide may be starting to turn. Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia District Attorney, announced today that he approves the use of safe injection sites. “I don’t think saving lives in controversial,” he told the local NBC affiliate. His opponent also indicated that she would support safe injection cites as well.

Philadelphia has been hard hit by the opioid crisis. Last year, over 900 people died from overdoses; about 55,000 are addicted. In the U.S., about 100 people died every day from an overdose, and 2015 overdoses were triple percentages points from those in 2010. Pennsylvania’s deaths are above the national average.

California just killed a legislative bill that would have let counties establish their safe injection sites. The proposed bill would have allowed for eight counties to open safe injection sites without using state funds. Oppositionfrom the California District Attorney Association, the California Sheriffs’ Association, and the California Police Chiefs Association all opposed the bill and helped block its passage. Republicans unanimously voted no.

The bill was supported by a broad range of people, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to recommend that the city begin looking into opening safe injection facilities, although the failed bill might now derail this option.

My colleagues Carimah and Rebecca have previously covered the resistance of law enforcement to safe injection sites. But, Krasner’s support — alongside an increasingly bipartisan realization that the opioid crisis will require a response that isn’t punitive — hopefully represents a chance that will help thousands of people. Last night, I watched Reveal’s new documentary Heroin(e) and what I found most powerful was the idea that people from different backgrounds could come together in hope and find a way to solve what has become an incredibly difficult public health crisis.

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