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Hidden Foster Care: All Of The Responsibility, None Of The Resources

Outside of the traditional foster care system exists a shadow system of potentially hundreds of thousands of children removed by CPS to their relatives or family friends—without a court case, monetary support, or due process.

Illustrations by Rachel Levit Ruiz.

Hidden Foster Care: All Of The Responsibility, None Of The Resources

Outside of the traditional foster care system exists a shadow system of potentially hundreds of thousands of children removed by CPS to their relatives or family friends—without a court case, monetary support, or due process.

In August 2018, Laura* got a call from Child Protective Services. The agency asked if she could pick up 1-year-old Sophie in a small Texas town several hours away from Laura’s home in Houston. 

Laura wasn’t related to Sophie, but she was in the room when she was born. Laura had been in Sophie’s mother Ashley’s life since Ashley was a teenager, when Laura dated Ashley’s stepfather. During that time, Ashley’s mother died by suicide. Since then, and long after Ashley’s father and Laura had broken up, Ashley would call Laura when she needed help. 

And she did need help. In 2005, Laura enrolled Ashley in rehab for substance use disorder. In the decade after that, Laura only heard from Ashley a few times, until 2016, when Ashley called again. She was pregnant, had gotten kicked out of rehab, and was in a bad relationship. 

Laura and her husband built a room onto their Houston home and moved Ashley in. Sophie was born that fall, and the unlikely family began settling into a rhythm. But stability didn’t last. When Sophie was about five months old, Ashley again began to struggle, and Laura suspected that Ashley was using drugs again.

When she found proof, Laura kicked Ashley out. She told her Sophie could stay, but Ashley took her daughter with her out of town. For about a year, Laura kept tabs on them as best she could, with Ashley even bringing Sophie to visit once. But in summer 2018, CPS called Laura with an ultimatum: If she wanted to care for Sophie, she needed to immediately pick her up. If not, she’d enter foster care. 

Laura and her husband decided to take Sophie in while Ashley entered rehab again. The hope was that Ashley would get back on her feet, and that Sophie would be safe with people who loved her. “We never agreed to take the child for the long term, but were more than happy for her to stay in a loving, supportive home, and the only home she has ever truly known,” Laura told The Appeal. 

But Ashley hasn’t been able to get back on her feet since then, and the agreement CPS initiated with Ashley, a temporary custody order, has expired. Laura and her husband have incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to achieve stability for Sophie, by placing her with either the couple or another loving family. But Laura and her husband, who had plans to retire, are instead caring for a 4-year-old child—without any legal rights, monetary support, or state services for the girl. (*Laura, Ashley, and Sophie’s names have been changed to protect the child’s identity.)

Removing children from their parents and placing them with relatives is a common occurrence in Texas, and around the country, as child welfare authorities intervene in situations like Sophie’s. But unlike the traditional foster care system, no court case is initiated, and no lawyers are present to advise either parents or caregivers of their rights. Legal advocates say these arrangements lead to confusion around custody rights, are ripe for coercion of the parent, and leave caregivers without any support in caring for children. 

The phenomenon has been termed “shadow foster care” or “hidden foster care” by legal researchers, who estimate that these informal arrangements are made at a rate on par with the traditional foster care system. In fiscal year 2014 in Texas, there were just over 30,000 children placed in the foster care system, with CPS cases in the courts overseen by judges; that year, the state made 34,000 informal placements of children with relatives as a result of a CPS investigation, which had no court cases attached. That number seems to be declining, according to recent data acquired from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. This year, DFPS reported about 12,000 children currently in such placements; more than 1,000 of these arrangements have been closed each year for the last five years with the child’s relatives still caring for them, without a custody order in place.

“There’s a lot of pressure to intervene relatively less and keep kids out of foster care,” Josh Gupta-Kagan, an associate law professor at the University of South Carolina, told The Appeal. Last year, Gupta-Kagan wrote a Stanford Law Review article about the legal problems with hidden foster care. “Also, foster care is really expensive, so if you can place kids with—or induce parents to voluntarily transfer custody to—someone else who doesn’t get paid, this can make your numbers look great, and saves everyone money.” 

Laura and her husband spent more than a year parenting Sophie while in legal limbo, and when their temporary custody agreement with Sophie’s mother expired, they decided they needed help. Laura tried to initiate a case with CPS and get certified as a foster parent so that Sophie would qualify for services. But after CPS spoke with the family, the agency closed their case. “CPS threatened that she had already been with us for two years and was basically our responsibility now, even though we had no legal rights. [The caseworker] said this was a private matter and we would have to deal with it,” Laura said. “Otherwise, we would have to call CPS and say we could no longer care for her—and they would come and take her, and we would never see her again.”

Illustrations by Rachel Levit Ruiz.

Child welfare advocates and researchers have long believed that when children cannot be with their parents, the next best thing for their well-being and development is to be placed in kinship homes, with biological relatives or with “fictive kin,” like Laura, who have established relationships with the child. Sibling groups are more likely to stay together in kinship homes, and children move around less and have fewer behavioral problems. They’re also more often able to stay in the communities where they live and know people, giving them some sense of stability through the upheaval of family disruption.

But kinship placements are poorly compensated by the state compared to nonrelative foster homes. Currently in Texas, kinship caregivers are entitled to $11.55 a day per child, or about $345 a month—less than half of what a licensed nonrelative foster parent would bring in for each child designated at a “basic” level of care. That assistance lasts up to a year. Before 2017, when the Texas Legislature passed the bill to pay caregivers monthly, kinship families in Texas were only entitled to a one-time $1,000 stipend, plus $500 each year. In a state where 75 percent of maltreatment findings are for neglect—which is often poverty-related—instead of abuse, family members who take in children are also often struggling in poverty. And even that kinship rate is reserved for caregivers of children in the formal foster care system who meet all of the requirements; for those that took on children without CPS initiating a case, they receive nothing.

Many kinship placements happen organically, such as when a parent asks a relative to care temporarily or permanently for their child. But when CPS is involved, the “voluntary” aspect of these placements has been called into question in legal challenges dating back to the 1990s. Because these agreements are often offered as an alternative to having a case with CPS initiated—with an increased likelihood of the child ending up with a stranger—legal advocates like Gupta-Kagan say it’s inherently coercive and could be used to restrict parents’ rights when the agency might not have sufficient evidence to remove a child if they took the case to court. This year, a federal appeals court ruled that a Kentucky couple could sue social workers who allegedly threatened to remove their children if the parents didn’t agree to a “prevention plan” that didn’t allow the mother to be unsupervised with her newborn after a false-positive drug test. 

In a court, CPS needs “to show abuse or neglect, that the child is in significant imminent risk of harm from that abuse or neglect, and show that the removal is necessary to protect the child, not some other remedy,” Gupta-Kagan said. “The question you have to ask is how much do you really trust CPS agencies to get all of that right all of the time, such that they should be allowed to do this without any due process checks?”

In his Stanford Law Review article, he goes further: “It is as if a police department investigated a crime, concluded an individual was guilty, did not file charges or provide him with an attorney, and told him he had to agree to go to jail for several weeks or months, or else it would bring him to court and things could get even worse.”

“When you look at it on paper, we want to avoid CPS bringing court cases, that’s the goal,” Tiffany Cebrun, a staff attorney at the Foster Care Advocacy Center (FCAC) in Harris County, told The Appeal. “In court you want permanency, there’s a rush to termination [of parental rights]. A lot of workers want to close out cases quickly.”

Still, she said, FCAC has several clients who “CPS kind of coerced” into taking relatives’ children. “A lot of caregivers were told they would have support,” Cebrun said. And without a court case, parents, many of whom are struggling with substance use disorder, aren’t given resources or treatment, either.  

Though a parent loses the ability to live with and care for their child in these informal arrangements, they are not technically considered removals. So there’s very little data about the arrangements, both in Texas and around the country, because the federal government doesn’t ask states to report them.

There’s ample evidence that this practice is widespread around the country. “The number of children who pass through hidden foster care each year is roughly comparable with the number of children removed from their families, brought to court, and placed in formal foster care,” Gupta-Kagan notes in his article. A study of nearly 6,000 children in 83 counties nationwide estimated that when children were removed from home after a CPS investigation, nearly half of the time they were placed with relatives informally, with no court case initiated.

The lack of data has Gupta-Kagan and other legal advocates concerned that amid budget tightening due to economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the scope of these removals will increase, without any sense of how many children’s lives are being affected this way—or how much needed support these families will be going without.

Valerie Jackson is a psychologist who founded and runs Monarch Family Services, an agency that focuses on kinship placements. She’s experienced many situations like Laura and Sophie’s, where guardians are given care of a child but no support or sufficient documentation to go along with it. DFPS calls these “parental child safety placements” temporary and says they “should last no longer than 60 days.” But Jackson says there are many families who are altered long-term as CPS instigates the move of children and then exits the process. “If the state doesn’t take conservatorship they say, ‘God bless you and good luck’—they get nothing,” Jackson told The Appeal. “The majority of these families are low-income and with limited resources and limited knowledge of how to access resources, which increases the probability of placement breakdown…Or, if they remain in the care of this relative, they’re unable to survive comfortably.”

In San Antonio, Judge Peter Sakai, who has long presided over child welfare cases in Bexar County, said he often saw cases in his court where placements had broken down after long stretches of time where families were subject to these informal agreements. “San Antonio is known and it’s been documented that we have a lot of kids with their relatives—a lot. And a lot is through CPS intervention,” Sakai told The Appeal.

As child welfare cases increased in Bexar County in the early 2010s, the county considered adding another judge to oversee these cases. “We were reading the removals that were coming across the court’s desk,” said Sakai’s court administrator, Barbara Schafer. “The kids have been placed with grandma for three years and now it’s time to remove. What?! Y’all had them there for three years on a safety plan?”

“Safety plans,” another term for these informal removals, are problematic for relatives who want to enroll children in a new school or get insurance for them. Unlike custody orders, these plans are “just a big old sign that says ‘CPS is involved in my life.’ It’s not a legal binding document, it’s not filed into court. CPS uses it as leverage to say, ‘If you violate it, we’ll remove the kids,’” Schafer said.  

Instead of hiring a new judge, Schafer had another idea: a separate “family preservation” docket, where appointed attorneys get a flat $1,200 fee to file custody orders for relatives who are caring for children in place of their parents. Since its inception in 2015, the docket has finalized about 300 cases involving nearly 400 children, Schafer said. 

These families get a custody order and are linked to federally funded services like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but they don’t get the monthly stipend that would provide substantial monetary assistance. Still, “Kids deserve to be taken care of and go to the doctor,” Schafer said, and “a lot of the grandparents are like, ‘We don’t want CPS in our home anymore.’”

That’s a crucial point: Many advocates whose goal is to limit the reach of the child welfare system say that informal, community-led arrangements that spring up in response to parents struggling with poverty or addiction can help shrink the scope of a family regulation system that violates parents’ rights and traumatizes their children—especially Black and Native children, who are disproportionately represented in foster care. 

“Informal kinship care is the solution to a lot of this, but the state doesn’t want it to happen because then they don’t have oversight,” said Alan Dettlaff, the head of University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work and a founder of the Upend Movement, a network of organizations that promotes abolishing the child welfare system. “When the child welfare system first started, Black children were intentionally excluded. Black families and communities came together and developed their own ways to care for children—it’s about trusting Black families and communities to take care of their children.”

Still, Dettlaff advocates for more of these informal arrangements—with financial support. “We remove kids for neglect and place them in strangers’ homes, and give the stranger a monthly stipend to take care of the child,” he told The Appeal. “What if we just gave that $1,000 a month to the mother who needed it?”

Illustrations by Rachel Levit Ruiz.

When CPS told Laura and her husband that their case was closed in May, the couple didn’t know what to do. They had a grown biological child and weren’t sure if they were up for parenting Sophie until adulthood. Ashley, who hadn’t been able to achieve sobriety, decided that she wasn’t able to provide Sophie with the life she deserved. But CPS refused to get involved, saying only that if Laura returned Sophie to Ashley, they’d initiate a case against Laura and her husband for endangerment. 

“They convinced us to take on the child, so they could wash their hands of yet another case, but offered no direction or services,” Laura said. “The worst part is they did not speak to the long-term issues, effects, or needs the child might have.”

Laura and her husband recognize that they are lucky enough to afford tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees related to Sophie’s case, and put Sophie in a private preschool. The majority of kinship caregivers have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line—and about 40 percent of these caregivers are below the poverty line—but Laura and her husband are still stretched thin. They’ve decided to adopt Sophie. Their retirement plans are gone for now; instead, they’ve moved to the suburbs so Sophie can attend a more affordable preschool.  “It was not in our grand scheme of things, but the only way for us to continue consistency with this child is for us to adopt her,” she said. “We still think it’s unfair for her to be with such old parents, but we still have life left in us.”

Roxanna Asgarian reported this story with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.

‘No Choice But To Do It’

Many of the 230,000 women and girls in U.S. jails and prisons were abuse survivors before they entered the system. Research for The Appeal shows that at least 30 percent of those serving time on murder or manslaughter charges were protecting themselves or a loved one from physical or sexual violence.

Illustrations by Daniel Zender.

‘No Choice But To Do It’

Many of the 230,000 women and girls in U.S. jails and prisons were abuse survivors before they entered the system. Research for The Appeal shows that at least 30 percent of those serving time on murder or manslaughter charges were protecting themselves or a loved one from physical or sexual violence.

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and The New Republic. 

Tanisha Williams met Kevin Amos on Dec. 29, 2002, the last day of his life. Kevin, 19, lived with his parents, but sometimes visited his girlfriend and their infant daughter at the red-shingled apartment complex in Saginaw, a mid-Michigan city where Tanisha, 20, and her 32-year-old roommate, Patrick Martin, shared a basement two-bedroom. It was a dry, frigid winter, and a thin layer of snow coated the ground. That evening, Kevin came by for a drink. Patrick introduced him to Tanisha. She poured two glasses of Crown Royal on ice. Patrick had already been drinking all day. In a bedroom, three of Patrick’s children were watching TV. After a time, Tanisha headed to the kitchen. She heard Patrick’s voice rise and stepped back into the living room, where she saw Kevin bleeding from the mouth and Patrick’s hand raw, “the meat missing off [his] knuckle,” she would later testify. The metal braces Kevin wore had torn Patrick’s skin.

Kevin ran for the door, but Patrick ordered Tanisha to block his path. She obeyed. Patrick was 6 foot 2 inches tall and 215 pounds, always armed; he outweighed Tanisha, who is 5-foot-7, by nearly 100 pounds. Patrick dragged Kevin to the loveseat, pistol-whipped him unconscious, stripped him naked, and kicked him repeatedly in the head and genitals. At some point—no one involved in the incident could remember the exact sequence of events—Patrick’s cousin, Terrance Shepard, arrived. Months later, according to court transcripts, Patrick would confess to a girlfriend that he attacked Kevin because Kevin was “mean mugging” him—or looking at him the wrong way.

Patrick became concerned that Kevin would defecate. Trash bags and duct tape were fetched. Tanisha considered escaping, but she was barefoot and in a remote building with two male cousins. “I began screaming and yelling,” she told me. Patrick grabbed her by her collar, picked her off the ground, and slammed her against the wall, twisting the fabric of her shirt and pressing his fist into her neck. The drywall cracked, Tanisha recalled, and her throat closed. “Get down or lay down,” Patrick said, his gun to her face. Then he released his grip. 

Tanisha knelt on the floor. Following Patrick’s instructions, she began to wrap tape around Kevin’s head. 

“How did you feel doing that?” Doug Baker, a prosecutor at the Michigan attorney general’s office, asked her at trial years later.


“Why did you do that?” 

“Because I ain’t have no choice but to do it.”

Tanisha was born in 1982 in Saginaw, once the center of a thriving automobile gear industry. A manufacturing decline in the late 20th century led to urban decay. Crime rose; buildings sat vacant. Tanisha and her four siblings lived in a spartan 900-square-foot home. She remembers sitting in the house with only popcorn to eat, waiting for their mom to return. When Tanisha was a toddler, one of her mother’s boyfriends dipped her feet in a tub of scalding water. Her mother grabbed her before the man could fully submerge her. A layer of skin peeled off her feet, which are still tough and scarred.

When Tanisha was about 6 years old, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She married her boyfriend at the time so that he could act as guardian for her children while she underwent prolonged treatment. According to Tanisha, the man was addicted to drugs. Many days, Tanisha did odd jobs in the neighborhood and collected bottles to buy chips and hot dogs for her little brothers, walking alone in the dark to get food for them all. At night, her stepfather entered her room and offered her ice cream— especially appealing because she was often “super hungry”—in exchange for sex acts. Tanisha’s mother later found out about the abuse. “You done slept with my husband,” Tanisha recalls her mother saying. “I don’t want to look at you.” Tanisha was around 10 years old.

When Tanisha was 13, her family moved to Georgia. At 14, she became pregnant by a 26-year-old man. She had an abortion and was sent back to Saginaw to live with her father, whom she barely knew.

Sharon Sanders was married to Tanisha’s father then; Tanisha and Sanders still consider themselves related. (In 2014, Tanisha’s father was incarcerated for the sexual abuse of multiple young female relatives; he and Sanders later divorced.) Tanisha was “a hurt, angry, disturbed young girl,” Sanders told me. 

At 17, Tanisha had her first child. Tanisha told me that, at the time, she was “not able to be a mom.” She left the baby with Sanders, dropped out of school, and bounced around, staying with adults who lived “the faster life.” Until then, her only job had been at a fast-food restaurant; she remembers making less than $5 an hour. She found she could make $200 for oral sex: Her clientele, mostly drug dealers, paid big money as a show of status. Then, as now, Tanisha was slender, with close-cropped hair, high cheekbones, and an exuberant personality; she wore tight, sparkly dresses and organized parties where she provided sexual services. She found the work easy. “I was already introduced to being utilized by men.” 

At 19, Tanisha fell in love, got pregnant, and stopped doing sex work—but her boyfriend abused and cheated on her. She left her second daughter with him, slept in abandoned cars, showered in hotels, and sold small quantities of drugs to make money. She summarized that period in one word: “Survival.”

Tanisha turned 20 in June 2002. Around that time, a step-cousin introduced her to Patrick Martin, a father of five who had recently separated from his wife. Patrick and Tanisha quickly decided to live together. Their relationship was pragmatic, not romantic: Tanisha needed a home, and Patrick wanted a domestic partner. They would split bills and maintain independent enterprises. “This is a perfect set-up,” Tanisha recalled thinking.

Tanisha soon learned, however, that Patrick had plans to act as her pimp, which she did not agree to. He started “jumping” her, once slapping her so hard that she saw “a flash of light.” He beat and choked her, commandeered her finances, and demanded that she cook, clean, and care for his children. He confiscated her gun because, she would later tell a detective, “wasn’t nobody else … gonna have a pistol but him.”

“I could’ve went back to sleeping in cars, but my pride was too high,” Tanisha told me. “I could deal with this while I stack some money somehow. I was figuring it out.”

Then, just after Christmas, Kevin Amos stopped by for the glass of Crown Royal.

She summarized that period in one word: "Survival."

I first heard from Tanisha in February of this year when an envelope arrived in my P.O. box containing a response to a questionnaire that I had sent. “I’m at the beginning of my project,” I had written in an accompanying letter to Tanisha and 548 others detained at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Michigan. “My goal is to write an article about why and how women end up in prison on murder charges…I have attached 16 questions…Tell me everything you think I should know about your story.” 

Tanisha later told me that she had lugged a communal typewriter to her bunk and fed the paper in. “I applied duct tape to the victim’s head,” she typed. “Only while a gun hung over me forcing me to assist…In each step I thought I would die.” 

Over the last 21 months, I have sent my letter, questionnaire, and, as a modest show of appreciation, a crossword puzzle to thousands of women. New mail arrives weekly, and I’m sending out batches to more states. For the purposes of this article, I have analyzed, coded, and run statistics on 608 surveys: These are the responses from a total of 5,098 surveys sent to people serving time on murder and manslaughter charges in 45 state facilities for women in 22 states. 

I started the project in late 2018, after I began investigating the story of Nicole Addimando, a young mother in upstate New York who had killed her abusive partner in what she said was an act of self-defense. In the course of that reporting, I came upon dozens of cases across the country in which a woman insisted that she had been trying to protect herself or a loved one, while the state countered that she was a cold-blooded killer and sought a harsh prison sentence. 

The stories were voluminous but anecdotal. Race and socioeconomic circumstances often played a prominent role, which is fitting given the history of gender-based criminalization in the United States. One of the first recorded cases occurred in 1855, when an enslaved Missouri 19-year-old named Celia killed her master, who had raped her since she was 14. She was represented by a slave owner, convicted by a white male jury, gave birth to a stillborn baby, and was hanged. 

I found limited studies, conducted in single prisons or states, consistently showing that up to 94 percent of people in some women’s detention facilities experienced physical and sexual violence prior to incarceration. However, I couldn’t find systemic data to support what experts told me, and what I witnessed while reporting: Women’s prisons are populated not only by abuse and assault survivors, but by people who are incarcerated for their acts of survival. 

About 230,000 women and girls are incarcerated, an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980. The female prison population is dwarfed by the larger population of more than two million men, on whom conversations about mass incarceration center. For most people in prison, the criminal legal system has stripped away context and circumstance, leaving only a conviction on record. 

Women must also navigate gendered binaries in a system designed by and for men: offenders are violent, victims are docile; offenders kill, victims die. Female victims should fit a paradigm of innocence: a petite, heterosexual, white woman with a clean record. Tanisha does not conform, though she has been unyieldingly victimized. But even women who do square with the paradigm struggle because they survived. “Lawyers say the only correct battered woman when talking about self-defense is a dead one,” Sue Osthoff, co-founder of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, told me. By engaging in violence in order to live, a woman cannot be a victim. Her survival itself becomes reason to condemn her.  

In January 2019, I interviewed Rachel White-Domain, a post-conviction attorney for incarcerated survivors of domestic violence in Illinois. I pressed her, as I had others, for data on women in prison for defending themselves. White-Domain did not know the statistics. “If you’re so interested, you could just ask the women directly,” she said. That comment was the seed from which this work has grown.

In consultation with Thania Sanchez, then an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, I designed 16 questions to assess the abuse and trauma backgrounds and unique pathways of women into U.S. prisons. (Sanchez now works in the ACLU’s data and analytics department.) 

My two-page survey asked for demographic information—age, race, and sentence length—and posed qualitative questions. Those who speak of abuse are subject to doubt and skepticism; in a courtroom or a prison, they are often accused of trying to avoid consequences by making “the abuse excuse.” To reduce any appearance of dishonesty, I did not ask “priming” questions about domestic abuse, sexual violence, or self-defense. Instead, my queries concerned the respondent’s relationship to the person they were convicted of killing; the days leading up to the event; factors they believed contributed to their conviction.

I contacted the media liaison or public information officer at the departments of corrections in the majority of states and requested a list of all women incarcerated on murder and manslaughter charges. Some officials denied my request, but many sent names: more than 1,000 in Florida, just 11 in Maine. Once I had the lists, I filled in each salutation by hand. 

As in any data collection effort, the majority of recipients did not respond. People in prison face particular hurdles in corresponding: censorial mailroom staff, fear of retribution from staff and administration, distrust of media, legal concerns, and constraints that include count times, chow calls, and lockdowns. Incarcerated respondents had to pay for a 55-cent stamp despite working jobs that were unpaid or, in some states, began at less than 4 cents an hour. 

Mental illness, which affects nearly half of those in prison, was another hurdle: “Every prosecutor describes women convicted of murder as cunning, diabolical, monster, and evil,” Kwaneta Harris wrote from Texas. “I’ve yet to encounter these ‘monsters.’ Although I’ve met plenty of women with mental illness, untreated and undiagnosed … the ones who you really need to talk to are too mentally damaged to talk to you.”

Still, 604 cisgender women, one transgender woman, and three transgender men replied. They said that they wanted their stories told: sometimes anonymously, sometimes with their identities central. Many wanted to make known their own experiences and those of others. One woman serving life in prison, who had transferred between state and federal facilities for 17 years, repeated a common sentiment: “I have lived amongst thousands of different women prisoners from different countries, ethnicities, and cultures. I have probably come across six of these women whom I would even think were murderers. Many of us were defending ourselves, with the wrong people at the wrong time, taking cases for someone else, or not guilty completely.” 

The racial breakdown of responses roughly mirrored that of the larger female prison population, which is majority white but disproportionately women of color. My respondents were 53.7 percent white; 32.7 percent Black; 8.8 percent Hispanic; 3 percent American Indian and Alaska Native; 1 percent mixed race; and 0.8 percent Asian. Their ages spanned 18 to 83. The median age was 43, which skews older than the median age, 36, for all incarcerated people. Nearly 30 percent were serving life sentences, including life without the possibility of parole. Overall, the average sentence, including life sentences (weighted at 100 years) was 55 years.

Seventy-two percent of respondents had been represented by state-appointed defenders, meaning they most likely qualified as indigent. A 2015 Prison Policy Initiative analysis found that the median annual income for a woman prior to her incarceration was $13,890, 58 percent of the income of a woman who was not incarcerated and 34 percent of the income of a man who was not incarcerated. “No money for attorneys, unfamiliar with the legal system,” one respondent summarized. Another woman wrote that her case was her lawyer’s first-ever murder trial. One wrote that the judge fell asleep and her attorneys “said it was okay.” 

Sixty percent of respondents reported experiencing abuse— physical, sexual, emotional, or some combination of the three—before entering prison, much of it during childhood, while only 9 percent reported no abuse. (Thirty-one percent did not give enough information for a determination.) The fact that a majority of respondents had been abused suggests a nexus between abuse and incarceration for women. Abuse is also most likely underreported. 

“I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t been sexually or physically abused,” wrote Kwaneta from Texas. Later, Kwaneta told me that she had been kidnapped and gang raped as a child, and the perpetrators were never charged. (Her mother confirmed this.) Kwaneta is incarcerated for killing a boyfriend who she told me abused her. Her attorney, she said, didn’t want her to “disparage” the dead at trial. She did not push back. “The stigma and shame of allowing myself to continually accept abusive behavior is stronger than the shame of being a convicted murderer.”

Having a female body had opened the respondents up to harm long before they were considered to have harmed others. They reported being raped at gunpoint, raped while being driven home from babysitting, raped by fathers, stepfathers, brothers, grandfathers, cousins, uncles, foster relatives, and sometimes sisters and mothers. “Raised for sex,” wrote one woman. “Ruined before I had a chance,” wrote another. “Not sure how I got off the beaten path, but I was molested by a sheriff from age 7 to about 9 years old, think that pretty much did it.” 

They wrote, too, of enduring physical violence: forced to kneel “on uncooked grits until my knees were bloody,” kicked “with steel-toed boots,” hit in the head with “a tire wrench.” They wrote of crushing poverty and upheaval: One woman had used “the bathroom outside for years, shower[ing] in the water hose.” Another said that when she was 19, she lived with her drug-addicted mother in a “condemned house” in the days leading up to the killing she committed when she fought off an attempted rape.

A confluence of life factors usually converged—many beyond a person’s control. I received a letter in purple crayon from a 32-year-old Black woman who wrote that “the judge … gave me to [sic] much time and I was 11 when I did the murder.” I looked up her story, which was public record: As a child, she had been raped, abandoned, neglected, cycled through abusive foster homes, and diagnosed as mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Before her 12th birthday, she stabbed a stranger in the heart with a kitchen knife. For nearly two years, she lived in an isolated cell in an adult jail before being sent to a facility for children with mental illnesses. When she turned 18, a judge sentenced her to 18 to 40 years. 

Childhood abuse and neglect rippled out into adulthood. More than 40 years of research and multiple studies show that abuse begets abuse: sexual victimization in childhood raises the risk of sexual victimization in adulthood; children who have been objectified and betrayed can have issues with trust and may find it difficult to navigate adult relationships. My survey found that people abused as children were more than twice as likely to report abuse as adults: nearly 75 percent reported revictimization, versus 33 percent among those who didn’t report abuse as children—meaning that those with abuse histories are more than twice as likely to be victimized in their later years. 

Forty-three percent reported experiencing intimate partner violence, nearly double the rate of the general populace. Of those, 41 percent—nearly 18 percent of all respondents—said they were in prison for killing a romantic partner. They wrote that they had killed men who had broken their ribs, backs, knees, skulls—men on whom 911 had been called (in one instance 300+ times). Men who had knocked them awake and said, “I feel like beating a bitch up.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly half of female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by a current or former male partner. 

“That morning he said, ‘One of us is going to die today,’” wrote a woman who had been brutalized for decades. “I just snapped.” 

Respondents found it hard to prove that they had been abused, because domestic violence and rape are private violations, usually without witnesses. But even if they had evidence, they faced another problem: There was a dead body, and it wasn’t theirs. 

Jema Donahue wrote from Missouri, asking me to contact her mother, who shared legal files with me. The files showed that in 1999, Jema, then 13, was raped by a 20-year-old man. Jema’s family was devastated by their attempts at seeking justice. The man’s mother was the town mayor, and police and prosecutors, Jema said, resisted investigating and prosecuting. The perpetrator eventually pleaded guilty to statutory rape, though Jema said he had used force, and she experienced bleeding and physical pain for days. The rapist’s friends harassed the family. Jema was bullied and switched schools. Later, Jema fell into abusive relationships. Her husband physically, sexually, and psychologically terrorized her for eight years—attacks that she sometimes reported to authorities. In 2017, Jema’s mother took out an order of protection. Within two weeks, Jema’s husband broke into the family home and attacked Jema. Jema shot him. A judge sentenced her to 10 years, noting that “everybody stayed in the relationship” and “somebody died.”

“It was supposed to be me,” Jema wrote to me. “I never thought I would be the survivor and he ‘the victim.’” 

Illustrations by Daniel Zender.

Of my respondents, 30 percent reported that they, like Jema, were in prison for trying to protect themselves or loved ones from physical or sexual violence. If my findings are representative of the population incarcerated for murder and manslaughter in all U.S. women’s detention facilities, they suggest that, conservatively, more than 4,400 women and girls are serving lengthy sentences for acts of survival, and that there are most likely others in similar circumstances serving time on lesser charges. While many claimed straightforward self-defense against a romantic partner, others wrote of trying to survive in ways that exist outside the typical ideas of gender-based violence. 

A woman was often convicted for a man’s actions or for her involvement with a man who committed a crime. Thirty-three percent of respondents said that they had been convicted of committing their crime with a male partner, and 13 percent said that they had been convicted of committing their crime with their abuser—often, like Tanisha, under duress.

“In a lot of cases, the women are not blameless,” Carol Jacobsen, director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, told me. “They played some part, many times under terrible duress. Many times, they didn’t have a whole lot of choices.”

“I should get prison time, but not 50 years,” wrote a woman who had driven a car for her abusive boyfriend after he killed a man during a burglary. “Fifty years for driving a car under duress…with the threat always there to kill me and take away my kids for talking or leaving him.”

Motherhood figured prominently in a woman’s decisions; 64 percent of my respondents said they were parents, 22 percent said they were not, and 14 percent did not answer the question. “One topic…affects the majority of female prisoners: Our children,” wrote Kwaneta in Texas. “We care about our children. Bars and razor-wire don’t erase motherhood.” 

Some women said they were in prison for trying to protect a child. A white woman was serving 40 years in the South for shooting the man she said had beaten her daughter and raped her toddler grandson, and a Black woman was serving life in a mid-Atlantic state for shooting a man she witnessed molesting her 5-year-old son.

Other women were convicted because they had not protected a child. In Michigan in 2010, Corrine Baker, a 25-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse, threw her body in front of her 4-year-old son in an attempt to bear the brunt of her boyfriend’s attack. Corrine and her son were hospitalized after the beating. The boy died, and Corrine gave an interview to a local TV station; in the video, she has two black eyes and wounds dotting her face. She is serving 13 to 30 years for her failure to save her child.

In Florida, Mary Rice wrote that she was forced to accompany a man on a multistate killing spree, during which she was starved, drugged, and raped. She never tried to escape, she told me, because her kidnapper knew where her mother and three children lived. In the end, he shot himself in the head and police took Mary, who had injuries across her face and body, into custody. Mary was prosecuted. The assistant state attorney told the jury “she wanted a bad boy and she got one.” Mary was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. “I just lived through it,” Mary wrote to me. “The state needed to blame someone. I was the person they blamed.”

Mary went to trial, but about half of respondents pleaded guilty—often because they were marginalized or did not trust their lawyer. I received a response from an indigenous woman in the Northwest who said she had pleaded guilty to murder, despite acting in self-defense against a man who was “abusive physically, emotionally, verbally, and mentally,” had raped her daily, and threatened to keep her child if she left. I called her public defender. He told me the woman had a weak case and added that in court, women often played the victim. “Women get a lot of fuckin’ benefit of the doubt,” he said. 

“I see a lot of pleas,” White-Domain, the Illinois attorney for incarcerated domestic violence survivors, told me. “People who have lived their whole lives not being believed—if they are women, people of color, maybe also a sex worker, maybe a drug user—think they won’t be believed by a jury. And they are correct.” In my data set, those who went to trial received a sentence nearly two times higher than those who did not, and were approximately five times more likely to receive a life sentence. Black women, whether they went to trial or took a plea, received a sentence length that was roughly 10 percent higher than all others.

Tanisha, for her part, pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder while held in Saginaw County Jail, a situation she found herself in largely because she had tried to make amends for Kevin’s death. “I was ignorant to the system and its workings and it worked against me on every facet,” she told me. “The rules weren’t articulated for a person with zero understanding to understand.”

“The state needed to blame someone. I was the person they blamed.”Mary Rice, criminalized survivor

In late December 2002, Patrick wrapped Kevin in a blanket and put him in a closet. Within days, aided by two associates, he removed the body and dropped it down an embankment on the outskirts of town, above a river. About three months later, on March 23, 2003, during the spring thaw, two fishermen came upon Kevin’s corpse. On March 24, Kevin’s family was informed. Police made no arrests. The case went cold.

Two weeks after the killing, Tanisha and Patrick moved to a more isolated apartment. Tanisha had no car and no money. She slept during the day, when Patrick was gone, and kept a gutting knife tucked in her waistband. “Something was gonna happen bad for someone,” she told me. “Most likely me.” Within two months of Kevin’s death, Tanisha gathered some $200 and four outfits and fled to a roadside motel. 

“I sat on that ugly bed,” Tanisha said. “I had to make a decision.” She was 20, without a home or anyone she trusted enough to talk to. She had been involved in a murder with a known drug dealer who threatened to kill her and knew where her family lived. Tanisha decided her only chance was to stay moving, and be quiet. “I pushed what happen to me to the deepest depths of consciousness,” she recalled. For the next two years, she fell into a cycle of sex work, drug use, and dealing. She lived on the run, involved with men who hurt her.

“I didn’t dream,” she said. “It was just darkness.”

But in 2005, Tanisha was pregnant and determined to get clean and make a change. In November, she gave birth to her third daughter, whom she named Hon’Esty. As Tanisha raised Hon’Esty, she began to see a man around town who bore an unnerving resemblance to Kevin. She thought constantly of Kevin’s mom. She feared intensely for her daughter’s safety, concerned that by having a fixed address, they were a target. Each time Tanisha entered her home at night, she left her child locked in the car, on speakerphone with her sister, as she swept the place with her gun cocked. Only once it was clear would she carry Hon’Esty inside. Later, two people testified at trial that Patrick said he was thinking about killing Tanisha; he worried that she would talk to police and had unsuccessfully attempted to convince her to meet up with him several times.

Tanisha made a New Year’s resolution for 2009: She would tell the truth. That February, she called an attorney she’d heard of named Steven Snyder. Tanisha told Snyder that she wanted to talk to police but needed immunity. Snyder called Lisa Speary, a Michigan State Police detective who had been handed the cold case in 2006. On Feb. 17, 2009, Snyder, Tanisha, and a Saginaw County prosecutor signed a proffer, a written agreement that allows a person to speak of a crime with the assurance that their words won’t be used against them in criminal proceedings. After an initial proffer, a client typically provides a piece of evidence that allows authorities to determine their value; then a better deal is negotiated. But Tanisha signed a single agreement that offered her no protection from charges. Then she gave Speary a two-hour interview, the first time she had ever spoken of the crime. 

I showed the proffer letter to David Moran, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. He characterized it as “lousy.” I asked Moran if it was unusual for an attorney to allow a client to give a full statement to police without discussing the content beforehand. “The lawyer would want to hear the client’s story before having her tell it in a proffer,” he said. (Snyder, who no longer practices law, did not respond to my interview request.)

Over the next months, Tanisha worked with Speary. They met in person at least five times, Tanisha underwent two polygraph exams, and she led Speary through the crime scene. She told Speary that Patrick “had this rage…he frightened me…he was more dangerous than the average guy that I have been involved in…he was dangerous without maybe knowin’ it.” And she told Speary that following the killing, she had “spiraled like super down.” Tanisha explained that she was coming forward to give closure to Kevin’s family—and to get closure for herself. “I just wanna apologize to the family … for even takin’ this long to get the strength to tell ’em what happened.”  

Though Tanisha remained terrified of Patrick, she was also liberated. “I started having joy in my life,” she told me. She thought Snyder and Speary would protect her, and that a prosecutor would recognize her courage and commitment to justice.

“Why did you think that?” I asked.

“Because this is America. … I thought if I was just honest, the truth was going to set me free based off American values.” 

Speary interviewed witnesses widely and collected evidence. Then, on June 22, 2009, Patrick called 911 to report that his girlfriend, a 44-year-old nurse named Debra Kukla, was unconscious in the garage. When police arrived, they found Kukla bludgeoned to death. 

Tanisha told me that Speary had called her days before Kukla’s death; on the call, Speary asked for Tanisha’s permission to tell Patrick that she had been speaking with police. Petrified, Tanisha refused. She theorized that police had nonetheless confronted Patrick and that “he thought [Kukla] was the one who talked.” Tanisha turned 27 the day Kukla died. She recalled that Speary called her that morning “in a panic,” saying “he did it again,” and advising her to find a safe place because police didn’t know where Patrick was. (According to Tanisha, no one working for the state offered to provide her with security.) “I feel if I had never entered the agreement, Deb would be alive,” Tanisha told me. “Every year at my birthday I think about her, and I think that I survived.” Speary, now retired, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. 

Tanisha also believed that her incarceration was related to the fact that Kukla was white. “They were like, ‘We have to get him off the streets by any means,’” she told me. “I believe they conjured up they moves, and I was the casualty.”

The attorney general’s office could not provide me with the exact date it took the case. But the office’s press secretary said it was approximately September 2009—nearly seven years after Kevin’s killing, but only months after Kukla’s. On Sept. 11, 2009, Patrick was arrested by an off-duty police officer who said he had witnessed him robbing a 7-Eleven. In March 2010, Tanisha was arrested at her job at a golf course. She was charged with first-degree murder and booked into Saginaw County Jail. Hon’Esty, then 4 years old, went to stay with relatives. “She just was always looking for me [after that],” Tanisha told me. She would sit at her desk at school writing me letters.”

The court appointed William White, a private attorney with a county contract, as Tanisha’s defender. According to a letter that White later wrote to the judge, he was constrained by a “$1,000 cap” on his legal work for Tanisha. He billed for 36.5 hours, which means that, unless he was granted a fee extension, he was paid $27.40 per hour—a rate that diminished the more he worked. A homicide case, according to  Moran, of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, “is the legal equivalent of performing brain surgery. It’s complex and requires a great deal of skill to be able to do it right.”

A 2008 National Legal Aid & Defender Association report on Michigan’s indigent defense systems studied sample counties and found that none of their public defender services were constitutionally adequate. The fixed-rate system, which exists across the U.S., created “a conflict of interests between a lawyer’s ethical duty to competently defend each and every client and her financial self-interests that require her to invest the least amount of time possible in each case to maximize profit,” according to the report. 

Since 2011, legislative efforts have led to indigent defense reform in Michigan, and in 2019, Saginaw opened its first public defender’s office. Steve Fenner, a former prosecutor who heads the new office, told me that $1,000 to work a homicide was “insane” and that the previous system meant that attorneys “basically lost money” on major cases. But Fenner didn’t understand why Tanisha needed an attorney at all. “Why was she charged though? I don’t get it. That part is real baffling. She cooperated to solve a cold case, then the attorney general’s office turns on her? I’m virtually speechless.”

Tanisha had little interaction with White, her attorney. One day, White brought Sanders, Tanisha’s former stepmother, to a courthouse meeting. Sanders told me that she had arrived for what she believed was a hearing and was surprised to be taken aside by White, who asked that she convince Tanisha to testify at Patrick and Terrance’s trial.

Deputies brought Tanisha, in an orange jumpsuit, into the room. Sanders started to cry. “I say, ‘This has been going on for a long time, and it need to come to an end…release all of us from all of this…whatever it is that they seeking, you need to give it to them.” Sanders had no experience with the legal system and was caring for one of Tanisha’s daughters. She told me that she believed she was helping Tanisha and knew nothing about a plea deal. “I thought they was gonna let her come home … because she had gave them what they wanted.” 

Tanisha, after two hours of Sanders’s exhortations and nine months in jail, agreed to testify in exchange for a second-degree murder plea that she originally believed was 20 years flat, not 20 to 40 years. “I took the plea ’cause I was sick of being in there, hearing my momma beg me,” she told me. White did not respond to a request for comment.

In January 2011, Tanisha testified for the prosecution. For the attorney general’s purposes, Tanisha needed to inhabit contradictory roles: moral and credible enough for a jury to trust, but blameworthy and sufficiently deplorable to exist as an extension of the man who killed Kevin and to therefore merit her own conviction. Doug Baker, the prosecutor, characterized Tanisha and the others as “jackals.” 

Baker questioned Tanisha as a key witness over two days, using her testimony as a basis for a larger narrative. Then in his closing arguments, Baker alternately diminished and commended Tanisha. He told the jury that when Tanisha met Patrick, at 20, she was living “a wasted life…she is prostituting herself. She has children that she’s not living with.” Tanisha was “not a very reflective or thoughtful person.” But she “had some conscience” and had come forward. Tanisha had acted under duress, he said, but “that’s not a defense to homicide…The law says, no, you can’t do that. You’ve got to resist. You’ve got to—you’ve got to take your chances.” 

In Michigan and many other states, the reason duress cannot be used as a defense for homicide is based on British common law, as summarized by Matthew Hale, a Puritan jurist, who wrote in an influential treatise in the 1600s that even “if a man be desperately assaulted, and in peril of death … he ought rather to die himself, than kill an innocent.” Hale also put forth other enduring writings and decisions. In one, he sentenced women to death for sorcery, one precedent used to justify the Salem witch trials. In another, Hale stated that by signing a marriage contract, “a wife hath given herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” A marital exception to rape law, based largely on Hales’s work, existed in England and Wales until 1991 and in North Carolina until 1993. The criminal legal system still treats spousal rape with leniency.

“[Tanisha’s] choice was she should die,” Jacobsen, of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, told me. “Or prison. That’s it. It doesn’t matter that he’s going to kill you…You let that happen.”

“Black women can be disposed as an object of punishment in order to demonstrate that the system works,” Alisa Bierria, an assistant professor of African American studies at the University of California, Riverside, and a co-founder of Survived & Punished, an organization that supports incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence, told me. “This is what the system does, that’s what it is: It has to perform justice in order to have good copy, but it performs that on the backs of Black women all the time because nobody is interested in the full dimensionality of their story as a human being.”

“Surviving all of that shit, I can’t even believe this is my life for real,” Tanisha told me. “I really be like, ‘God, what’s up? What is all of this about?’ I love taking care of the earth, I love kids…I got so much suffering and I never did nothing.” The authorities, she said, “didn’t and don’t care what happened to me. No one don’t even know how I lived…They got me in here and really don’t know what that man did to me that night.”

Tanisha and Hon'Esty during their first prison visit at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 2012.

In October, Patrick Martin called me from Kinross Correctional Facility in northern Michigan, where he is serving life for armed robbery and two murders. (He pleaded no contest to killing Debra Kukla after a jury convicted him of killing Kevin Amos.) Patrick said that he had bipolar disorder with psychotic features, was “a full-blown alcoholic,” and had been institutionalized in 2007 and 2008. He described years of “madness,” and told me that his 2009 arrest was “almost a relief.” Patrick could not express why his mental illness and alcoholism manifested in lethal violence, including toward women, but he could speak clearly to why Tanisha and his cousin Terrance had participated in Kevin Amos’s murder. “I made them do that,” he said. 

Would he have killed Tanisha, I asked, if she hadn’t obeyed?

“I always had them guns and stuff. … My own mom would be scared. At that time, [Tanisha] was terrified … I told them, ‘If you don’t do it, I’ma do you.’ So they did it, but it was out of fear. They wasn’t with the plan.”

Eight days later, I called Doug Baker, the prosecutor in Tanisha’s case, now chief of criminal enforcement and quality of life for the city of Detroit. We spoke at length about his reasons for charging and sentencing Tanisha to decades in prison, considering the role she played in the actual crime and in helping authorities.

Baker explained that when a witness has accepted a lengthy sentence, it can benefit the prosecutor who puts her on the stand. “Part of what goes into making a witness like [Tanisha] credible is that she’s paying for what she did,” Baker said. “And the jury hears that. If a jury takes somebody that gets…probation or whatever, that’s argued to the hilt by the other side that they would say and do anything to get this sentence.” This suggests that a prosecutor, who has nearly total discretion in charging decisions, may be incentivized to seek the most serious charges that ultimately carry extensive sentences. 

Baker also argued that Tanisha’s sentence was a form of justice for Kevin and his family. Tanisha, he said, was “the one that actually in that sense literally took the life. She made sure that he wasn’t going to get those last breaths.” 

At the 2011 trial, the medical examiner testified that Kevin died of asphyxiation, because there was duct tape on his mouth and liquid in his lungs. He also testified that two quarters were found in Kevin’s stomach and a bag of powder was found in his mouth, and that a dead person cannot swallow—so Kevin was alive when the quarters were put into his mouth.

Since her first interview with Speary in 2009, Tanisha has denied any knowledge of the bag or coins. At trial, a confidential informant for the state, a drug dealer, testified that he briefly stopped by the apartment on the night of the attack and saw Kevin bound on the floor. Within days, he helped dispose of Kevin’s body. In August 2003, eight months after the murder, the informant was in jail, looking to cut a deal to get out two months early. He told authorities about Kevin’s killing, and in order to prove that he was reliable, offered a detail that “nobody else would know except for somebody that had firsthand information,” he testified. The detail was that Patrick “said that he put 50 cents in [Kevin’s] mouth to make it look like a drug transaction.” 

When I spoke with Patrick, he didn’t recall anything about the coins. Still, it seemed possible that Patrick may have removed and replaced the tape over Kevin’s mouth, the final act that killed him. (Terrance Shepard, serving a life sentence in a southern Michigan prison, declined to comment for this story) 

At trial, Baker told the jury: “It’s 20 to 40 years out of her life. She—at least 20. It could be more.” On the phone, after we had discussed Tanisha’s story, Baker said, “I think that she would be a good subject for being paroled.” 

At Tanisha’s March 2011 sentencing, Baker provided her with a letter on attorney general’s office letterhead. He wrote that she had participated in the homicide “after being threatened.” 

“I can attest to Ms. Williams’ complete cooperation, candid testimony and remorse for her role in the crime,” Baker wrote. “There is no question that Ms. Williams, as a Prosecution witness, was of invaluable assistance in bringing the other Defendants to justice…We believe that Ms. Williams can be rehabilitated and someday live a law-abiding life.” 

However, just before her arrest in 2010, Tanisha was stable and productive. She was sober, raising her daughter, and working three conventional jobs. “I was a proud, tax-paying citizen,” she told me. “I was on a positive path.” 

I read Baker his 2011 letter. I asked him what Tanisha’s lengthy sentence was supposed to accomplish.

“It has a deterrent value, as well as a punishment value, as well as a rehabilitative value,” he said. 

But neither Tanisha’s nor Patrick’s incarceration seemed to produce any constructive change in their closest circles. The cycle of gender-based violence and mental illness has continued. Patrick’s son Patrick Allen Martin Jr. was 11 when Kevin was killed. As a young man, he was sent to prison. “He was different when he came home,” his sister would later testify. He lived in a facility for people with mental health issues. 

In 2019, Patrick Jr., then 27, shot MoeNeisha Simmons-Ross, Tanisha’s 26-year-old niece and a mother of three who was also pregnant with Patrick Jr.’s child. MoeNeisha and the baby died. Her brother told local media that MoeNeisha’s other children “were in the apartment and they saw what happened.” 

“The system is a freaking violence-producing factory,” Bierria, the Survived & Punished co-founder, told me. “Relentless.”

“The system is a freaking violence-producing factory. Relentless.”Alisa Bierria, Assistant professor of African American studies at the University of California, Riverside, and a co-founder of Survived & Punished

A theme emerged in my research: As in Tanisha’s case, incarcerated women, before their involvement in the legal system, were regularly disregarded or damaged by state systems, from Child Protective Services to schools to police. Families and individuals in desperate situations did not have access to quality services, or to sustained services—and were often scared of seeking outside help. “In the Black community you don’t go to the cops,” Tanisha told me. “You just solve your own shit. And then with a crime, the code is you never talk, don’t ever talk, and I see why.” 

Sandra Brown, a Black woman in Illinois, wrote of years of terror, beginning in childhood. She was beaten, spit on, and bullied at school. When she fought back, she was expelled, labeled “aggressive” and “dangerous.” At home, she was whipped. After she explained why she had welts on her legs to a trusted teacher, she says she “paid terribly for it.” Sandra was later a victim of domestic violence and rape. As a young mother, she was arrested for killing a woman in what she says was an act of self-defense. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison. “The tragedies we suffered as little girls and young women in a sense ‘groomed and doomed’ us to this current state of modernized slavery,” Sandra wrote me. “I have been the recipient of acts of violence since I was a child, and the law was virtually nowhere to be found. But the one time I fight back because I am afraid for my life, I am now a ‘violent’ offender.”

Bierria observed that stories of gender-based criminalization were the result of the legal system’s design and function. “It’s not, ‘Oh what a sad story, the prosecutor didn’t care, the defense was bad,’” she said. “Those things animate the system we have…What you see are formalized acts of profound, life-ending violence.”

What was the alternative, particularly for women?

“We have to build it,” Bierria said. Across the country, she said, people have long been engaging in concentrated, community-based anti-violence and transformative justice work, training, and education. “There’s no magic answer that will get us where we need to go. All we have is us…I think people are on it, and therefore I think there is a chance.”

The respondents to my survey offered various solutions, including childhood intervention, decriminalizing poverty, treating mental illness and addiction, effective protection for sexual and domestic violence victims, changing incentives for police and prosecutors, engaging offenders and victims in restorative justice processes, and capping sentence lengths. One woman suggested that people be permitted to tour prisons and jails: “Allow the public to see who is in their prisons.” 

Tanisha, for her part, wanted to be seen—as a way to advocate for herself and others. I asked her why she responded to my letter in the first place. “I know everything I’ve been through,” she said. “This matters for women…I felt that every little bit helps.” 

Tanisha understood that at each turn she had been failed: as an abused child, homeless teenager, traumatized young mother, and perhaps most significantly by a state apparatus that reduced and exploited her story and good-faith efforts to bring closure to Kevin and his family. But she remained hopeful. She never complained about the abysmal conditions at Huron Valley, with its endemic black mold, repeated scabies outbreaks, and waves of Covid. She meditates, does yoga in the mornings, pores over legal papers, and works disinfecting the facility at night. 

I asked Tanisha how she remained so persistently optimistic. “It’s some favor,” she said. “Something in my spirit that sustains me.” She thought of her efforts to shine a light on injustice in biblical terms: as a mustard seed. In Scripture, the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, but, when sown, becomes a tree, its branches filled with birds. “As long as we got a mustard seed, we can make it grow.”

‘She Just Said She Wanted To Be Believed’

More than 20 women accused Harry Morel, a longtime district attorney in Louisiana, of sexual misconduct. But Morel pleaded guilty to just a single obstruction of justice count while Mike Zummer, the FBI agent who investigated him, was fired. Now, Zummer is speaking about what he says is a grave injustice—at the hands of the Justice Department.

Former FBI Special Agent Mike Zummer.
Cheryl Gerber

‘She Just Said She Wanted To Be Believed’

More than 20 women accused Harry Morel, a longtime district attorney in Louisiana, of sexual misconduct. But Morel pleaded guilty to just a single obstruction of justice count while Mike Zummer, the FBI agent who investigated him, was fired. Now, Zummer is speaking about what he says is a grave injustice—at the hands of the Justice Department.

Over the years, Carla had heard rumors that Harry Morel would make problems go away for women willing to perform “favors” for him. But she never believed the awful things she’d heard about Morel, who at the time was the district attorney of St. Charles Parish in Louisiana. Morel’s wife taught at her school; he also attended church with Carla’s family. 

But one day in the late 1980s Morel took Carla to lunch in New Orleans—about a 30-minute drive from St. Charles Parish—and she couldn’t shake a bad feeling in her gut.

“I know girls that I grew up with, you know, if their boyfriends got in trouble, they had to do him a favor, I had heard all this,” she told The Appeal. “I didn’t believe it because he went to church! Until it happened to me.”

Morel was a big man, both in size and in political clout. He’d been the district attorney in St. Charles, a suburban parish of about 50,000 people, since 1979. (In Louisiana, counties are called “parishes.”) District attorneys are the most powerful players in the criminal legal system, and they have an even more outsize role in Louisiana because it is the mass incarceration capital of the United States. In smaller parishes like St. Charles, DAs maintain a kinglike status. 

Carla’s connections to Morel also extended to the courthouse. Just before Morel took her to New Orleans, his office had helped Carla force her ex-husband to pay child support. That day, Carla’s mother dropped her off at Morel’s office to take photos for the local newspaper. Morel kept saying that he wanted to go out to celebrate. Morel said that he’d give her a ride back to her parents’ house, where she’d been staying since she left her husband, so she relented and got in the car with him.

After Morel turned east onto U.S. Route 90, she says she asked where they were going. He said New Orleans. While driving, she says he began complimenting her hair. She’d tied it up in a bun that day.

She recalls Morel telling her that her hair “looks good up, but it would probably look even better down.” When they made it to the restaurant in New Orleans, she says Morel continued to talk about her looks.

“He kept making comments—comments that I couldn’t believe a friend of my parents would make,” Carla said. 

When they finished, Carla got back in the car with Morel, even though she’d said she could hitch a ride home with her friend, who worked at a nearby restaurant. As she cracked Morel’s car door open, he reached over and pulled it shut. Carla says he then grabbed her head and shoved it toward his crotch. She stiffened.

“What are you doing?” she gasped.

“You owe me,” Carla says Morel told her, his hand still on her head. “He kept saying, ‘I’ve done [you] all these favors,’” Carla recalled. “Like, ‘I got you all this money.’”

“I know your wife!” she says she shouted. She kept pushing back against his hand. “This is insane!” she recalls saying to Morel.

In a letter Carla later sent to a federal judge, she stated that Morel “sexually assaulted” her in the car that day. Carla told The Appeal he threatened her and told her never to speak about what happened. She said she then called a friend to help take her home. When she got there, she said she walked into the house and stared at her mother.

“Don’t you ever put me in that situation again!” she barked at her mom in what she said was a fit of misplaced anger at her parents for leaving her alone with Morel. But she was too embarrassed to explain what really had happened. So she lashed out. “Promise me!”

Carla spoke to The Appeal on the condition that her real name not be used. The Appeal allowed her to remain anonymous because she says she is a sexual assault victim and is identified only by a number in FBI documents in the Morel case. 

Carla says she resolved to keep the secret of what happened that day. She stopped going to church so she could avoid Morel. She eventually moved away and bought a house in another state. She underwent therapy to learn to live with what she says Morel did to her. And she didn’t speak about the incident again—until the FBI showed up at her workplace decades later and told her she wasn’t the only person Morel had abused.

In all, the FBI identified 22 women who alleged that Morel touched them inappropriately, made sexually suggestive comments, or pressured them into performing sex acts while he was the St. Charles Parish DA. Of the 22, FBI records stated that 13 said they’d had some form of sexual contact with Morel. In FBI documents—transcripts, video, audio of covertly recorded conversations, as well as an 87-slide joint FBI and St. Charles Parish sheriff’s office PowerPoint summary of the case featuring nearly two dozen witness accounts, including Carla’s, that was released to the public by the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2016—federal investigators laid out their claims that Morel used his office for decades to target women with offers to help them out or make criminal cases disappear if they performed sex acts for him. Five women told the FBI they’d had oral sexual contact with Morel. Eight women stated they’d had other forms of sexual contact with Morel, and nine said that he had solicited sex from them. Carla, too, cooperated with the FBI and filed a written statement during Morel’s sentencing in federal court accusing Morel of sexually assaulting her.

Another woman, Danelle Keim, helped the FBI conduct a sting and catch Morel groping her on camera—but she died from a drug overdose less than 24 hours after news of her involvement in the case hit local newspapers. 

But federal prosecutors never charged Morel with a sex-related crime. As part of his 2016 plea agreement, however, Morel signed a factual basis admitting that “on other occasions, between 2007 to 2009, [he] solicited sex from other individuals who were defendants or who had family members who were defendants in the St. Charles Parish criminal justice system. While soliciting sex from these individuals, Morel likewise used the office of the District Attorney to provide benefits to these other individuals, including falsifying community service reports.”

In the factual basis, Morel admitted to harassing Keim—identified only as “Individual ‘A’”—and attempting “to prevent and dissuade Individual ‘A’ from attending or testifying in an official proceeding, i.e., the federal grand jury, by telling Individual ‘A’ to ‘get rid of’ and to ‘destroy’ the evidence of a meeting they had and to deny the inappropriate nature of the meeting to law enforcement officials.”

The factual basis signed by Morel also states that, had “this case proceeded to trial, the Government would have presented credible testimony, documents, cellular phone records, cell site information, recorded conversations, video recordings, and other reliable evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Harry J. Morel Jr. obstructed justice, in violation of federal law.”

Morel was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to a single obstruction of justice charge in federal court in New Orleans. (He was also forced to pay a $20,000 fine and serve one year of supervised release.) 

Morel served a little less than two years of his sentence—and he spent a portion of that time in a halfway house in New Orleans. He was released on Aug. 6, 2018. Morel’s legal team did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. In previous statements to the press, Morel attorney Ralph Capitelli has described the FBI’s claim that his client was a serial sexual predator as a “smear tactic” to influence the court during sentencing that was “both unfair and, in my judgement, impermissible.” Capitelli has also said that Morel “denied and still denies any type of sexual assault on any woman whatsoever.”

Some of the key people involved in the Morel case—the lead FBI agent who investigated him, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff, and multiple alleged victims—say it was a miscarriage of justice brought about by a flawed prosecution that treated a powerful man with kid gloves despite evidence suggesting he’d abused his elected position for decades. 

Peter G. Strasser, the current U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, told The Appeal he could not comment on the case since he was not appointed to the position until 2018. The Appeal contacted every assistant U.S. attorney referenced in this story and did not receive a response; Strasser declined to comment on their behalf and stated that assistant U.S. attorneys are barred from speaking to the media. Though the FBI agent leading the investigation filed multiple complaints against federal prosecutors in relation to the case, internal department investigators have repeatedly cleared U.S. attorney’s office employees of wrongdoing.

Aya Gruber, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder Law School and former federal public defender, said the criminal legal system generally fails to prevent sexual and domestic violence, and prosecutors tend to focus on men from marginalized communities while balking at taking on more well-connected people. 

“When I was a public defender, I saw plenty of men—and mostly marginalized men—prosecuted for sex assault for things like, say, grabbing somebody’s butt on a dance floor,” Gruber, author of “The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration,” told The Appeal. “The idea that the government never takes sexual assault seriously—personally I think it has a lot to do with who the people are and what their connections may be.”

One of the harshest punishments meted out in the Morel case was against one of the people who investigated him: New Orleans-based FBI Special Agent Mike Zummer, who says he was fired for complaining about a lenient plea deal for Morel and what he says was one federal prosecutor’s cozy relationship with Morel’s attorney. Zummer outlined these complaints in a series of letters he sent the judge in Morel’s criminal case, Kurt Engelhardt, in connection with Morel’s sentencing for obstruction. The letters later became public as part of a civil lawsuit Zummer filed against the FBI.

Zummer complained to both Judge Engelhardt and the DOJ’s inspector general that Fred Harper, a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Louisiana, co-owned a vacation home with Morel’s attorney, Capitelli. In Zummer’s opinion, the relationship “caused at least an appearance” of partiality at the DOJ. In a 2018 report, the inspector general found “no evidence” that the relationship between Capitelli and Harper “improperly influenced” the U.S. Attorney’s initial decision not to bring charges against Morel in 2013.

Neither Harper nor Capitelli responded to requests for comment. The 2018 report also found no misconduct by DOJ officials.

In a press conference after Morel’s guilty plea in 2016, then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite told the public that his office declined to file stronger charges against Morel due to “significant evidentiary concerns,” including a fear that the testimonies of Morel’s accusers would not stand up in court. Polite did not respond to a request for comment.

After Zummer reported his complaints—including in a letter to the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee chair—he was suspended from the FBI and fired earlier this year. In October, the DOJ filed a bar complaint against Zummer, who holds a law license in Louisiana, for allegedly sending the aforementioned letters to the judge in Morel’s criminal case without proper approval from the DOJ. Zummer denies any wrongdoing.

In April 2017,  Keim’s mother, Tammy Glover, sued Morel and an associate of Morel’s in St. Charles Parish civil court for racketeering. The lawsuit claimed Morel extorted sexual favors from Keim and at least 21 other women in exchange for reducing or dismissing criminal charges against them. The suit was later dismissed. One of Glover’s attorneys, Glenn C. McGovern, told The Appeal that the DOJ “dropped the ball” in its Morel prosecution and called the outcome “nauseating.”

“Sometimes things don’t work out, and sometimes the system doesn’t work,” he said.

That August, Zummer sued the FBI in federal court for violating his First Amendment rights; the defendants sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing, among other things, that they were acting within their discretion to suspend Zummer’s security clearance, and that he violated his FBI employment contract and other FBI regulations by disclosing his letters to Engelhardt. Some of Zummer’s claims have been dismissed by the court, but his assertion that his First Amendment rights were violated by the FBI for its refusal to publish his unredacted letter to the public remains part of his ongoing lawsuit. 

Zummer is represented by Robert McDuff, a veteran civil rights attorney who was the lead attorney for Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man tried for the same murder six times before charges against him were finally dropped this year and whose case was the subject of a hit podcast.  McDuff declined to comment for this story.

Zummer told The Appeal this year that the outcome of the case shattered his faith in the DOJ. “Financially, you look at what I did, you look at my record, you look at his record, you look at where I’m at, compared to where he’s at,” he said. “Yeah, I mean—it pays to be a sexual predator.”

Zummer also filed a separate complaint with the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog, alleging he’d been retaliated against for speaking out about the case. However, the office’s June 2018 report cleared the FBI and DOJ of any wrongdoing and stated that it did not find evidence Zummer had been retaliated against.

An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on Zummer’s firing, stating that the agency does not “comment on personnel matters.” 

In court pleadings filed in response to Zummer’s pending federal lawsuit, the FBI has also argued that Zummer was legally suspended from the agency and that he was fired for violating the terms of his employment as a special agent.

“About one week before his security clearance was suspended, FBI officials informed Zummer that he could no longer be assigned investigative work because Zummer had taken the position that he was free to publicly disclose information he gathered during the course of his official duties as an FBI Special Agent,” attorneys for the FBI wrote in 2018. “FBI officials believed that it was Zummer’s position that this information, which was the property of the United States, could be disclosed without first receiving authorization from the FBI even though Zummer was obligated by the terms of the FBI Employment Agreement to seek and obtain authorization prior to disclosing FBI information.”

In October 2018, the OIG issued a separate report into allegations about Zummer, which also stated that he had disobeyed orders and violated the terms of his employment when releasing his letters to Engelhardt. But that investigation found “mitigating factors” in Zummer’s favor, including that the “instruction Zummer obtained” from the DOJ’s Office of General Counsel “was faulty.”

In a previous statement to the press, Capitelli called Zummer a “disgraced rogue FBI agent who is trying to desperately salvage his career.”

Mark Osler, a former assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit) who now teaches law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, reviewed aspects of the Morel case at The Appeal’s request. He said that although Zummer might not have followed proper whistleblower procedure, he “obviously has a moral compass and took a big risk in making public something that he knew would harm him professionally.” 

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne, who worked closely with the FBI on the case, told The Appeal he believes Morel received a lenient plea deal and that Zummer was mistreated by the FBI.

“I can honestly say I have never met anyone with more honesty and integrity than Mike,” he said. Before his tenure as sheriff, Champagne was a prosecutor in Morel’s office from 1982 to 1995. He said he was unaware that Morel was allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct until the FBI began its investigation years later. 

“Do I believe he deserved more? Yes I do,” Champagne said of Morel’s prison sentence. “Knowing what I know and what I believe he did? Yeah. I think he should still be in prison to be honest with you.”

Tessie Keim, sister of deceased witness Danelle Keim, told The Appeal that Zummer became like family during the investigation and believes he was treated too harshly by the FBI.

“He lost it all over it,” she said. “And so we’re just extremely grateful. He knows if there’s anything he ever needed, he could just pick up the phone, call any one of us, and we’re there.”

Multiple efforts to reach Morel were unsuccessful.

Undated photo of Danelle Keim.

The FBI’s first chance at investigating Morel came in 2001, when according to the agency’s internal PowerPoint outlining a timeline of the investigation, an unnamed witness contacted the agency and told agents that, as part of a DWI case, Morel asked her to meet. She told the FBI she believed he wanted sexual favors. But the FBI’s New Orleans field office closed the investigation shortly afterward because of a lack of evidence. 

By then, Morel had become a big name in Louisiana politics. Harry J. Morel Jr. was born in 1943. Morel received an undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University in 1965 and later took his first law job with then 29th Judicial District Court Judge Joel T. Chaisson—father of current St. Charles Parish DA Joel Chaisson II. Morel was elected DA in 1978 and won five straight elections without fielding a single opponent. He prosecuted at least two cases in which he successfully argued people should be executed; his office convinced the state to execute a man with significant intellectual disabilities in 1987. Morel also once served as president of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state. In 2009, then-Governor Bobby Jindal also appointed Morel to serve on the Louisiana Drug Control and Violent Crime Policy Board. That same year, Morel was inducted into the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame.

Also that year, Zummer says he was sitting in a group of cubicles at the FBI’s New Orleans field office when his boss asked if anyone would look into a tip that had just come in about Harry Morel.

I raised my hand, and that has changed my life.Mike Zummer, former FBI special agent

Zummer, 49, was born in the Chicago area and graduated with a political science degree from Duke University in 1993. He later enlisted in the Marine Corps, and did tours in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific before taking a job with the FBI investigating white-collar crime in New Orleans. When President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zummer joined the Marines yet again, this time as an adviser for the Iraqi security forces and as a public-corruption investigator in Al-Anbar province. He earned a law degree from Stanford before returning to the FBI’s New Orleans field office. 

This time, Zummer joined an FBI public corruption unit that, in tandem with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was hailed in the local media as “modern-day untouchables” after a series of successful post-Hurricane Katrina cases targeting New Orleans police and politicians. Jim Letten, the chief U.S. attorney in that office at the time, was so adept at prosecuting public corruption cases that President Barack Obama declined to dismiss him upon taking office, even though Letten had been appointed by President George W. Bush. 

“I raised my hand,” Zummer said of his boss’s request. “And that has changed my life.”

Zummer’s boss at the FBI explained that the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’’s Office had received a 911 call from a woman who had asked for help taking care of a third party’s traffic ticket. According to the FBI and St. Charles Parish sheriff’s office PowerPoint summary of the case, she said she’d spoken to Morel four times, and that he suggested she travel to a house he owns in Mississippi where they could “play.” The woman asked Morel what she needed to do for the ticket. Morel backed off, but according to the FBI PowerPoint summary, he suggested they could “go do something” after the case ended. When she said she wasn’t going to have sex with him, Morel stopped calling her back. The third party with the ticket was sentenced to several years in prison.

“I basically called the FBI cold and got a referral and Zummer ended up calling me back,” Champagne, the St. Charles Parish sheriff, told the Appeal.

Zummer was eager to investigate Morel further, but the witness was uncooperative. “The natural thing for an FBI agent—and particularly in corruption—is to do something covert,” Zummer said. “You want to find somebody to wire up on him. We really had a hard time figuring out what to do.”

But Zummer’s luck changed on April 16, 2010, when Champagne’s office alerted the FBI that it had received a frantic 911 call that evening from a woman who said she was groped by Morel.

The caller sounded rattled.

“Um, yes sir, my name is Danelle McGovern,” she told a dispatcher, according to an audio recording and transcript of the 911 call, which were released publicly in 2016. (She pronounced her name “Danielle” and later returned to using her maiden name, Keim.) “I need to make a complaint. I need the cops out here.” She then gave her address—an apartment complex on East Club Drive, a tree-lined street in tiny St. Rose, Louisiana—to the dispatcher.

“And what was your name?”

“Danelle McGovern. I need to make a sexual harassment charge on Harry Morel.”

“The district attorney?” the dispatcher asked.

“The district attorney, yes,” she responded. “I have all the evidence.”

As Keim provided the dispatcher with her phone number, she began to weep.

“OK, when did this happen?”

“Just now,” she said, sniffling audibly through tears. “He just left my house 10 minutes ago.”

Keim told the dispatcher that she’d recently been arrested for a DWI in St. Charles Parish and was meeting weekly with Morel to discuss what could be done about her case. She said she’d blown a 0.00 on a breathalyzer test and asked Morel for help.

“I didn’t know he was like that, you know?” she continued. “So he was like, ‘How about I come to your house?’ I just kinda felt that it kinda sounded weird, but he’s district attorney, so what harm can he do?”

“Exactly what did he do?” the dispatcher asked.

“He grabbed me,” she responded. “He kissed me and he touched me in my private area, he touched me in my ass. He wanted me to take off my clothes. He wanted me to take my pants off so he could please me.”

The dispatcher thanked Keim and hung up. By then, the sheriff’s office was aware of Zummer’s burgeoning investigation into Morel, so it asked the FBI to meet with Keim. Zummer arrived later at Keim’s one-bedroom apartment in St. Rose. Sheriff’s deputies were already at the home and ushered Zummer inside to meet Keim, a petite then-24-year-old. Keim had recently been arrested for a DWI and was supporting herself and her young son by working at a Quiznos. 

Tessie Keim, Danelle’s younger sister, told The Appeal that Danelle had “such a large personality,” loved to sing and dance, and doted on her young son. At the same time, both sisters could be intense and intimidating when the need arose.

“She just was very strong, she just had an inner strength always, since we were kids—very fearless,” she said.

Although Keim sounded distraught on her 911 call, Zummer remembered that she was calm during his first visit with her.

“From the start, she just said she wanted to be believed,” Zummer said.

Keim told the FBI that Morel first tracked her down at the Quiznos where she worked and called her on the job. Keim met Morel in his office, where she told the FBI he showed her a picture of his house in Mississippi and hugged her. According to the FBI PowerPoint, after meeting Morel a second time, Keim assumed he was going to dismiss her case. But she told Zummer that when she got a court summons, she called Morel again and asked him to meet.

“He claimed he was in the neighborhood, I think back from a golf tournament, and he told her he’d come right by,” Zummer remembered. 

Keim told investigators that her son wasn’t in the apartment when Morel arrived. According to a handwritten statement Keim filed with the St. Charles Parish sheriff’s office, Keim said Morel promised to help her—and also asked for sex. Keim said she told Morel she had to go pick up her son that night. In her statement, she told investigators that she tried to walk Morel out of her apartment, but “before I could open my door, he grabbed me and started kissing me and feeling on me. I backed away and when I turned around to open my door, he grabbed my privit [sic] area in between my legs and then ran his hans [sic] all over my ass. And was touching me very firmly.”

After she told him to leave, she wrote that Morel “told me to call him anytime, and if his wife answers, to just tell her I’m just calling about my case.”

But after Zummer’s first meeting with Keim, she stopped cooperating with the FBI. Zummer didn’t hear from Keim again until July 2011, when she went to meet with Morel to ask him to help her then-boyfriend, who faced burglary charges. By then, Keim had also been arrested for a second DWI in neighboring Lafourche Parish.

“That was where he started touching her with, I think I would say her ‘forced consent,’” Zummer said.

According to the FBI’s PowerPoint case summary, Keim met with Morel at the St. Charles Parish Courthouse on July 4, 2011. She told the FBI that Morel asked her if she was taking birth control, and that he wasn’t pleased when she said she wasn’t. Morel then allegedly grabbed her breast and kissed her. Keim said she heard someone nearby, so the pair agreed to meet at a satellite office that was likely to be empty. They took separate cars; Morel drove a white Chevrolet Suburban, while Keim drove a white Pontiac Grand Prix.

Once they were at the satellite courthouse, Keim told the FBI, Morel set ground rules.  She alleged she could ask about her boyfriend’s case—but for every question, Morel would get to touch her body. After the first question, she said Morel grabbed her breast. When Morel eventually promised not to let her boyfriend go to prison until later, Keim said he put his hand down her pants. He wanted her to touch him, and she said she was having her period. She told the FBI he unbuttoned her pants and began breathing heavily; he said he’d be fast when they had sex. Morel asked if she wanted to go to a hotel room with him. Using her son as an excuse, she was able to escape.

Four days later, Morel asked Keim to meet him again, this time at a daiquiri shop. As Keim told the FBI, she sat next to him in his car. He told her he was doing a lot for her and that he wasn’t getting much in return. Morel said he was thinking of seeking a sentence of five to seven years in prison for Keim’s boyfriend—and then allegedly unzipped his pants and began touching himself.

Zummer was later alerted that Keim had met with Morel again. He and another agent contacted Keim and met her in a park.  Zummer shared personal notes of the meeting with The Appeal; he remembers Keim as inebriated, barely able to walk, her eyes glazed over. Zummer drove Keim to a restaurant in Metairie, a city in neighboring Jefferson Parish, before taking her to a Starbucks as she sobered up. Zummer interviewed her again the next day. As she told him a story about sleeping while clutching toilet paper during a stint in jail to prevent others from stealing it, Zummer realized that this was the closest he’d gotten to someone on the opposite end of the criminal legal system.

“I knew how to put people in jail, but I didn’t know what happened to them afterwards,” he wrote.

After Keim was arrested in August 2011 for shoplifting from a Walmart, Zummer met her in jail and pushed her to cooperate with the FBI; he admitted that he threatened to charge her as a co-conspirator in the Morel investigation if she didn’t agree to do so, a decision he says he now regrets. Keim agreed to work with the FBI to put together a sexual bribery case against Morel, which required recording him explicitly agreeing to extort sex for legal favors.

The FBI then helped get Keim into a drug treatment program. Later, Keim told Zummer that she was bouncing between homes—so the agency helped move her into a new apartment with spare furniture from its New Orleans field office. Keim then agreed to start wearing a wire and record conversations with Morel. (Tessie Keim said she remembers helping fix Danelle’s wire to keep it hidden under her bra at one point.) 

Several months after Keim began cooperating with the FBI, Morel stepped down from DA to a top assistant job because his daughter, Michele Morel, had decided to run for a judgeship in Louisiana’s 29th Judicial District. (He fully retired from the office in January 2013.)

In June 2012 , Keim entered a guilty plea in her DWI case in Lafourche Parish and was sentenced to 64 hours of community service. On July 17, Morel was recorded promising to help Keim fake that she’d been volunteering at a Lions Club outpost in St. Charles Parish as part of her community service requirements. 

“So what do I have to do at this Lion’s Club?” Keim asked, according to a transcript included in the factual basis Morel signed as part of his plea deal.

“You have to do what?” Morel responded.

“Like, what do I have to do?”

“The Lion’s Club? Nothing.”

While on tape, FBI records state Morel then suggested meeting her for a drink. He again floated the idea of meeting her at his Mississippi ranch and joked that it would be fun to give her “mouth-to-mouth.” 

Morel and Keim spoke again by phone three days later. According to FBI audio tapes of phone calls between them on July 20, 2012, Morel updated Keim on the status of her fake community service records before she mentioned that her son was out of the house that week. They soon hung up. But, per the FBI’s PowerPoint case summary, Morel called back shortly after and started suggesting the pair meet at her house. She was able to put him off a few days.

“Oh, God,” Keim breathed into a microphone hidden underneath her clothes. “He’s here.” 

On July 23, 2012, Morel arrived at Keim’s new apartment wearing light-blue jeans and a tan polo shirt. He brought root beer and wine, sat down on a dark-colored couch in front of a coffee table and small potted plant, and started to make small talk. Zummer listened to the conversation from a secure location nearby. The FBI also set up a hidden video camera directly in front of the couch.

“When he pulled in, she kind of started crying a little bit from the tension,” Zummer said. “What was just so amazing about her is that you could hear it in her voice—that ‘oh, God,’ that very genuine fear. But as soon as he showed up, she was on. She swallowed her fear down and suppressed it and she was just on top of it.”

According to a transcript of the conversation obtained by The Appeal, Keim said she didn’t know how to uncork a bottle of wine, so Morel showed her. Eventually, she asked Morel if he minded her smoking a cigarette. He told her not to, because he was going to kiss her and wind up smelling like smoke. He asked about her new apartment, her new job at a local bar, her new car. 

In a video of the sting, Morel asked Keim to kiss him—she relented and said she would give him a “peck.” Morel then pulled her body closer to his while he ran his hand down her buttocks. Morel also excitedly asked if he was “an important guy” and, if so, could order her to kiss him. 

“I got a deal for you, though,” she said. “Let’s see if we can make a deal.”

“What is it?”

“What’s the furthest—we, we never really went, really, we never really went further than kissing and just kinda touching and feeling,” she said. “What do you want from me?”

What was just so amazing about her is that you could hear it in her voice—that ‘oh, God,’ that very genuine fear.Zummer, former FBI special agent

Everything hinged on that question. Morel was a longtime prosecutor, and investigators knew it would be hard to get him to incriminate himself.

“I don’t know,” he said, seemingly ducking the question. “I want to spend some time with you.”

“You say that but you never—and I know you’re busy—but you never—”

“Well, I think about making love to you but then, you know, it gets me nervous, too,” he said. “And I don’t—but that’s not why I’m helping you. So I just sort of back off.”

She told him she was nervous about making enough community service hours in her case—and suggested that she might be able to let Morel touch her if he was able to help falsify records showing she’d been keeping up with her hours. She pleaded with him not to let her go to jail.

Keim then made it clear she wouldn’t sleep with Morel until he gave her the new, faked records showing she’d been complying with her community service requirements.

“I’m just saying just let me see, once all this is done, let me see the papers so I’ll know that I’m OK,” she said.

“Whatever you want,” Morel said.

Shortly after, Keim asked Morel to visit her at work.

“I gotta stay away until I got the papers,” he joked.

With that, Zummer thought he’d nailed the district attorney.

Illustrations by Ariel Davies

On Nov. 29, 2012, Keim alerted Morel that they had been followed and photographed, according to the FBI’s PowerPoint case summary.

One photograph showed a red-brick building with white colonial columns and shutters around each door. A white Chevrolet Suburban sat one space away from a Pontiac Grand Prix. In front of the cars, a sign on the lot read “Harry J. Morel, Jr., District Attorney.”

Keim’s boyfriend had tailed their cars on July 4, 2011—the day Morel pressured Keim to have sex with him in a satellite office. And on Nov. 29,  2012, the boyfriend was asking Keim to send the pictures to the FBI. That day, Morel, in a blue gingham shirt, sat down with Keim at a table in his office.

“You know, I don’t like hearing all this,” he said, according to FBI recordings. “We gotta get rid of that and put this all behind us. You can’t talk to that guy.”

“I know,” Keim said. “That’s why I come to you. I’m not gonna fucking talk to him. I’m not answering my phone, I’m changing my fucking number, something. Or I can block it. I can block his number.”

The incident was a set-up, and Keim was nailing her acting role. The photos were real—she had asked her then-boyfriend to tail their cars and photograph them before she’d even begun cooperating with the FBI—but Keim and her boyfriend had already turned the images over to the FBI. And Keim was recording the November 2012 conversation with Morel. 

Keim played Morel perfectly. Morel had recently coordinated sending two faked letters to the Lafourche Parish district attorney’s office, according to the factual basis later signed by Morel. John J. Landry III, who ran the Luling-Boutte Lions Club in St. Charles Parish, wrote that Keim volunteered for 64 total hours between July and September 2012 at the club. Landry falsely told prosecutors that Keim had helped out at bingo, swept, organized nursing home supplies, and even delivered meals to needy people. 

Sitting with Keim that day in November 2012, Morel directed her to destroy the memory card containing photos of their two cars parked next to one another.

The FBI gave Keim a copy of the card and sent her the next morning to hand over the evidence. 

“How are you going to destroy it?” she asked. “It’s hard. You can’t even—I can’t even break it. I tried to crack it. 

“Throw it in the garbage,” Morel responded.

“The garbage?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Aren’t you going to break it or something, cut it up?”

“Well yeah, I can do that,” he said. He added that he was going to “get a hammer.”

In early 2013, the FBI’s investigation into Morel became public, and a federal grand jury issued a subpoena demanding that Morel turn over the memory card. Morel, meanwhile, had hired his own legal team, led by veteran defense attorney Ralph Capitelli. Capitelli is well-connected in New Orleans; he unsuccessfully ran for Orleans Parish district attorney in 2008 and this year was named the 63rd president of the organization that runs the Sugar Bowl college football game at the Superdome.

On Jan. 11, 2013, two major events in the case occurred. First, FBI agents arrived at the St. Charles Parish district attorney’s office and asked for consent to search the building. 

Joel Chaisson II, who replaced Morel as St. Charles Parish DA, allowed the FBI to hunt through Morel’s office. According to the FBI’s investigative notes, an agent opened one of Morel’s desk drawers and found the torn open packaging for a memory card reader. Morel’s attorneys told the FBI that the memory card was in the office, but there was no card to be found.

That same day, the FBI paid Landry a visit. FBI agents showed Landry the faked papers that said Keim had worked there and asked whether he’d supervised her.

“Yeah, mostly,” Landry said. The FBI then asked him to pick Keim’s face out of a lineup of photos. He wasn’t able to do so. He then claimed it was “too early in the morning” to recognize her.

Five days later, Landry confessed. He admitted to the FBI that he’d faked Keim’s paperwork and other letters for Morel. He admitted to having falsified a letter for a local priest on Morel’s behalf. In exchange, he told the agency that Morel helped take care of traffic tickets for Landry’s acquaintances. The St. Charles Parish DA’s office later charged Landry with four counts of filing false records and four counts of conspiring to file false records. Although Chaisson’s office recused itself from the Morel investigation, it did not do so in Landry’s case. Chaisson’s office offered Landry a pretrial diversion agreement in which he agreed to complete 129 hours of community service and pay $2,500 in fines and fees in exchange for dropping the charges.

Keim was adamant that she didn’t want to take on Morel by herself. So Zummer and his partner continued their search for other women. Word was getting around the St. Charles Parish sheriff’s office that the FBI was on the hunt for tips about Morel. Sheriff Champagne told The Appeal that a friend told him his daughter—Carla—once came home upset after Morel took her to lunch in New Orleans. 

“I think word got out that you could trust the sheriff’s office to pass on valid information,” Champagne said. “So we got a few more leads. One big one in particular was a friend of mine who came forward and told me about his daughter.”

Champagne says he passed the tip on to the FBI.

“Next thing I knew,” Carla told The Appeal, “there’s somebody at the front counter” of her workplace. 

“It was an FBI agent,” she said. “I looked at him with a cold stare and said, ‘I’m not talking, you can’t make me, nothing’s ever going to come out of this.’” But, eventually, she agreed to cooperate as a witness.

The FBI’s investigation was also starting to attract significant media attention. Around the beginning of February 2013, Zummer said someone leaked Keim’s name to a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the city’s newspaper of record. The reporter asked Keim to speak to him.

Keim called Zummer about the reporter. “I was out of town by this point, driving on the side of the road in Texas,” Zummer said. “We’re having an argument about it. I think I told her I’d never talk to her again if she’d talked to the press. And that really hurt her. I had become a big source of support for her.”

Keim mentioned that her boyfriend wanted to get engaged, but she wasn’t as enthused about it. She also fought with her boyfriend and some of his acquaintances and asked Zummer “to come help get rid of them, or whatever.” He told her to call the sheriff’s office.

Zummer said he stayed on the phone with Keim the night of Feb. 8 for hours. He estimates they talked on and off from the time he left Dallas until he hit Alexandria, Louisiana, on I-49 at about 5:15 p.m. She’d asked Zummer to stop by her home, but he said he wasn’t feeling well and that he was still hours from New Orleans.

“I was stuck in traffic about west of Baton Rouge on I-10, and I got some gas, and saw that it had hit the Times-Picayune and,” he said. “It didn’t name Danelle, but this ex-boyfriend was identified, and Morel would know who she was.”

Zummer said the drive home from Texas wore him out. He felt sick and fell asleep without remembering to plug his phone into its charger. He spent the morning of Feb. 9 watching “Law & Order” and trying to ignore a sore throat. But when his phone was finally charged, he saw that he had three voicemails, including one from the St. Charles Parish sheriff’s office. Sensing danger, he called the sheriff directly.

“Danelle’s dead, Mike,” the sheriff said. “I’m sorry.”

Zummer says he crawled into the shower and started weeping. Then, hands shaking, he put on a suit and drove to the crime scene. News reports later stated Keim’s new boyfriend, a 28-year-old named Matthew Savoie, called 911 in the early morning hours of Feb. 9 to report a drug overdose. In an arrest warrant application filed later that year, police said they arrived to find Savoie attempting CPR on Keim at 5:25 a.m. surrounded by puddles of water pooling around both floors of the house. Emergency medical professionals were unable to revive her. 

According to Savoie’s arrest warrant, he said he met a friend in a Circle K parking lot on Feb. 8 who offered to distribute “mollies.” A different witness told detectives she later drove to Savoie’s residence and sold him five pills for $80. Savoie and Keim each took one at around 10 p.m., and then a second pill later that night. He says he fell asleep. In one interview, Savoie stated that he woke up in his bedroom and was alarmed when Keim wasn’t there. In another, he said he awoke around 4:30 a.m. in the kitchen, went to look for Keim, and found her lying facedown on the living room sofa. Savoie said he poured water on her and carried her upstairs, attempted to place her in the tub, and tried to wake her up by running the shower on her body. When that didn’t work, Savoie called 911.

The arrest warrant states that Keim ingested an “extremely high” dose of methylone, or MDMC—a cathinone analogue that drug dealers substitute for the more sought after MDMA, or Ecstasy.

The sheriff’s office ultimately arrested six people in relation to Keim’s death. Savoie was initially charged with the distribution, manufacture, or posession with intent to distribute a Schedule I controlled dangerous substance, as well as second-degree murder—a charge that carries a life without parole sentence in Louisiana. In November 2013, Savoie pleaded guilty to a lesser count of felony distribution of a Schedule I narcotic and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Zummer noted that in addition to the stress of the investigation, Keim had been dealing with a series of family and relationship issues. Zummer believes Keim and her boyfriend each took the same dose of MDMC, but because she was simply much smaller than Savoie, she overdosed.

On Feb. 22, 2013, Zummer, two FBI agents, and a victim specialist attended Keim’s funeral. By then, news had broken that Keim had been cooperating with the FBI. Zummer wanted to place an FBI lapel pin on Keim’s body. Even though his bosses disagreed, he handed the pins to Keim’s family, who placed them under her blouse during the viewing.

As Zummer met members of her family, he told them how much he admired her. “I did a tour in Iraq with the Marines,” he said, “and she’s as brave as anyone I’ve ever known.”

Tessie Keim said the experience was “kind of like an out-of-body experience for all of us.” She added that she now works with local women’s shelters to help carry on her sister’s legacy, as she believes Danelle would have helped other women deal with their trauma once the Morel case ended. “She wouldn’t be cowering from it, she wouldn’t be sad about it, she wouldn’t have been any of those things,” Tessie said. “She would have been joyous. So we just really are trying to live that way about the situation for her.”

When searching Keim’s home after she died, sheriff’s deputies found that she’d been keeping a diary. Zummer remembers another agent bringing the diary to him and showing him a page.

“I worked with the FBI because [of] what he did to me,” it read.

After Keim’s death, it seemed like the case against Morel was falling apart.

The U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans was also in freefall. In 2011, a defense attorney for one of the office’s targets determined that a commenter on the Times-Picayune’s website was a veteran prosecutor who’d been disparaging criminal defendants, judges, and other people involved in the legal system. Another prosecutor later admitted that she, too, had been commenting anonymously on 

The online commenting scandal led to fallout for both the U.S. attorney’s office and at least one of its major cases. In December 2012, U.S. attorney Letten resigned; in September 2013, verdicts in the Danziger Bridge case—a police killing after Hurricane Katrina that left two dead and four others wounded—were overturned by Engelhardt, who blasted “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct” in his written opinion. (Later, five Danziger officers entered guilty pleas to charges that significantly reduced their sentences.) 

“Everything was really set back,” Champagne told The Appeal.

Toward the end of 2012, veteran federal prosecutor Dana Boente—who briefly served as acting U.S. attorney general in 2017 after President Trump fired Sally Yates—was flown in from Virginia to temporarily oversee the office. Boente did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

With their lead witness deceased, Zummer says he was under pressure. He says one prosecutor on the case pushed him to come up with new evidence within a few weeks’ time. Over the ensuing weeks, Zummer broke sharply with federal prosecutors over their assessment of the strength of the Morel case. 

While Keim was alive, Zummer said prosecutors complained that she wasn’t a strong witness. After she died, prosecutors said the case couldn’t go on without her. According to a 2018 Office of the Inspector General report, which was recently made public as part of Zummer’s lawsuit against the FBI, Zummer said that on Feb. 15, 2013, a prosecutor—unnamed in the report—told him that “after [the witness’s death] the case against Morel, which was difficult before, has since become impossible.” According to Zummer, that same prosecutor also argued that Keim’s tapes would no longer be admissible in court. Zummer told The Appeal that he disagreed with the prosecutor on the admissibility issue. (On March 7, 2013—almost exactly a month after Keim’s death—Morel’s attorneys found the missing memory card and gave it to the FBI, according to the FBI’s PowerPoint summary of the case.)

On April 9, 2013, the U.S attorney’s office formally declined to file charges against Morel, according to the FBI’s PowerPoint. Zummer fumed. He hadn’t had time to find new witnesses. 

“I did not understand why the case had been declined,” Zummer later wrote to Engelhardt. “I had not asked that it be prosecuted. I wanted to obtain records to identify potential victims for interviews. At the time, we were aware of three women, including Keim, and believed there could be more victims. The sudden declination appeared to be designed to stop the overt investigation before it had the opportunity to start.”

Zummer complained to the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General in May 2013  that a prosecutor in the Eastern District of Louisiana, Fred Harper, co-owned a vacation home in Gulf Shores, Alabama with his girlfriend, Capitelli, and Capitelli’s wife. Zummer told the inspector general’s office that Harper was involved in meetings about the case prior to the 2013 decision to decline prosecution. 

But the inspector general’s office reviewed Harper’s work text messages, emails, and phone records and also interviewed Harper and other lawyers in the U.S. attorney’s office. In a June 2018 report, it “found no evidence” that Harper “had any substantive involvement in the Morel case or in the declination decision, or that [Harper’s] relationship with the Defense Attorney improperly influenced the USAO’s declination of the Morel case.” 

According to the DOJ Inspector General’s Office, which also reviewed property records, Harper had begun divesting himself of the condominium in November 2012 and fully ceded legal ownership of the property to his girlfriend in March 2013—one month before the U.S. attorney’s office made the decision not to pursue charges against Morel, and more than one month before Zummer complained about it. Alabama property records confirm that Harper has fully deeded his share of that home to his girlfriend. 

Zummer demanded a meeting about the decision not to bring charges. On April 17, 2013, eight days after prosecutors made that decision, Zummer joined Boente, Harper, and several employees from the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office to discuss the case. 

According to Zummer, prosecutors sharply criticized the evidence against Morel. As Zummer told the inspector general’s office—which summarized his recollections in its 2018 report—the criticisms included the fact Morel had been doing favors for other people without asking for sex in return. The inspector general’s report did not indicate whether other participants in the meeting corroborated Zummer’s account.  

Eventually, prosecutors agreed to allow Zummer to continue to search for new witnesses.

“For me, I was pretty much just standing up for Danelle,” Zummer said.

Osler, the law professor and former federal prosecutor, said that the kind of friction between Zummer and the federal prosecutors on the Morel case is commonplace at the DOJ. “People tend to have this view of the investigating agents and prosecutors like they’re offensive linemen and quarterbacks,” he told The Appeal. “But it’s not unusual for there to be real conflict there. And there should be, frankly, because it’s a prosecutor’s job to make sure bad cases don’t go to trial.”

But he also explained that federal prosecutors often have a cozier relationship with local district attorneys than they do with the FBI agents because they collaborate with local prosecutors on cases, team up on investigative work, and even split up forfeited assets after criminal convictions.

“You’re gonna need that person in the future,” Osler said. “If you are going to, as a U.S. attorney, go after a local county attorney, you better take the king down or not try. If you’re unsuccessful, you’re going to have a dangerous enemy and a lost partner that may prove to be necessary in the future.” 

He added: “The U.S. attorney’s office and local officials often know each other really well, and sometimes they’re friends. The line being crossed in this case—the DA and U.S. attorney’s office on one side, the investigators on the other, is significant, and in some cases can be more significant than state-federal divide.”

Illustrations by Ariel Davies

Zummer’s team spent the next few years crisscrossing the South to locate more witnesses. His team interviewed more than 100 people and administered 39 polygraph tests. According to the FBI’s PowerPoint summary of the Morel case, at least 22 women identified as victims by federal investigators shared similar stories. One said Morel pressed his erect penis against her body and asked for sex. Another said Morel seemed turned on by track marks on her arm from heroin use, but that she ultimately arranged for Morel to have sex with a different woman instead. Other women reported performing oral sex on Morel, while another witness said he shoved his face into her crotch but she was able to escape. One woman stated that Morel performed oral sex on her.

Zummer said the story of one witness—who, according to FBI documents, Morel had asked to look up her skirt—stuck out in his memory.

“She was crying talking about it,” Zummer recalled.

Champagne, too, says he remembers another woman attempting to speak about her experience with Morel but becoming so upset she vomited. “Mike followed up on all of those leads—really, I’ve never seen anybody so tenacious and thorough as what he did,” Champagne said. “And there were roadblocks. I mean, roadblocks seemed to be thrown our way by the U.S. attorney’s office pretty much every step of the way after Jim Letten went.”

He added: “There were former judges calling, saying check into this woman check into that woman. Everything was a good case. All of a sudden, it all went away.”

Another woman, Monica Jackson, told The Appeal that, sometime between 2011 and 2012, she’d gone to Morel for help after a woman attacked her in the St. Charles Parish Courthouse. Frustrated by the incident, Jackson said she began crying in Morel’s office. She said Morel then walked up behind her and started rubbing her neck. She says he kept repeating that he could help not just her, but other loved ones that had gotten into legal trouble, too. Then she realized something.

“He was like, he was rubbing my shoulders, but really he was looking at my boobs,” Jackson said. “I just called him a fat bastard. He’s just gross, man, he’s a gross motherfucker.” She said she stormed out of his office and “never had any more encounters with him anymore.” Jackson later filed a lawsuit in federal court in Louisiana alleging that she was retaliated against by St. Charles Parish prosecutors for testifying in the federal grand jury’s investigation into Morel. Despite the fact that Jackson’s name had not been released to the public, she says she received anonymous phone calls telling her to “leave Harry alone,” and that someone placed a dead pigeon and cat by her front door. 

The “defendants are all Caucasian and I am African-American, which is why I feel I am being targeted,” she stated in the suit. A federal judge dismissed her case.

In 2014, newly appointed U.S Attorney Kenneth Polite formally reopened the investigation into Morel. By 2015, Zummer felt he’d gathered enough evidence to potentially charge Morel using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Back then, federal prosecutors in New Orleans regularly brought RICO charges against street gangs. But according to Zummer’s letter to Engelhardt, prosecutors conveyed their concern over how it might look if the public found out about the 2013 complaint Zummer filed with the inspector general regarding Harper and Capitelli’s home.

“There was a discussion about how the complaint would make the USAO look if it did [become public knowledge],” Zummer wrote. According to both the FBI PowerPoint summary of the Morel case and Zummer’s letters to Engelhardt, the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Gang Section approved charging Morel with RICO violations in early 2016. 

But federal prosecutors, who had been in plea negotiations with Morel since May 2015, balked and cut a deal instead. Zummer later alleged to Engelhardt that prosecutors initially considered charges that carried significantly longer potential prison sentences. Eventually, however, Zummer says he was informed that the plea deal had been reduced to just one obstruction charge carrying a maximum of three years’ imprisonment. Zummer also wrote that Morel’s attorneys, including Ralph Capitelli and his son Brian, had also threatened to expose “bombshells” about the agency.

“I believe the Capitellis were testing the government’s case by alleging wrongdoing,” Zummer wrote.

In Louisiana politics, it’s who you know. So Harry won and we lost.Monica Jackson, alleged victim

Osler told The Appeal that it’s rare for federal prosecutors to put the effort into getting charges approved through the DOJ’s main office in Washington, D.C., and then not follow through on filing them.

“Often, you’re talking about writing a 50-page memo to support that case,” he said.

On April 5, 2016, the U.S. attorney’s office formally charged Morel with one count of obstruction for ordering Keim to destroy her memory card full of photos. The charge carried a maximum sentence of 36 months’ imprisonment. Morel pleaded guilty April 20; he was disbarred soon afterward at his own request. 

In a news conference the day of Morel’s guilty plea, Polite stood before reporters—with Zummer in the room—and said Morel had preyed on women for decades—despite the fact that his office had not actually charged Morel with any sex-related crimes. 

Morel “perverted his position of power to take sexual advantage of desperate women who needed help—and he did this over and over again,” Polite said. “Some of these women needed help enforcing child-support obligations. Others had children who were in trouble with the law. Others were in trouble with the law themselves and were at the end of their rope.” Polite said he felt confident his office had forced Morel to plead to the strongest charge available according to the evidence—obstruction—before also noting the “dogged determination of Special Agent Mike Zummer.”

Zummer’s boss, New Orleans’s FBI Special Agent In Charge Jeffrey Sallet, then spoke, noting that Morel had been the top law enforcement officer in St. Charles Parish for 30 years.

“And what did he do with that tremendous privilege and responsibility?” Sallet asked. “He used it to prey on some of the most vulnerable individuals to satisfy his own sexual interests. This joint investigation uncovered more than 20 victims spanning 20 years. Harry Morel is nothing short of a sexual predator.”

Polite took questions. Reporters asked why, if the FBI had identified so many victims, Morel had been allowed to plead to a single obstruction charge. Polite stated that he was confident his office had brought the right charges after taking Morel’s age and health into account, among other factors.

“We hear ‘more than 20 victims’ and ‘more than 20 years’—he was called a ‘sexual predator’ here today,” a reporter in the room said. “A three-year obstruction charge? How do you tell victims who had to go through this that that is justice?”

“What I tell them, again, is that this is a slow process at times,” Polite responded. “Unfortunately, it is oftentimes an imperfect process. In many of these circumstances, we are dealing with very significant evidentiary concerns. We are dealing with vulnerable victims that, if exposed to the scrutiny of the media, or the scrutiny of the courtroom, would prove to be very difficult witnesses and may ultimately lead to no justice for this defendant.”

Bennett Capers, a law professor at Fordham University and former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan), told The Appeal he “could easily see how this would be a difficult case to prove at trial, and how a federal prosecutor would accept a plea to an obstruction charge to dispose of the matter.”

“Any case that depends on lay person witnesses can be difficult,” Capers said, “and the difficulties compound when you add allegations of sexual assault, especially with victims whose credibility will be questioned.”

Champagne said he credited Polite with pushing to reopen the case, given that he had newly been appointed as U.S. attorney. And, as a former prosecutor, Champagne also worried the accusers would have not fared well in front of a “top-notch defense attorney.”

“A lot of these women—they were truly victims—but I’ve always said, I mean, he picked his victims well,” Champagne said of Morel. “He picked women with low self-esteem, with substance-abuse problems, and issues. I think it’s the type of women he knew would never, ever dream of going public against a powerful district attorney.”

Jackson, however, says she couldn’t help but laugh at how paltry the single charge was.

“The justice system didn’t help us at all,” she told The Appeal. “They let him escape through the cracks. In Louisiana politics, it’s who you know. So Harry won and we lost.”

Carla was petrified to see Morel again. But someone needed to say something. Keim was dead, and she resolved that she’d finally confront Morel at the federal courthouse in New Orleans.

I was promised by the FBI that I couldn’t be hurt by Harry Morel,” she said. Carla said she attended Morel’s sentencing hearing as an observer but did not testify. Tessie Keim told The Appeal her mother ultimately did not attend the hearing.

Zummer read the government’s “factual basis”—a statement of the facts detailing a crime and its particulars that is agreed to by the prosecution and the defense, which forms a basis on which a judge can accept a guilty plea from the defendant. The document focuses almost exclusively on Morel’s involvement with Keim (identified as “Individual ‘A’”), and notes that Morel used his office to solicit sex “between 2007 and 2009.”

Zummer believed that the factual basis excluded significant pieces of evidence uncovered during the investigation and appeared to minimize both the number of alleged victims who’d spoken to the FBI and the years in which Morel was accused of misconduct. Enraged, Zummer asked the FBI if he could file a letter with the court accusing the U.S. attorney’s office of prosecutorial misconduct. The FBI told him to seek approval from the inspector general’s office, which forwarded his request to another office in the DOJ that ultimately told Zummer to talk to his supervisors. Starting to run out of time,  Zummer submitted his letters to the FBI’s “prepublication review” office, which clears any public statements by bureau employees. That office told Zummer it would not review his letter. (Later, in October 2018, the OIG stated that the advice Zummer received from the DOJ “misled and frustrated” him.) On Aug. 15, 2016 two days before Morel’s sentencing hearing, Zummer fired off a 31-page letter to Engelhardt anyway.

“The purpose of my letter is to report misconduct by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana (hereinafter “USAO”) which has affected the prosecution of Morel,” Zummer wrote. “I believe that the USAO’s misconduct has resulted in a plea agreement with Morel based more on its own interest in covering up its misconduct than in advocating for a just result. I believe these matters are of public concern and deserve First Amendment protections.”

On Aug. 17, 2016, Morel appeared for his sentencing hearing at federal court in New Orleans. More than 100 people sent letters to Engelhardt pleading for leniency. Some big names vouched for the disgraced prosecutor: Former Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub wrote that Morel had “helped thousands of Louisiana’s citizens” and that he made “a mistake which I know he deeply regrets.”

Morel then gave a brief statement.

“Your Honor, I want to thank the court in this matter, and I also want to apologize for my actions in this matter,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that I did what I did. I’m very sorry, and of course, I want to thank my family for the things that I—for sticking with me. It’s been tough on them—as tough on them as it’s been tough on me with the publicity and everything. So I want to thank those that wrote the letters, good friends that stood up for me. That’s basically it.”

Federal prosecutors also thanked Engelhardt for reviewing the letters sent that criticized Morel’s conduct, including Carla’s.

“We’ve appreciated that the Court has reviewed those letters that lay out some of what Harry Morel has done over the years as a district attorney, especially [Carla’s] and her discussion of what happened many years ago and the way that it’s impacted her since, that she was a desperate person seeking the assistance of Harry Morel and he took advantage of her,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James Baehr said during the hearing.

After comments from both Morel and the U.S. government, Engelhardt sentenced Morel to serve three years in prison, the maximum time allowed for his obstruction charge. (Engelhardt noted during the hearing that the government said Morel had “sexually victimized” numerous women “between 1986 and 2012,” but their stories would not affect Morel’s sentencing.) 

Engelhardt added that the “very idea” of a prosecutor obstructing justice “would on its face” justify the three-year maximum sentence. 

“For those of you who may think that Mr. Morel deserves a harsher sentence for his conduct, I must again remind you that the federal judges’ sentencing determination is limited by and to the charge or charges brought by the government—by the Department of Justice—that is, the United States Attorney for the district,” Engelhardt stated, adding that “any inquiries or complaints that the maximum sentence imposed today is just too low should be directed to those decision-makers and their discretion, not the judiciary.”

Morel served only 23 months of that sentence at a low-security facility in Seagoville, Texas, and at a New Orleans halfway house. He was released from federal custody in August 2018.

Upon hearing the length of Morel’s sentence, Tessie Keim said her family “took a breath, had our moment of human emotion and frustration and all of the things we felt, and then again we said, ‘OK, well we know that he’s going to get his own judgment day.’ So that’s where it is.’”

Zummer, meanwhile, was told he was suspended from investigative activity. On Aug. 30, 2016, he was told to move his desk to an empty nurse’s office on the second floor of the FBI building. He was also denied access to restricted or prohibited cases in the FBI’s computer system. Zummer sent a second letter to Engelhardt on Sept. 6. The letters sparked media interest in Zummer’s story: Local reporter Jim Mustian wrote a story for the Advocate noting that the then-sealed letter most likely contained “explosive and potentially privileged material, but, unlike the other correspondence sent to the judge, it has been withheld from the court record.” Mustian also reported that federal prosecutors had been fighting to keep Zummer’s complaints from going public—and had even asked the court to keep secret their legal arguments demanding that Zummer’s letter be sealed. The prosecutors argued that Zummer had revealed sensitive material—including information regarding 31 people (mostly FBI and U.S. attorney’s office officials) other than himself and Morel—and “breach[ed] his Employment Agreement.”

“Publicly filing these submissions, while not revealing the exact contents of the privileged portions, would still reveal information related to confidential communications that SA Zummer was not authorized to disclose to the Court or public,” FBI attorneys wrote. 

On Sept. 15, Engelhardt issued an order in which he called Zummer’s allegations about the DOJ “troubling, to say the least.” He wrote that “the legitimate concerns of FBI Special Agent Zummer—that the Department of Justice is either unable or unwilling to self police lapses of ethics, professionalism and truthfulness in its ranks—are shared by the undersigned, particularly over the last few years.”

But Engelhardt did not enter either of Zummer’s letters into the case’s public record. Since then, the Department of Justice has never agreed to release either document without significant redactions. On Dec. 8 of this year, an assistant special-agent-in-charge at the New Orleans FBI field office argued in a declaration filed in federal court that releasing the full documents “could harm attorney-client communications within the FBI and the Department of Justice” and “chill” FBI “employees’ ability to have candid communications.”

On Sept. 16, 2016, Zummer emailed an assistant FBI special agent in charge and asked for an update on whether he might be placed back on active duty.

“Unfortunately, because you have taken the position that information you personally gather in the performance of your duties as an FBI Special Agent may be disclosed by you as a private citizen should you determine there is a need despite being instructed not to do so and without authorization, you have made it impossible for us to assign you investigative work,” his superiors wrote back. “This is not a punishment.”

On Sept. 30, Zummer was indefinitely suspended from the FBI, temporarily stripped of his security clearance, and escorted off the premises of the New Orleans office. On Oct. 17, Zummer emailed the staff of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, alleging that Capitelli and Harper’s relationship may have led to Morel’s lenient sentence. On Nov. 15—seven days after Donald Trump won the presidential election—Grassley sent open letters to the DOJ’s inspector general, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and FBI Director James Comey.

“Mr. Morel has admitted to soliciting sex from female defendants and female family members of defendants during his time as the St. Charles district attorney,” Grassley wrote. “However, Mr. Morel was not charged with any sexual offenses. Rather, Mr. Morel received a three-year sentence in 2016 after pleading guilty to a single count of obstructing justice. AUSA Harper and Mr. Capitelli, who represented Mr. Morel, owned a condominium together until March 2013 when AUSA Harper transferred his ownership to his girlfriend.” 

Grassley further wrote that the suspension of Zummer’s pay and security clearance after he sent his letter to Engelhardt “looks like it could be a misuse of the security clearance process to mask retaliation for protected whistleblowing.”

The senator’s letter received national media coverage at the end of 2016 but disappeared from the news quickly afterward. The #MeToo reckoning that began with the fall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t begin until the following year. 

On Aug. 7, 2017, Zummer filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI, Sallet, and 10 other bureau employees for free speech violations. (He later added three more defendants in an amended complaint.) In court motions, the FBI argued that Zummer had been suspended legally and that the information he had tried to disclose, in fact, “belonged to the United States.” Zummer also filed a complaint with the inspector general’s office, but in the office’s June 2018 report, the agency said it found “insufficient evidence” that Zummer had been retaliated against and stated that Zummer had not gone through proper whistleblower channels. In March of this year, Sallet, one of the people who suspended Zummer, was promoted to executive assistant director of the FBI’s entire human resources branch.

The FBI fired Zummer on April 29. His suspension from the agency lasted nearly four years. In August, Zummer began working as the in-house counsel for an activist group called Protect the FBI, which aims to help “safeguard the FBI from partisan politics” by helping whistleblowers file misconduct complaints. On Oct. 8, the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility filed a letter with the Louisiana Bar suggesting that that agency investigate Zummer for his conduct in the Morel case.

Zummer now says he’s lost faith in the FBI’s mission and believes that new accusers coming forward with information about Morel should get a lawyer if possible.

“I would have a really hard time telling people they should come forward at this point,” he said. “I think the FBI and DOJ— the people at the top—pay lip service. They claim the FBI and DOJ look out for victims, and look out for witnesses, but in my experience, the institutions do not bear it out.”

Morel’s accusers are also struggling. Carla says she’s still terrified that Morel might find her one day. She said she’s undergone therapy and had to work to heal the damage Morel did not just to her, but to her entire family.

“I quit seeing my parents,” she said. “I didn’t see my mom as much as I should have, because I was so angry. And I didn’t want to go to Saturday Mass with them, because I didn’t want to see Harry Morel. I missed time with my mother.”

She added: “It’s a shame. But it’s his shame—not mine.”

Philadelphia Teacher Faces 65 Years In Prison After Another Person Torched A Police Car During A Protest

U.S Attorney William McSwain denies he’s targeted the social justice leader, but experts say prosecutors’ use of the man’s clothing and social media to argue that he should be detained pretrial is unusual.

People in Philadelphia hold placards reading "BLACK LIVES MATTER," "Walter Wallace JR." and DEFUND PPD" as they gather in protest near the location where Walter Wallace, Jr. was killed by two police officers on October 27.
(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Philadelphia Teacher Faces 65 Years In Prison After Another Person Torched A Police Car During A Protest

U.S Attorney William McSwain denies he’s targeted the social justice leader, but experts say prosecutors’ use of the man’s clothing and social media to argue that he should be detained pretrial is unusual.

Federal agents raided the West Philadelphia home of Anthony Smith on the morning of Oct. 28 and arrested him for allegedly aiding the destruction of a police car during racial justice protests. Federal prosecutors said Smith, a 29-year-old social studies teacher and an organizer with the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial Economic and Legal Justice, posed on May 30 for “celebratory photographs” on a flipped and spray-painted Philadelphia police vehicle and then placed “combustible materials” inside after an unnamed person lit it on fire. 

Smith was hit with multiple charges in the October indictment; he faces a combined mandatory minimum sentence of seven years, and a maximum of 65 years. The raid on his home came just two days after Philadelphia police shot and killed 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. as his mother watched nearby. Philadelphia magazine recognized Smith this year as one of the city’s “most influential” leaders. He is also a plaintiff in an NAACP lawsuit filed over the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of chemical weapons and rubber bullets against protesters in the spring.  

Smith’s case is one of nearly 300 nationwide brought by federal prosecutors against protesters over the last six months, and activists say that many of those charged have social justice backgrounds. Smith’s is also not the only case involving burning police vehicles. In late May, federal prosecutors charged two young attorneys in New York City with throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an unoccupied police car. No one was hurt—but if convicted they would face mandatory minimum sentences of 45 years in prison. In Salt Lake City, federal charges were brought against four people for flipping and burning a police car during a spring protest. Some legal experts have questioned the federal government’s decision to get involved in what are typically considered local crimes.

Carissa Byrne Hessick, a University of North Carolina law professor who studies prosecutors, says conservatives have tended to argue more often against federal prosecutions in traditionally local matters, but liberal-leaning experts have leveled those critiques more frequently during the Trump era. “The decision to bring these cases seems like part of a broader Justice Department strategy to prosecute crimes committed at these protests with a level of harshness that local officials aren’t necessarily doing,” she said. “And to deal with complaints about policing and police violence not by working with activists or trying to calm the tensions, but instead to take a very hard line law-and-order stance.”

A social media post cited by federal prosecutors to argue for pre-trial detention in the Smith case.

During the late October raid, Smith, one of three men charged in the indictment, was detained at his home and sent to Lehigh County Jail. On Nov. 5, prosecutors acknowledged that Smith has “no known criminal history prior to this offense” and has “substantial ties to the community” but argued that he should be detained pretrial “following his dangerous and violent activity that has resulted in these serious federal arson charges.” In their motion for pretrial detention, prosecutors cited a June social media post by Smith, a cartoon displaying a police car on fire with the caption “quit your day job.” They also said that during the raid on Smith’s home they found a T-shirt with the phrase “[I don’t] fuck with 12” (“12” is slang for  “police”). 

Smith’s lawyer, Paul Hetznecker, criticized the decision by William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a President Trump appointee, to bring the charges. He called it a political stunt aimed at criminalizing dissent. “The U.S. attorney charged Smith because he’s part of a politically progressive movement and the message [Attorney General] William Barr is sending is a political one on what are traditionally state court crimes,” Hetznecker said. “It’s a dangerous abuse of federal, prosecutorial, discretionary power.”

Local activists immediately began organizing for Smith’s release, planning rallies, collecting over 8,000 petition signatures, and writing more than 70 letters of support to the judge handling the case. On Nov. 9, Hetznecker filed a court brief calling the government’s evidence that Smith poses a threat “weak and ill-conceived” and a dangerous abuse of First Amendment protected speech. Hetznecker also noted “there is not one shred of evidence” that Smith had done anything in the months since the May incident to suggest he was a danger to the community. 

Shima Baughman, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah and a national expert on bail and pretrial detention, told The Appeal she has never heard of prosecutors using T-shirt slogans and social media posts as evidence for pretrial detention. But prosecutors always aim to depict defendants as “high risk,” Baughman added, because people languishing in jail pretrial are easier to negotiate with. “They’re captive audiences in jail, more likely to take whatever deal they’re offered,” she said. “And if a defendant is in pretrial detention it makes it easier for a prosecutor to then say in court ‘look, this person was deemed dangerous.’”

On Nov. 9, a federal judge ruled that Smith was not high risk, could return to his home, and continue teaching his YouthBuild Charter School students over Zoom. (Sarah Burgess, YouthBuild’s director of curriculum and instruction, testified before the judge that Smith is a “deeply valued, and respected” member of their community.) 

After being released from jail, Smith posted several updates on Facebook, including one where he claimed he’s been under surveillance and that federal agents seized pictures of his loved ones during the raid on his home. “Advocating for black life can never be wrong,” he wrote in a Nov. 11 post. “Police wanted to embarrass me and ruin my name but it backfired. I got the best support system on the planet.”

Smith has a trial date scheduled for January. Hetznecker says he expects it to be delayed in part because the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has a major backlog of cases and the court has prioritized other cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Some advocates are hoping that the case against Smith and his co-defendants never goes to trial under a Joe Biden presidency. In September, McSwain told Philadelphia magazine that he’d resign if Trump wasn’t re-elected, and rumors are floating that he might mount a U.S. Senate bid. Although a Biden-appointed U.S. Attorney could choose to drop the charges or prosecute the defendants on different terms, Justice Department veterans say career staff members are typically loath to drop existing criminal cases, even when there’s a change in administrations.

“I think we really don’t know what’s going to happen in a Biden DOJ in part because Biden has been signaling that he wants DOJ to be more independent, but a lot of people would characterize that to mean a return to how things were before President Trump,” says Hessick. “If [Biden appointees] come in and switch course on a bunch of individual cases then it makes it seem like the decisions were initially political…The question is will folks in the department continue on in the name of normalcy when the things that they were doing are not particularly normal?”

Jennifer Crandall, a spokesperson for the U.S attorney’s office, told The Appeal that McSwain is unable to comment on the Smith case. Last month, however, McSwain told the Philadelphia CBS affiliate that “Mr. Smith was not in any way targeted by my office. I knew nothing about Mr. Smith or his affiliations until the investigation was nearly complete. We do not investigate people at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We investigate alleged criminal behavior.”

But Hetznecker maintains the federal government made a political decision in bringing charges against Smith one week before the election, and not leaving matters to state courts where there are lesser penalties. Barr has urged his U.S. attorneys to bring charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, including charges of “seditious conspiracy.”

When asked about Smith’s case, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told The Appeal that he “usually has little to say” about cases brought by prosecutors outside his office and noted that he expects there to be a new U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania soon. “And as with any federal case, if the feds chose not to pursue it and it came back into our laps we would look at it and we would try to do individual justice,” he said. “I’m not in a position to comment on the case, but I can say that the current U.S attorney, like so many Trump appointees, has tended to be far more interested in politics than justice.”

As he awaits trial, Smith said he’s been thinking about protesters who do not have a wide base of community support. “I think about other prisoners who weren’t able to accumulate 70+ character letters,” he wrote on Facebook on Nov. 16. “Humility and kindness are very important to me. But for the innocent, and the targeted, their freedom should belong to them no matter how ‘nice’ they are.” Smith pledged to avoid being “shoved into a box of respectability” so someone else could remain incarcerated based on their personality. 

New Orleans DA Candidate Allowed Race-Based Jury Selection

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Keva Landrum violated the Constitution when, as a judge, she permitted nearly a dozen Black people to be struck from serving on a jury in a high-profile murder case.

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
Criminal District Court Orleans Parish page / Facebook

New Orleans DA Candidate Allowed Race-Based Jury Selection

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Keva Landrum violated the Constitution when, as a judge, she permitted nearly a dozen Black people to be struck from serving on a jury in a high-profile murder case.

In the early morning hours of April 10, 2011, Selvin Gonzales went out with a housemate to buy some drinks. They walked to a Shell station at Tulane Avenue and South Jefferson Davis Parkway in New Orleans’s Mid-City neighborhood, purchased soda and alcohol, and met a drug dealer outside the market. But an argument with the dealer ensued. As Gonzales walked back to his home near the 600 block of South Salcedo Street, someone shot him four times, killing him. New Orleans Police Department officers arrested a then-20-year-old Black man named Jabari Williams, and Orleans Parish prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life without parole sentence in Louisiana.

But the case unraveled in part because Keva Landrum, then an Orleans Parish District Court judge, allowed District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to strike 11 jurors—all Black—from Williams’s case. And she failed to allow before the jury evidence that Williams had an IQ of 68, well below the range (70-75) that indicates intellectual disability. Williams was initially convicted at trial in 2012. But after years of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the conviction in 2016 and granted him a new trial based on actions Landrum took in court. In Williams v. Louisiana, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a concurring opinion joined by three other justices that Landrum’s rejection of a defense challenge to the striking of a potential Black juror violated the Supreme Court ruling Batson v Kentucky. In Batson, the Court ruled that a prosecutor’s actions to strike four Black people from a jury without identifying a “neutral” reason that they should have been excluded violated the defendant’s Sixth and 14th Amendment rights. 

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 20, 2016, as part of a package of cases dealing with prosecutors’ ability to strike Black people from juries from criminal cases. That same day, the court also vacated the conviction of Christopher Floyd of Alabama after prosecutors marked Black people’s names with a “B” before striking them, and that of Mississippi’s Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times for a quadruple murder. Flowers’s case was marred by significant prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. In September, prosecutors dropped all charges against Flowers

In September 2016, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Williams’s conviction—but the Louisiana Supreme Court again remanded that decision in 2017 and demanded that Landrum “conduct a hearing and clarify its ruling on defendant’s Batson challenges.” The case has remained open since. Williams is imprisoned at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana. Reached by The Appeal, Williams’s attorney, Michael Admirand, declined to comment on the case.

Landrum, who served as interim Orleans Parish district attorney for less than a year between 2007 to 2008, is on the precipice of again becoming New Orleans DA. On Nov. 3, Landrum advanced to a runoff against New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney who has run for the office before. But criminal legal reform advocates say Landrum’s record shows that, in addition to working as a tough-on-crime prosecutor under Harry F. Connick Sr., the New Orleans DA whose tenure was rocked by wrongful convictions, Landrum was too deferential to prosecutors when she served as a judge.

Since announcing her candidacy in July, Landrum has attempted to distance herself from her former bosses at the DA’s office—especially Connick, who was Orleans Parish DA from 1973 until his 2003 retirement. Misconduct in Connick’s office led to 19 conviction reversals, according to the Innocence Project. Overturned cases included one man convicted and sentenced to death after Connick’s prosecutors withheld evidence showing the defendant’s blood type didn’t match the killer’s, as well as one 16-year-old child wrongfully sent to death row. Landrum joined Connick’s office in 1998, one year after graduating from law school.

Landrum served as a line prosecutor, sex crimes and homicide screener, juvenile division chief, screening division chief, and first assistant under Connick’s successor, former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan. Jordan, the city’s first Black DA, resigned in 2007 amid a swirl of criticism: The city’s murder rate rose to the highest in the country while Jordan was accused by subordinates of being an absentee boss who lacked leadership skills. In 2005, a civil jury ordered the DA’s office to pay out $3.7 million after it found that Jordan had discriminated against 53 white employees whom he’d fired. Two years later, Jordan left the office to Landrum, who served as interim DA until Cannizzaro was elected in 2008 after defeating Williams and several other candidates.

Landrum has since faced criticism from criminal legal reform advocates for ramping up marijuana prosecutions during her short stint as the city’s top prosecutor. Under Jordan, prosecutors typically tried most cannabis possession charges as misdemeanors. But under Landrum, felony possession cases soared, in what was allegedly a scheme to boost felony conviction rates at a time when the city’s murder rate was soaring. (“I would disagree that I had a punitive record,” Landrum told The Appeal: Political Report in October when asked about her record on marijuana cases.) 

As Cannizzaro took office—and built a reputation for Brady violations, jailing crime victims, and issuing fraudulent subpoenas—Landrum successfully ran for Orleans Parish District Court judge. Now, her judicial record is under a microscope as she runs for DA; Robert Murray Sr., the father of a man whom Landrum sent to prison in 2013—only for the conviction to be later vacated because of false testimony from the case’s lead witness—has spent $25,000 to run anti-Landrum ads and launch the website In 2012, Robert Murray Jr. was one of three men accused by a Tulane University student of robbery. After one of the three men, former Tulane football star Trent Mackey, was acquitted in the case, Murray Jr. filed a request for a new trial based on the fact that the alleged victim had given conflicting accounts during different trials. Landrum denied that request—but Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal tossed his conviction in 2017 and granted him a new trial. Murray Jr. later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge as part of a plea deal.

In an interview with The Appeal, Murray Sr. called Landrum “incompetent” and said he encouraged his son to take a plea deal to ensure that he wouldn’t get convicted a second time, despite the fact that his other co-defendants had been acquitted.

“When my son was granted a new trial through the Fourth Circuit, there was no way in hell that I’d let my son go through another trial in Keva Landrum’s court,” he said. “Anything could have happened. My son had already been away for almost three years. His mother cried every day and every night.” After Murray Sr. began publishing ads that called Landrum “corrupt” earlier this year, Landrum took Murray Sr. to court and persuaded a judge to temporarily ban him from promoting the ads.

“The DA’s office under Connick, under Landrum, under Cannizzaro, has been guided by a win-at-all costs culture,” Williams, Landrum’s opponent, said at a debate last Thursday. 

Landrum’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

Landrum’s involvement in Jabari Williams’s Supreme Court case, however, has gone unexamined as she runs for DA.

According to court records, the two lead witnesses in the bungled murder case against Williams were victim Selvin Gonzales’s two housemates, Jorge Rodriguez and Carlos Sabillion. Gonzales, a Honduran national, moved to the U.S. five years prior and worked as a day laborer. On the morning Gonzales was killed, he and Sabillion took a walk to the nearby Shell station to grab some soda and beer. Sabillion told police that the men stood at an outside window paying for their drinks when Williams arrived in jeans and a white T-shirt and offered to sell them cocaine. Gonzales whipped out a wad of cash—but Sabillion said he chastised Gonzales and instructed him to get his money back and return the drugs. Sabillion said the two men walked back to their home and someone had followed them. Sabillion said the duo was then held up at gunpoint. As Sabillion ran towards their home, shots rang out, killing Gonzales. 

New Orleans Police Department detectives interviewed Sabillion and showed him video footage from the Shell station’s security cameras. Sabillion identified Williams as the killer. (Sabillion would later state in court that he had been robbed by “Black people” in the past and that he struggled to tell Black people apart.) New Orleans police then publicly disseminated images of Williams and stated that he was a person of interest in the case. Williams turned up at a local police station shortly after and stated that he wanted to “set the record straight.” 

The police department detectives who interrogated Williams stated in court that they used a method of questioning known as the “Reid Technique.” The technique developed by psychologist and former Chicago police officer John Reid in the 1950s was known for producing a high rate of false confessions, especially among children and the intellectually disabled. For most of the interview, Williams denied he’d killed anyone. But during a particularly accusatory line of questioning from the officers, Williams confessed to the killing. He almost immediately backtracked, saying he “thought I was telling you what you wanted to hear” and that the detective was “pressuring” him. Based on that confession, DA Cannizzaro’s office charged Williams with second-degree murder.

During a May 2012 competency hearing, state and defense experts disagreed about Williams’s intellectual disability. Although court-appointed psychiatrists suggested Williams’s IQ was most likely in the “seventy to seventy-nine” range, a doctor serving as an expert for Williams’s defense insisted that had an IQ of 63—potentially making him incompetent to stand trial. Landrum disagreed with the defense’s presentation on Williams and said the case could proceed. She later denied Williams’s motion to enter any evidence into trial suggesting that he was intellectually disabled, stating that the motions were a “back door way of trying to get in a mental disease or defective disorder or diminished capacity or a different way of trying to back door in” claims about his competency.

Jury selection began on June 12, 2012. During the first round of voir dire (a preliminary examination of jurors by judges and attorneys) prosecutors moved to strike six potential jurors, all of whom were Black, from the case. Williams’s attorneys objected. Prosecutors then provided a list of seemingly race neutral reasons to strike the jurors. One woman had recently been on a different jury that returned a not-guilty verdict in a burglary case. Another man had said during voir dire that perhaps some people wrongfully confess to crimes in order to take the fall for others. Prosecutors claimed one man had “bad body language,” while noting that another man “nodded” when a different potential juror complained that the “reasonable doubt” standard of proof was too low for some cases.

Another round of jury selection occurred. This time, prosecutors again moved to strike five potential jurors, all of whom were Black. Once more, Williams’s defense attorneys complained that the strikes seemed racially motivated and in violation of Batson.

“I disagree with you,” Landrum responded, according to court documents. Nonetheless, she allowed the state to provide reasons why two jurors deserved to be struck, including one man who said he’d give New Orleans police a “zero” rating, and another man whom the state said had been arrested in the past.

“She was laughing along with [potential juror] Mr. West, as well,” prosecutors said. “During the actual voir dire of this panel, she appeared disinterested and kind of had a—you know, slouched down in the chair, as if she didn’t want to be asked any questions.”

Williams’s attorneys then asked Landrum if she would also allow the state to provide its own reasons for rejecting the three other Black jurors, but Landrum declined and said she simply remembered the jurors’ voir dire well enough herself.

The case then proceeded to trial, and Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Williams later demanded a new trial, but Landrum rejected those requests. His appeals to the Fourth Judicial Circuit and Louisiana Supreme Court also failed. But, with help from the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization, Williams appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Landrum’s seemingly off-the-cuff responses to Williams’s attorney’s complaints about jury selection helped sink the case. Because Landrum—not prosecutors—gave reasons that multiple jurors in the second round of voir dire should be struck, four U.S. Supreme Court justices said she’d violated the Constitution. Williams’s conviction was overturned.

“The judge is an arbiter, not a participant, in the judicial process,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in the 2016 concurring opinion. “Allowing the court to provide race-neutral reasons for the State violates [the Constitution].”

Chicago’s Mayor Turns City’s Infrastructure Into Weapons Against Protesters

When election and racial justice protests rocked the city, Lori Lightfoot used raised bridges and shutdown public transportation as crowd control measures, which harmed the city’s workers.

Illustrations by Daniel Zender.

Chicago’s Mayor Turns City’s Infrastructure Into Weapons Against Protesters

When election and racial justice protests rocked the city, Lori Lightfoot used raised bridges and shutdown public transportation as crowd control measures, which harmed the city’s workers.

Minutes before the polls closed on election night in Chicago, massive city sanitation vehicles moved into position outside Trump Tower. Then, the Wabash Avenue bridge—between the president’s namesake building on the north bank of the Chicago River and the Loop central business district on the south—reared up, preventing pedestrians and traffic from crossing.

“Very medieval,” Steven Thrasher, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, observed on Twitter. Trump Tower, which has been the gathering place for protests since the 2016 election, was suddenly “like a castle protected by the lords pulling up a drawbridge.” Days later bridges were raised again as Chicago residents celebrated Joe Biden’s projected victory in the presidential election.

Bridges raised above the river bisecting downtown have become a common sight in Chicago since late May, when protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis began. It first happened on May 30, as night fell on the protests amid clouds of tear gas, the drone of helicopters, and the shouts of thousands. People who wanted to make their way out of downtown were confronted with dark walls of concrete, steel, and asphalt reaching skyward, severing movement across some of the city’s main thoroughfares. All but two of the bridges separating the Loop from the Magnificent Mile and other busy commercial neighborhoods to the north were raised. 

Typically, the city’s river bridges are only raised to allow high-masted boats to pass in and out of Lake Michigan. But that night, for apparently the first time since 1855, the bridges became weapons in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s aggressive crowd-control arsenal, which also included strategic public transportation shutdowns and highway exit closures to prevent access to downtown. With scarcely a few minutes’ notice—in the form of cell phone emergency alerts—the city announced a 9 p.m. curfew while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for people who’d gathered in the Loop to leave. 

The pretext for these actions was public safety. “What started out as a peaceful protest has now devolved into criminal conduct,” Lightfoot said at a May 30 press conference an hour before the curfew. “We want to give people ample opportunity to clear the streets. We’re talking about 35 minutes. I think we’re giving them ample notice.” She said the curfew would help officers “be aggressive in arresting” people engaged in “criminal acts.” 

But those who were stranded in the Loop decried Lightfoot’s use of municipal infrastructure, calling it a kettling tactic that makes it easier for police officers to make arrests indiscriminately. Many of the nearly two dozen bridges that span the moat of the Chicago River around the Loop remained raised or closed for days. The city would continue to raise bridges, shut down transit stops and even discontinue bike-sharing services in the vicinity of smaller protests throughout the summer, and in the wake of protests and looting in Chicago’s most prosperous commercial corridors in early August. Lightfoot’s bridge raising and choking of public transit has become so routine that the satirical news outlet The Onion recently declared Lightfoot was unveiling a plan “to replace Chicago’s public transit system with police.” 

As Chicago residents and civic organizations documented the effects of these shutdowns, it became clear that they have had serious ramifications on people’s work commutes, healthcare routines, and personal finances. The shutdowns left many feeling that Mayor Lightfoot was more concerned about protecting downtown businesses and some of the city’s wealthiest residents than the police violence that brought people out to the streets. Similar curfews and transit interruptions have become a fact of life in other cities as a wave of demonstrations for racial justice has swept the country.

Robert Alexander, a criminal defense attorney who works in the Loop and lives in South Shore, on the city’s South Side, had been commuting to his office on the bus despite the COVID-19 pandemic. He often works weekends, so he was in the Loop on that Saturday in May. But when he checked the bus schedule he saw that his usual routes weren’t going farther north than 35th Street, nearly four miles away. The trains weren’t running either. “Then I got the notification that the curfew was happening at 9,” Alexander told The Appeal. “This was 8:58. Then I started freaking out.”

He could hear glass breaking on the street; the windows of Walgreens nearby had been smashed and the sprinklers were blasting inside the shop. When he opened ride-sharing apps, no cars were available. He decided he’d try walking the several miles to 35th Street, but when he emerged from his office and onto the street he “saw all these police cars going around and groups of officers walking around, yelling at people. Then I saw groups of white guys with bats walking around and I was like you know what I’m gonna go back to the office. … I’m not gonna lie, I was terrified.”

Alexander, who is Black, thought it would be safer for him to spend the night on the couch in the office even though his building’s call box had been smashed and he worried that someone might break in. He doesn’t remember which mode of transport he took to get home the next day. The road closures and transit interruptions continued into Monday and Tuesday of the following week, but Alexander had to get to his office, where all his clients’ documents are stored, despite the longer and more complicated commutes. “I have incarcerated clients and I was trying to work on motions to try to get them out and away from the pandemic,” he said. “There were police officers, the streets and sanitation trucks, the National Guard were blocking certain exits from the highway.” One day, his ride-share driver got lost making detours around closed streets.  “We tried to pull over and ask a police officer for help, and she just screamed at us to keep moving and wouldn’t answer our questions.”

Kyle Lucas, who works at a hotel in the River North neighborhood and lives on the Far North Side, was also stranded the night of May 30. At one point in the evening, Lucas, who is also co-founder of transit advocacy group Better Streets Chicago, stepped outside and witnessed people panicking, crowds of cops, and a squad car in flames. “I remember people just desperately trying to get home,” Lucas told The Appeal. “They were scared.” At every turn, the city’s response to peaceful protests and civil unrest disappointed Lucas. “It’s definitely eroded my trust in the city, in the reliability of the transportation system, it’s eroded my views on the mayor and her commitment to enacting real change,” he said. “I think a lot of people saw the bridges being raised as if to protect the rich and the wealthy and the property downtown in light of people marching and protesting because of massive inequities and injustices in our city, particularly toward Black people. I think it was a very visual reminder for a lot of people of that disparity and I absolutely believe it escalated tensions and made people more angry.” 

Over the next several days and throughout the summer as the city continued to limit transit service in response to protests and looting, Lucas, who was able to bike to work, watched some of his co-workers from farther-flung neighborhoods become consumed by the mental and financial strain. 

One of them was Robyn Oliver, a security guard who lives in the Roseland neighborhood on the Far South Side, 14 miles away from the hotel near the Ohio and State Street intersection. 

“You couldn’t even imagine the hell I had to go through to get to downtown,” Oliver told The Appeal. Normally her commute can take as long as two hours because she works the night shift when bus and “el” train service is more sporadic. But on May 30, as she was on her way to work, the train only made it as far north as 63rd Street. “They stopped the ‘el,’ there was no shuttle buses, no nothing, so I was just stuck there. … I was scared because I didn’t know the neighborhood.” Oliver—who regularly deals with harassment from young people who mistake her for a police officer because of her security guard uniform—said she ended up throwing her uniform jacket in the garbage that night after seeing people ransack a gas station. Ultimately she reached her supervisor who drove out to pick her up. For the next several weeks she was going to work hours earlier than usual, losing out on sleep. “I don’t start till 11 and I start showing up at 5,” she said “I had to show up early just to get there because they lifted the bridges and once darkness hits you’re on your own.” Ride shares weren’t a viable option because it would have cost her nearly $60 one way.

“I would never vote for Lightfoot again and I am gay,” Oliver said. (Lightfoot is Chicago’s first Black female, openly gay mayor.) She added that the usual lack of city services on the Far South Side, such as reliable transit and adequate streetlights were compounded by the city’s responses to the protests. She said Lightfoot’s actions didn’t seem to do much to protect her from the violence that broke out alongside these demonstrations, either. “She did not protect the South Side and us people that worked late nights. I’m going down there to protect their property, but yet I’m fittin’ to get my ass beat for being a security guard on the way.”

Late one evening in early August, Mike Gerardi was thinking about those disparities of race and class as he sat in gridlocked traffic on one of the city’s expressways.  He lives in Beverly, on the Far Southwest Side, and at the time worked the night shift as a boiler engineer at the Cook County Jail. His commute along the city’s highways required passing a downtown interchange, which was blocked by huge sanitation vehicles. The city had again blockaded downtown as a rash of looting broke out after police shot a Black man in the Englewood neighborhood. Public transit routes were also interrupted, and the Chicago River bridges were raised once again. 

Gerardi was nervous about clocking in for his shift on time. His bosses are strict about lateness and racking up an infraction over something like an unforeseen traffic disruption would perhaps prevent him from taking time off during a real emergency. He didn’t blame the looters as he sat in stalled traffic for more than 45 minutes, though. “By early August I almost felt used to it, this is the thing Chicago does now, block off downtown to keep looters out of the Mag Mile, to keep protesters out of the Loop,” he said. “A bunch of people running around are not the ones who closed off the exit ramp that made my commute bad that night.”

He said that although he didn’t think “breaking windows and setting things on fire” was the right way to get justice, but “at the same time [the city] using that as a reason to completely dismiss anger—that’s wrong, too. The fact that this happened means that something is wrong. … People were reacting to the same damn thing that keeps happening over and over. All the city seems to know to do about it is short-term damage control and wait until the whole thing goes away.” He imagines the thinking at City Hall to be “‘How can we make everyone feel safe until it goes away.’ I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what they mean is ‘how can we make white people feel safe.’”

As Gerardi struggled to get to work, Cal Montgomery, who lives in Hyde Park on the South Side, was preparing to be discharged from Northwestern Memorial Hospital just off the Magnificent Mile. He heard that hospital staff was having trouble getting to and from work, and social workers, who are supposed to work with patients in person on discharge plans, were suddenly only available by phone. “That’s an access problem. Because a lot of [disabled people] have trouble on the phone,” Montgomery told The Appeal. “They were actually talking about holding my discharge because of concerns about whether I’d be able to get home.” Ultimately, he was released but had to cross a line of police at a still-operating river bridge to take the train that goes to his neighborhood. Their menacing looks surprised him. “It was clear they were waiting around for some kind of problem.”

When The Appeal contacted Lightfoot’s office for comment, a spokesperson said in an email that the mayor had “addressed this multiple times in the past” and referred The Appeal to statements she made about the shutdowns in prior press conferences. During an Oct. 30 press conference, Lightfoot was asked whether she would commit to not shutting down public transit in case of unrest after the election. As she has in the past, Lightfoot defended the practice by citing a need to protect transit workers who “felt threatened.” She said that during the unrest in May and June “we had people trying to take over buses … we had people trying to take over trains.” She said the transit employees’ union asked the city to protect their workers. (The union confirmed that Lightfoot’s statement was true.) “We know that in this city there are workers who really depend upon the transit authority to get to and from their place of business, but we also have to balance that against any security risk,” Lightfoot said. “If it’s necessary [to shut down transit] I’m not going to hesitate.”

In August, the ACLU of Illinois, which is a party in the litigation that led to federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department, filed a letter with federal court in Chicago arguing that the city’s imposition of a curfew, interruption of transit, and blockading of downtown areas “chilled speech” and had a disparate racial impact.

The restrictions “had a devastating impact on Chicagoans’ freedom of movement,” the letter stated. “People faced unnecessary hurdles, including increased police contacts, in traveling to and from protests, jobs, health care, and their homes during night hours. These hurdles had a disparate impact on the basis of race because of the outsized representation of people of color among essential workers.”

In addition to the prolonged bridge raises, road closures, and transit disruptions in response to large protests and civil unrest between May and August, the Active Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates for mass transit and improvements to walking and biking infrastructure in Chicago, has documented smaller disruptions in conjunction with more local demonstrations. In July, the Chicago Transit Authority shut down “el” stops and sanitation vehicles were rolled out to block streets as GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led community organization advocating for racial justice, staged a small party protest in front of the police department’s South Side headquarters. On Aug. 22, the CTA shut down “el” stations on the Near West Side as students organized a protest against police at the city’s elite Whitney Young High School. In September, trains weren’t stopping in the vicinity of a demonstration in the city’s South Side in honor of Breonna Taylor. 

In June, Active Transportation Alliance also launched a survey to solicit Chicagoans’ feedback about the effect of the transit disruptions on their lives. They received more than 60 responses: healthcare workers said they were unable to reach patients, caretakers struggled to connect with elderly relatives, and people were unable to take care of essential needs such as grocery shopping. The group also routed more than 700 complaints about transit and bike-share disruptions to city officials

It’s unclear whether legal action can be brought against the city for its use of infrastructure to control protests, but Active Transportation Alliance is exploring its options. “I put in a call as a resident of Chicago to the Federal Transit Administration Office of Civil Rights to see if there were grounds on which to file a complaint,” the group’s advocacy manager, Julia Gerasimenko, wrote in an email to The Appeal. “I heard back that under the umbrella of an ‘emergency’ the agencies and government officials can pretty much do whatever they please if they can justify the emergency status. They felt that a complaint process with the Office for People with Disabilities would be a process more likely [to result] in a favorable outcome.”

No, Defund The Police And Medicare For All Didn’t Lead To Democratic Losses In The House

Party leaders have blamed progressive left policies for disappointing electoral results. A close examination of winners and losers suggests otherwise.

On September 24, people in Los Angeles protest the Kentucky grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case.
(Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

No, Defund The Police And Medicare For All Didn’t Lead To Democratic Losses In The House

Party leaders have blamed progressive left policies for disappointing electoral results. A close examination of winners and losers suggests otherwise.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Reading postmortems on the disappointing results of congressional Democrats this election cycle, one could be forgiven for thinking that Bernie Sanders, rather than Joe Biden, led the party to a catastrophic defeat that cost the party a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In reality, Biden, who positioned himself as a moderate during his presidential campaign, won the general election by a closer-than-expected margin that coincided with losses for the Democratic Party in the House, though the party maintained control of the chamber. 

In 2018, the victory of centrist candidates in swing districts was presented by some in the media as a vindication of party moderates and a rejection of the left’s theory that running on bold, transformative policies are necessary for Democrats to retake the speaker’s gavel. In 2020, many of these same moderate freshmen failed to secure reelection. It’s peculiar, then, that these poor performances are also presented as a vindication of the party’s moderate wing, which retains firm control of House leadership and the broader party apparatus. Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has faced almost no public scrutiny for the party’s losses in the House, and her reelection to the speakership remains a foregone conclusion.

Instead, the blame for harming the prospects of vulnerable House Democrats has fallen on Medicare for All advocates and proponents of defunding the police. On a strategic level, it’s understandable why critics of these policies, most notably House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, are using the poor reelection results to disparage their political opponents. What isn’t understandable, however, is how little pushback these critics are receiving. 

Medicare for All is widely popular, and multiple swing seat House members supportive of Medicare for All won reelection. In preliminary exit polling, 57 percent of voters expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, though the movement to defund the police went essentially unrepresented at the ballot box (perhaps because policing is largely a state and local matter). Not a single Democrat running in a swing district ran in support of defunding the police.

As it stands, the Democrats who lost reelection are: Florida Representatives Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, New Mexico Representative Xochitl Torres Small, South Carolina Representative Joe Cunningham, Iowa Representative Abby Finkenauer, Oklahoma Representative Kendra Horn, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson. They will likely be joined by New York Representatives Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose. With the arguable exception of Murcasel-Powell, none of these members support Medicare for All, and not a single one has given so much as lip service to the movement to defund the police. Indeed, Rose ran to the right on criminal justice policy and made his support for police a hallmark of his campaign. “I think that this is a critical moment where we should be investing in our police even more,” Rose said in an October debate. But even a commitment to more funding for the police did not stop the Sergeants Benevolent Association from calling Rose a “cop-hater”. 

It should be noted that two House members, California Representatives Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda, supported Medicare for All in 2018 and won, abandoned support for the policy once in office, and currently trail in their bids for reelection. While it would not be especially honest to claim that turning their backs on the policy could cost them their seats, this narrative makes more sense than the argument that Medicare for All damaged Pelosi’s majority. 

Katie Porter, also a California representative and a crusader against corporate power who supports Medicare for All, easily won reelection to her traditionally conservative swing seat. Representative Mike Levin, a progressive who supports Medicare for All and other left-wing priorities such as the Green New Deal, also comfortably won reelection in a battleground district in the state. Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, who represents a quintessential swing district and faced a star Republican challenger, won as a supporter of Medicare for All in tough territory. Representative Matt Cartwright, a supporter of Medicare for All, won reelection in his Pennsylvania-based swing seat, even as Trump carried the district. And Maine Representative Jared Golden (ME-02), also a supporter of Medicare for All, is on track to win reelection despite Trump winning his district. The idea that Medicare for All amounts to electoral poison in swing districts simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

Given the general underperformance by the party, it’s unsurprising that neither Democratic challengers supportive of nor opposed to Medicare for All fared well in swing districts. Moderate Democrats running in battleground seats who were seen as probable winners such as Texas Representatives Sri Preston Kulkarni, Gina Ortiz Jones, and Wendy Davis fared poorly, just as pro-Medicare for All candidates such as Texas Representative Mike Siegel and Nebraska Representative Kara Eastman were unable to win their contests. Embracing Medicare for All may not be a panacea for the party’s misfortunes. But neither it nor the call to defund police can be blamed for poor down-ballot results, as the emerging media narrative is claiming.

Aidan Smith is an electoral analyst at Data for Progress. He is also the founder of Labyrinth, a new journal of electoral politics. 

Law Enforcement Reformers Sweep Major Races In Los Angeles County

Candidates promising to remake Southern California’s legal system, won major races for DA, county supervisor, and City Council, among others while overcoming significant spending by pro-law enforcement groups.

George Gascón speaks during a drive-in election night watch party at the LA Zoo parking lot on Nov. 3.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Law Enforcement Reformers Sweep Major Races In Los Angeles County

Candidates promising to remake Southern California’s legal system, won major races for DA, county supervisor, and City Council, among others while overcoming significant spending by pro-law enforcement groups.

Los Angeles County residents elected reformer George Gascón for district attorney and approved Measure J, which would require the county to invest 10 percent of its locally generated, unrestricted revenues in the general fund. Through community investment and alternatives to incarceration, that money would address the disproportionate effect of racial injustice. Measure J would also prohibit use of those funds for carceral systems or law enforcement agencies. 

Gascón, who previously served as assistant chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department, chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, and San Francisco’s district attorney, has supported efforts to divert funding from incarcerating people. Criminal legal reform advocates have targeted Lacey, who has exonerated just a few of the thousands of cases her Conviction Review Unit has received and has not charged an  LAPD officer for an on-duty shooting since taking office in 2012 (despite the fact that over 400 people have been killed in Los Angeles county by law enforcement or died in custody during her tenure). She  has also continued to seek the death penalty despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment. In November 2019, advocates for reform told The Appeal that Lacey opposed efforts to legalize recreational marijuana and  fought efforts to change the state’s felony murder rule. 

Gascón’s win is especially consequential because the Los Angeles DA’s office is the largest local prosecutorial office in the U.S.

Gascón won the endorsement of numerous progressive groups, including the Working Families Party and Color of Change, after promising to divert people with mental illness or substance use disorder out of the criminal legal system. “If I win and we can show that [progressive policy] actually works, it will really begin to devalue the scare tactics that are being practiced now by Trump, and by my opponent, and by police unions throughout the country,” Gascón told The Appeal: Political Report in October. 

In a Friday morning press conference, a tearful Lacey conceded the race and congratulated Gascón while also seemingly criticizing the criminal legal reform advocates who have been demanding her resignation

 “In looking at how we go forward, we must commit to appreciating the humanity in others,” she said. “The failure to see the humanity in others is what causes us to stereotype a Black man with sagging pants as a ‘gang member’—or to wrongfully assume that all law-enforcement members are abusive.” 

In a Friday evening statement posted to Twitter, Gascón said that “this victory belongs to the countless community organizers that worked tirelessly, our thousands of volunteers, and every voter that joined this fight for a healthier, safer and more equitable system of justice.” He also thanked Lacey “for her decades of service to LA, the sacrifices she has made, & the barriers she breached.”

Elsewhere at the county level, state Senator Holly Mitchell won her race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ District 2, which encompasses portions of the cities of Inglewood, Compton, and Culver City, as well as the Koreatown, La Brea, and Mar Vista neighborhoods. Mitchell criticized her opponent, former Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson, as an opportunist when it came to criminal legal reform: Although Wesson supported Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles protesters during this summer’s racial justice demonstrations, he supported a ballot measure in 2017 that would have made it harder to hold LAPD officers accountable for misconduct. (The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the LAPD’s largest union, also donated  $50,000 to a pro-Wesson PAC this year.

In contrast, Mitchell focused heavily on criminal legal reform during her tenure as a State Assembly member. In 2018, she announced that she successfully pushed the legislature to pass 10 bills as part of what she called her “Equity and Justice Package”—including measures banned life without parole sentences for children, eliminated significant court fees, prohibited children as young as 14 from being tried as adults, and banned children younger than 11 from entering the criminal legal system. Mitchell won by a significant margin—approximately 61 percent to Wesson’s 39 percent

Los Angeles county voters passed Measure J which could guarantee that anywhere from $300 million to almost $1 billion from the county budget goes toward social services, including housing and mental health treatment. The measure, which passed with about 57 percent of the county vote, bans such funds from being used to support prisons or police. The county Board of Supervisors placed the measure on the ballot in August after months of Black Lives Matter protests. 

The Los Angeles County sheriffs union and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) attempted to galvanize voters against the proposal. In July, the ADDA’s Michele Hanisee, argued that the measure was “a knee-jerk reaction to the recent civic unrest and not the product of thoughtful deliberation from a broad cross-section of stakeholders.” Also in July, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva tweeted that the proposal would make LA streets “look like a scene from Mad Max.” The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs also donated more than $2.5 million to a “No on Measure J” political action committee that circulated documents alleging that the measure would destroy city services.

And Proposition 20, which would have increased the number of felony offenses in the Golden State, failed despite support  from law enforcement unions. 

But perhaps the biggest upset was Nithya Raman’s victory over David Ryu in the race for Los Angeles City Council. Raman was a political newcomer when she announced her run for the council’s District 4, which includes portions of Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and other cities. Thet race morphed into a local referendum on California’s Democratic Party establishment: Raman, who moved to Los Angeles from India in 2013 and served as the first executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment, centered her campaign on decarcerating the city’s homeless population, shrinking the size of the LAPD, and shifting city resources toward affordable housing efforts. In 2015, Ryu ran as an “outsider” candidate who promised to reform campaign finance laws and strip power from the city’s real estate investor class. But in the years since, housing rights advocates criticized Ryu for taking donations from the same developers he’d previously criticized. After Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont endorsed Raman in October, Ryu’s campaign secured endorsements from Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while making false claims about Raman, including that she wants to cut the LAPD’s budget “by 98 percent” overnight. After a long wait, Ryu finally conceded the race Friday evening—at that time, Raman had secured 52.4 percent of the vote.

“We showed through the success of our campaign that the ideas we were talking about had real electoral resonance,” Raman said in a live interview with The Appeal last month. “It showed the power of these progressive policies and how many people believed in them in Los Angeles. And I will say that, no matter what happens in November, we’ve already changed the terms of the debate in LA.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Holly Mitchell as a state assembly member, rather than a state senator.

This California Teacher Wants Environmental Justice

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, who seeks to represent South Central Los Angeles in the State Assembly, wants 'clean air, clean water, and clean food' for her constituents.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair.

This California Teacher Wants Environmental Justice

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, who seeks to represent South Central Los Angeles in the State Assembly, wants 'clean air, clean water, and clean food' for her constituents.

Before Fatima Iqbal-Zubair announced that she was running for the California State Assembly’s 64th District last year, she was a schoolteacher at Jordan High School. The school is in Watts, a historically low-income South Central Los Angeles neighborhood that has a significant number of Black and Latinx residents. Iqbal-Zubair remembers that cops randomly searched her students. Dirty water was in drinking fountains. The football team couldn’t practice because the playing field was contaminated with lead and arsenic. 

Iqbal-Zubair later found that the oil refineries and steel mills that California lawmakers had crammed into the city’s poorest neighborhoods—the 64th Assembly District contains 25 percent of the state’s oil refineries—were poisoning her students. She also believed that local State Assembly member Mike Gipson didn’t seem particularly interested in fixing the problem.

“A child in my district is going to breathe bad air, going to be more likely to go to school that’s under-resourced, more likely to have barriers to getting a job, more likely to be evicted, more likely to be shot—the story of a child in my district is the intersectionality of all these issues,” Iqbal-Zubair told The Appeal. 

Inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, Iqbal-Zubair decided to run for the state legislature on a progressive platform that includes pushing for universal healthcare, divesting from police and prisons and investing in alternative forms of justice, free and universal pre-kindergarten, and “clean air, clean water, and clean food for our communities.” If elected, Iqbal-Zubair would be both the first person of Sri Lankan descent to represent her district and first Muslim to ever serve in the California State Assembly.

The 64th District stretches from the Los Angeles harbor area all the way north through South Los Angeles, Compton, and up to Watts. Gipson, a former officer with the (since-disbanded) Maywood Police Department, served on the Carson City Council before taking a seat in the State Assembly in 2014. Since then, Iqbal-Zubair says Gipson has done little but serve as a recipient of corporate cash from Anheuser Busch, CVS-Caremark, Pepsico, Boeing, Geico, Coca-Cola, and AT&T. In 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gipson received among the highest number of gifts—including trips to Chile and the Netherlands funded by a group with ties to the oil and gas industryof any member in the state legislature. Gipson has also received police union money: According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, he has accepted more than $30,000 from the Los Angeles Police Protective League over his last four elections. He’s accepted donations from the Long Beach Police Officers’ Association and Los Angeles School Police Management Association, too.

Gipson did not respond to a message from The Appeal, but in a July article from Current Affairs, a progressive political magazine, he denied accusations that money from donors influenced his votes.

Iqbal-Zubair, who is running on a platform that includes divesting from police and creating a “community force” that could respond to less serious calls or mental health crises, told The Appeal that she saw the damage caused by random police searches of her students at Jordan High.

“It was normal to see police there for situations like truancy or for searching for, like, illegal substances,” she said. “In my mind, that should never be the case—there’s no reason to have police inside schools unless maybe a gun pulled out, but that’s not why they were there.” She said that she ran a robotics club to keep kids occupied after school, and that funding for police should instead be diverted into giving kids more learning opportunities. 

Last year, Iqbal-Zubair worked as Gipson’s education commissioner—but she says she soon realized he was deeply connected to oil and gas companies. Gipson has taken tens of thousands of dollars from companies that either operate oil refineries near his district (such as Chevron, which operates the El Segundo Refinery a few miles from his district’s border, as well as Valero), and within his district, including Phllips 66 and Marathon Petroleum. Gipson’s voting record, too, seems to reflect his donors’ interests: In 2018, Gipson voted down a proposal to set a 100 percent “clean energy” goal in California by 2045. Then last year Gipson skipped voting on a bill to force oil companies to better prepare for spills—he also voted no on a proposal to strengthen emission-reporting requirements and transparency about abandoned oil wells.

Iqbal-Zubair says the district deserves a representative who will fight harder to ensure South Central Los Angeles residents can get the same basic life necessities as people in wealthier, whiter districts—including clean water, stores that sell healthy food, free public transit, and more trees and green space breaking up the endless miles of concrete in areas like Compton.

“Basic things we need to get include clean water, which is ridiculous to have to say, but we need clean water everywhere in my district, and in other areas of the state, like the San Joaquin Valley or San Bernardino,” she said. “We have clean water laws that are simply not implemented. And in many cases, there is clean water but the pipes are years or decades old,  so we may need an infrastructure overhaul.” She added that when you “walk around the district, there are all these junk food places and liquor stores, which are not what the community is asking for. There are corporate interests putting them there and it’s making my community sick.” She also said she would push the state to create buffer zones between oil- and gas-production sites and residential areas, which she noted that Republican-dominated Texas has passed, but “progressive” California legislators have resisted.

Iqbal-Zubair performed well in the March 3 primary despite it being her first time running for office. Using small-dollar individual donations and door-knocking, she was able to pull in more than 32 percent of the primary vote. (Iqbal-Zubair identifies as a democratic socialist, as does Sanders, who won Los Angeles County in the state’s 2020 presidential primary.)

In California State Assembly races, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the November general election and, because only Gipson and Iqbal-Zubair ran, they are facing off again in the general election. This time, she has more major endorsements that she hopes will help push her over the finish line, including from the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club and Sanders. Iqbal-Zubair could also be one of multiple progressive—and openly democratic socialist—candidates to sweep into office in Los Angeles this year. Nithya Raman, endorsed by Sanders as well as Democratic Socialists of America, has run a grassroots, housing justice focused campaign for Los Angeles City Council that shocked local politicians and pushed incumbent Democrat David Ryu into a tight race. In response to Raman’s surge, major centrist Democrats including Hillary Clinton and U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi have endorsed Ryu. This sort of attention from national politicians is not typical of local city council races.

Iqbal-Zubair told The Appeal that she’s excited to tap into the same support that’s also boosting Raman in Los Angeles. 

“I think people are angry,” she said. “For one, I think when Bernie ran his first campaign, it opened up a consciousness in America and in LA that hasn’t been opened before. We considered it a movement and it pushed something in us.” But, she said, “it’s also a combination of what’s happening around us—we see the rates of homelessness rising, rates of environmental racism getting worse, see our schools getting worse.”

She added: “Northern California has legislators that are a lot more progressive than we are, New York has people becoming more progressive, and so I think Southern California is finally noticing and catching up to what the people want.”

A Trumpist Texas Sheriff is Running for Congress. If He Wins, His Brother Might Take Over the Sheriff’s Office.

Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls wants voters to send him to Congress despite his department’s history of jail deaths and allegations of racial-profiling.

A member of the Fort Bend County Sheriff's department stands in front of car with a bullet hole in the door following a traffic altercation in Katy, Texas on Aug. 30, 2017.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A Trumpist Texas Sheriff is Running for Congress. If He Wins, His Brother Might Take Over the Sheriff’s Office.

Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls wants voters to send him to Congress despite his department’s history of jail deaths and allegations of racial-profiling.

In the years after a troubling number of suicides rocked his jail, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls did little to remedy the long-standing problems at his facility. Instead, he posted angry rants about President Trump on Facebook and faced accusations of racially profiling Latinx drivers. Nehls, 52, has served as the sheriff of the Texas county—a suburb of Houston home to more than 800,000 people—since 2012.

In 2017, Nehls took to Facebook to blast the “offensive display” of a local woman named Karen Fonseca who had a sign on her family’s truck reading “Fuck Donald Trump and fuck you for voting for him.” Nehls then threatened to charge Karen and her husband with disorderly conduct. Nehls later deleted the Facebook post and backed off the threats of charges after the ACLU of Texas wrote in a Facebook post “Sheriff Troy E. Nehls, Constitutional Law 101: You can’t ban speech just because it has ‘f@ck’ in it.”

This year, Nehls used Facebook to attack racial justice protesters. “God bless President Trump for taking action to reinstate law and order and God bless all our service members and law enforcement officers out on the streets tonight,” Nehls wrote in a  June 1 Facebook post in which he cheered on the president’s decision to send federal agents into cities to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests.

Now, Nehls is seeking the Congressional seat in Texas’s 22nd District, which has, in years past (and through a few re-districtings), been represented by Ron Paul, Tom DeLay, and Pete Olson, the retiring incumbent. The district, which includes parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Harris counties, has been staunchly Republican historically, but is considered very competitive this year. 

Even if Nehls is elected to Congress, his family may maintain its hold on the sheriff’s office. Nehls’ twin brother Trever Nehls has secured the Republican nomination to be the next sheriff of Fort Bend County.

Advocates for criminal legal reform are concerned that the brothers could end up controlling Fort Bend politics.

On October 16, a group of activists, including members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Libro Trafficante movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Houston gathered outside the Fort Bend County Justice Center to denounce the profiling Latinx drivers by Fort Bend County officers. 

“This is under the administration of Sheriff Troy Nehls, who we have tried to interview several times,” LULAC and Libro Trafficante activist Tony Diaz said as a protester held a “Troy Nehls is a Racist” sign behind his head. “He should be speaking on this, he should be denouncing this, he should make this stop. Worse, we are in an election cycle — this could intimidate Latinos and others to even stray out of their house during the COVID-19 epidemic to vote.”

“How can you have the audacity,” Diaz added, “to not answer questions from our community and then run for office?”

Troy faces Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former Foreign Service officer, in the general election. Kulkarni nearly beat incumbent GOP Rep. Olson in 2018—because of that close race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has invested significant resources in Kulkarni’s 2020 run. Kulkarni has raised more than $4.5 million in the race—compared to Troy’s $1 million. 

In the Fort Bend sheriff’s race, Trever’s opponent is Democrat Eric Fagan, a Black former officer with the Houston Police Department who once served on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s personal security detail. Among other proposals, Fagan says he’d like to outfit each Fort Bend officer with body-worn cameras and has promised to bring “progressive policing” to the department. (Trever has also pledged to make his officers wear body-cams if elected.)

I believe that the Sheriff should create and implement policies that focus on reducing the county jail population and also have programs for inmates to participate in while incarcerated that will help them when they re-enter the community,” Fagan wrote on his campaign webpage.

The Nehls brothers have a long law enforcement lineage: their father Edwin and older brother Todd were both sheriffs in their native Dodge County, Wisconsin. (Despite their long histories in Texas, the brothers, who live next-door to one another, still talk in Wisconsinite accents.) Both later also served in the U.S. Army Reserves and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Nehls’ also served in police departments in Fort Bend County—Troy with the Richmond Police Department and Trever with Sugar Land Police. In 2017, KUHF, Houston’s NPR affiliate, obtained documents showing that Troy was fired from the Richmond Police in 1998 for a staggering list of offenses, including: improperly buying a wall-plaque with public money; not telling his dispatchers he’d gone to a restaurant while on-duty; taking an extra off-duty job after he’d been told not to and then “misleading” his superiors about it; repeatedly being warned to do more police work; “improperly” arresting someone; and destroying state evidence.

Neither of the Nehls brothers responded to requests for comment from The Appeal.

But what Troy lacked in basic crime-fight skills, he made up for in bravado. Troy has repeatedly made headlines for making outlandish comments in the press and on social-media, especially as the Trump years have dragged on. Political Research Associates, a self-described “social-justice think-tank,” included Troy on its list of sheriffs “affiliated with far-right and anti-immigrant networks” after a “Patriot-movement” website listed Troy as an ally in 2013. 

After a Fort Bend County homeowner shot an alleged robber to death in 2016, Troy defended the  homeowner—and told the shooter to “go back” to where he came from.

“Don’t come into Fort Bend County and start waving guns around because you could leave in a bag,” Troy said. “We don’t need thugs coming into this county and pulling handguns and trying to rob us for our possessions. So that’s my warning to the criminals here, you may want to go back to Harris County [Houston].”

But it is the string of deaths at Troy’s jail—not his rhetoric on social media and elsewhere—that has local advocates alarmed. 

On Sept. 27, 2015, a 40-year-old man named Heriberto Coreas attempted suicide inside the Fort Bend jail. He was transported to a Houston hospital, but he died three days later. In response, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards told Troy that jail staff were not checking on incarcerated people at regular intervals, so the facility was at risk of failing to meet minimum standards for state inspection.

On November 3, 2015, Eugene Ethridge Jr., died by suicide at the Fort Bend jail while detained on a  DWI charge. According to a lawsuit filed by Ethridge’s father, Eugene Sr., against Fort Bend County and Troy, Ethdrige Jr. frantically pressed an intercom button asking for help the morning he died, but a guard allegedly left his post for at least two hours and thus Ethridge Jr.’s cries for help went unheeded. (Ethridge Sr.’s lawsuit was later dismissed.)

The sheriff department has also attracted scrutiny for its conduct outside the jail.  In a Hosuton Chronicle investigation published in July of this year, reporters found patterns of racial profiling in stops made by its  narcotics task force. One officer, for example, pulled over Latinx drivers 98 percent of the time —and of the 187 people he searched, 185 were Latinx.

This blatant act of racial profiling will not be tolerated in my administration,” Fagan, Trever Nehls’s opponent, writes on his campaign site. “It’s wrong and illegal.”

In a recent speech before the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce, Trever said he would “not tolerate any racial profiling—period” if elected to replace his brother.

Troy is now running a Trumpian, far-right campaign for Congress. This includes tweeting out a Breitbart News article in which U.S. Attorney General William Barr alleged that mail-in voting could lead to “fraud” and holding a campaign rally with Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, who once spoke at a convention for a white-supremacist group founded by Klansman David Duke. 

After one of Troy’s primary opponents, far-right Christian conservative Kathaleen Wall, accused him of being soft on immigrants, he responded by posting an anti-immigration screed to his Facebook page.

“Let me set the record straight: I have never and will never support sanctuary cities,” Troy wrote. “Don’t just take my word, look at my record. In my 7 years as Sheriff, I’ve worked with ICE to detain over 2,500 criminal illegals for deportation processing—no one in this race, including Kathaleen Wall, can claim they’ve done more, or anything close, to addressing illegal immigration. My stance against sanctuary cities and against illegal immigration is undeniable.”

He added that he supports “President Trump 100 percent.”

In August, Troy attacked Kulkarni, his Democratic opponent, for taking donations from progressive organizations whom he said he support defunding the police. “In the most diverse county in the country, we don’t see tension between law-enforcement and the communities we serve,” he said, “because we work together and there’s a mutual respect.”

The following month, Troy released a television ad that depicted burning cars and called Kulkarni a “liberal extremist.”

“In congress, Troy Nehls will stand up to the anti-law-enforcement extremists and put our safety first,” intoned the ad’s narrator.

Trever, meanwhile, has kept his own political beliefs a bit closer to the vest (though in 2019 he tweeted an image of himself smiling next to the pro-Trump “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson while calling him a “great American.”) Trever’s pitch to voters seems to be that he’ll continue his brother’s policies. Troy and Trever have held joint campaign events and the pair shares a volunteer signup Facebook page. On October 13, Troy posted a joint campaign photo in which he and Trever seem impossible to even tell apart.

And during a recent speech before the local Chamber of Commerce, Trever mimicked some of his brother’s racially coded, anti-Houston language.

“I do not believe we want Harris County policies in Fort Bend County,” Trever said. 

In Effort to Slow Climate Change, Texas Democrat Seeks Seat On Oil Regulation Board

Chrysta Castañeda wants to use the state Railroad Commission’s powers to stop energy companies from engaging in environmentally harmful practices like burning excess gas.

Chrysta Castañeda
Photo courtesy Castañeda campaign.

In Effort to Slow Climate Change, Texas Democrat Seeks Seat On Oil Regulation Board

Chrysta Castañeda wants to use the state Railroad Commission’s powers to stop energy companies from engaging in environmentally harmful practices like burning excess gas.

Despite its name, the Texas Railroad Commission doesn’t regulate railroads anymore. Instead, the three-person panel oversees the state’s gigantic oil and gas industries. Last year, Texas accounted for 41 percent of the nation’s crude oil production and 26 percent of its marketed natural gas production. It’s perhaps no surprise that in such an oil-rich state, the Railroad Commission has historically been staffed with industry allies such as Ryan Sitton, a former Occidental Petroleum and Marathon Energy employee who held a seat on the panel from 2015 until his primary defeat this year.

Now, the Texas Democratic Party is mounting a fight to give the public more control over one of the state’s most important but little known regulatory agencies. Chrysta Castañeda, a Dallas engineer and lawyer, is running for a seat on the commission. Her campaign could be well-timed: Despite Texas’s reputation as a Republican stronghold, 2020 might represent the best chance that the Democratic Party has had in years to take a seat on the state board that approves oil-drilling permits and regulates fracking. Even though no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, huge early voter turnout—in Travis County (Austin) and Harris County (Houston)—suggests that there could be a blue wave this fall. 

“Long story short: If we enforce the law here, we can dramatically impact the carbon gases pumped into the atmosphere,” Castañeda told The Appeal. 

Castañeda has run for office before. In 2012, after nine men and no women filed for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Texas’s 33rd Congressional District—which includes parts of Dallas and Fort Worth—she decided to enter the race (another woman later joined). After Castañeda lost that primary, she returned to her work as a trial lawyer. In April, she published a book about her time serving as oil magnate T. Boone Pickens’s personal lawyer in 2016. But she remained close to the state Democratic Party and told The Appeal that she’s dedicated to getting more women involved in Texas politics. Given Castañeda’s background working with energy industry titans like Pickens, the party approached her and asked her to run for the open Railroad Commission seat this year. 

Castañeda was inspired to run in part by an oil and gas industry procedure called “flaring,” in which energy producers burn off unused natural gas and let it float away into the atmosphere. Technically, flaring is illegal in Texas—unless you have a permit from the Railroad Commission. As the U.S. began producing more natural gas over the last decade, the commission handed out thousands of flaring permits. In the 2008 fiscal year, the commission gave out just 107 permits, compared to 6,972 in fiscal year 2019. Energy producers use flaring to avoid spending extra money to store or transport excess gas. The thousands of flaring permits in Texas represent a profound environmental hazard because the practice releases methane, which warms the planet even faster than carbon dioxide. 

“We light on fire enough natural gas to power the entire city of Houston continuously,” Castañeda said. “It’s harmful to our climate—and it causes human health problems like, asthma, premature births, and lung disease.” Castañeda also promises to push energy companies to plug abandoned wells, since many producers leave spent oil fields open, forcing taxpayers to clean up the mess.

Castañeda—who proudly states on her campaign’s website that she believes that humans cause climate change—faces Republican Jim Wright. Earlier this year, Wright defeated Ryan Sitton in the state’s Republican primary despite the fact that Wright has been accused in court of fraud and fined more than $180,000 by the Railroad Commission itself  for allowing waste to pile up on oil fields he owns.

Wright said he entered the race after dealing with commission regulations that he has called “confusing.” He has defended flaring and said Castañeda’s positions could shut down the oil industry. Wright’s campaign website does not discuss carbon emissions or climate change—but does include a section on the need for “border security.”

I firmly believe that we must secure our border to protect our families, our infrastructure and our oil and gas industry,” he writes. “I know firsthand the dangers of a weak border.  In 2017, a vehicle of illegal immigrants ran a stop sign and crashed into my wife’s jeep before leaving her unable to move and almost dead. Today she is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, saved by the Grace of God and because a neighbor found her and helped save her life.”

In August, the New Republic called Castañeda’s race the “most important climate election” of 2020.  There are concerns about Castañeda’s ties to oil and gas—her 2016 legal fight on Pickens’s behalf won the tycoon $146 million after he said he’d been cut out of an oil deal in West Texas. Castañeda has also suggested a far more conservative approach to weaning Texas off oil and gas than her Democratic Party peers. Democratic groups in the state also backed a lawsuit that kept multiple Green Party candidates from the 2020 ballot, including Railroad Commission candidate Katija Gruene, who had been running to Castañeda’s left.

Still, Castañeda’s election could significantly tip the scales of power on such a small board. The other two commissioners are Republicans Christi Craddick and Wayne Christian, a former Texas Tea Party Caucus board member and President Trump supporter who has denied that human beings cause climate change. 

Castañeda told The Appeal that she hasn’t had to fight to convince Texans that the Railroad Commission needs a member who believes in global warming.

“I’ve been incredibly well-received,” she said. “We’ve had endorsements in every newspaper in Texas—Texans get it.”

And, in order to help even more Texans “get it,” she’d like to change the board’s name to something more appropriate. Perhaps something with “oil” actually in the name.

NYPD Unit At Center Of Protest Policing Has Dozens Of Officers With Long Misconduct Histories

Civil liberties experts say the Strategic Response Group’s recent crackdown on ICE protests is the most brutal suppression of protests in decades—and many of its officers are the subject of significant misconduct allegations, including a supervisor with 32 complaints.

Illustration by Cameron Wray.

NYPD Unit At Center Of Protest Policing Has Dozens Of Officers With Long Misconduct Histories

Civil liberties experts say the Strategic Response Group’s recent crackdown on ICE protests is the most brutal suppression of protests in decades—and many of its officers are the subject of significant misconduct allegations, including a supervisor with 32 complaints.

This summer in New York City was defined by protests. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer drew hundreds of thousands into the streets in late May and early June, demonstrations that were fueled by violent confrontations with the NYPD in Union Square and downtown Brooklyn. 

On May 29, Officer Vincent D’Andraia was filmed throwing Dounya Zayer to the ground and calling her a “stupid fucking bitch.” Zayer suffered a concussion from the incident and also said she later had seizures. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez charged D’Andraia with third-degree assault, fourth-degree criminal mischief, second-degree harassment and third-degree menacing. New York Attorney General Letitia James apologized to Zayer. After the initial post-George Floyd period and a period of looting of stores in Manhattan and the Bronx, the NYPD adopted a more hands-off stance toward the demonstrations, which have occurred nearly daily.

That silent detente abruptly ended last month. On Sept. 16, in response to a whistleblower claim that Latinx women in ICE custody were involuntarily receiving hysterectomies, daily demonstrations began outside a federal building in Lower Manhattan. Over the course of that week, 134 people were arrested during ICE protests, culminating in the kettling of 86 people in Times Square on Sept. 19 by officers from the Strategic Response Group, the NYPD’s controversial anti-terrorism and protest tactical unit created by former Commissioner Bill Bratton in 2015. “The violence in the enforcement we’ve seen is much more serious than anything we’ve seen in a long time,” Christopher Dunn, the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The Appeal. He pointed to the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot over gentrification and the policing of homelessness as the last comparable instance of widespread NYPD brutality. But the Tompkins Square clashes spanned two days—not several months. 

Gideon Oliver, a civil rights attorney who has sued New York City over unlawful mass arrests during the 2004 Republican National Convention and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, said the NYPD’s actions in mid-September are a return to older, more confrontational tactics that include sweeping up large numbers of protesters on questionable legal grounds.

“There was obviously a tremendous and aggressive response to the Floyd protests and the uprisings in the beginning, and then I think there was a shift in tactics until the ICE-related protests in the last week and change,” Oliver said on Sept. 23. For months prior, large street marches went virtually unchallenged by police. “You can observe on the street that there’s been a shift in the way that police treat the protesters,” he said.

The NYPD did not respond to numerous requests for comment from The Appeal.

The NYPD’s shift in posture toward street protests and the leading role of its Strategic Response Group (SRG) in recent mass arrests, comes as the city’s two largest police unions have formally endorsed President Trump. As Trump encourages militias and  counterprotesters, and defends the actions of lethal attacks on Black Lives Matter demonstrations, some fear that the NYPD’s politicization, return to old tactics, and new departmentwide public disorder training being administered on a precinct level portend for a chaotic autumn. The tactical shift is particularly conspicuous after police looked the other way at right-wing counterprotesters who drove cars through mass BLM protests and caused injuries.

Power Malu, a Lower East Side activist who was arrested in Times Square on Sept. 19, said the SRG is a familiar presence at demonstrations, and the unit has targeted specific organizers and groups. “They know who we are, and we know who they are,” he said, adding that the speed and overwhelming show of force of the Times Square arrests surprised organizers. 

Commanded by Inspector John D’Adamo, the SRG is composed of more than 700 officers and divided into five borough-based teams plus the Disorder Control Unit (DCU). The unit, which predates the SRG, is known for bringing “hats and bats” (clubs and long batons) to protests and engaging in violent mass arrests of questionable legality. It was central to policing Occupy Wall Street, as well as the 2003 anti-war demonstrations and the 2004 Republican National Convention—where over 1,800 people were arrested and held for days without charges, resulting in a $18 million legal settlement. The DCU’s tactics included using military-style training to break up crowds through a “disperse and demoralize” strategy, using undercover officers to spread misinformation among crowds, arresting demonstrators early to “set a tone,” and arresting “potential rioters” before they committed crimes.

In addition to protests, the SRG is also used to monitor large parades and public gatherings, and for crime suppression patrols. From its inception, activists were alarmed at the NYPD’s conflation of counterterrorism and protest policing. “Terrorism and protest is what they’re trained to police,” Wylie Stecklow, a civil rights attorney who has represented clients involved in Occupy Wall Street mass arrests, told The Appeal. Stecklow said that when NYPD polices demonstrations they perceive as friendly, like the Blue Lives Matter protest in July in Bay Ridge, they take a hands-off approach. “When they are policing Occupy, the RNC, BLM, then it doesn’t matter if you’re participating in expressive speech activity, they’re not waiting for you to commit civil disobedience before they make that arrest.”

Activists quickly dubbed SRG “the goon squad”—and soon afterward the unit became known for its aggressive conduct and what appeared to be focused surveillance of particularly active protesters and groups. Officer Numael Amador was removed from the unit and suspended for choking two activists during an attempt to stop the deportation of immigration rights activist Ravi Ragbir in the winter of 2018. Even before the Ragbir incident, Amador had 15 Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) complaints on his record, including four substantiated allegations. Also that year, SRG officers were photographed manhandling City Council members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodríguez. The unit has also been criticized for fatal shootings, conducting drunken driving stops, allegedly falsifying DUI charges to meet performance quotas, and backing away when the Proud Boys assaulted anti-fascist protesters outside an October 2018 event in Manhattan. 

The Appeal reviewed videos from protests during early June (including mass arrests in Union Square and the South Bronx) and two weeks of sustained clashes with demonstrators in September and identified 62 SRG officers and supervisorsOf the officers identified:

  • 46 had complaint histories with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, with an average of two incidents per SRG officer. By comparison, 40 percent of all NYPD personnel had two or more incidents of alleged misconduct.
  • 292 misconduct allegations were filed with the CCRB against the 46 SRG officers. Of these, 42 officers racked up 142 abuse of authority complaints. 35 were accused of excessive force. 25 were responsible for 43 discourtesy complaints, and five tallied seven allegations of offensive language. 
  • 14 supervisors—sergeants, lieutenants, and captains—had multiple misconduct allegations. One SRG supervisor, Lt. Ischaler Grant from SRG 4 in the Bronx, has 32 complaints involving ten separate incidents in his file since joining the NYPD in 1990, including seven substantiated allegations. Only 2 percent of officers in the NYPD have more incidents of alleged misconduct than Lieutenant Grant. 
  • SRG 4 had the most officers—12—with misconduct allegations. SRG 1 in Manhattan and SRG 2 in Queens both had nine officers with complaint histories, followed by Staten Island’s SRG 5 with six and Brooklyn’s SRG 3 with five. 

(The CCRB substantiates less than 10 percent of misconduct allegations.)

Dunn of the NYCLU told The Appeal that the extensive disciplinary records of the SRG officers virtually guaranteed the “poorly conceived” unit would cause problems when put on the front lines of controlling demonstrations. “If you have a unit made up of officers with substantial histories of misconduct, you’re guaranteed to have problems when that unit is assigned to police protests,” Dunn said, adding that supervisors with thick personnel files “are not the people you want running a unit that interacts with protests.”

When the George Floyd protests in New York City began late in the spring, SRG officers deployed “Cobra teams” of bicycle and foot cops that have been front and center in violent clashes with demonstrators. On May 28, the very first demonstration in the city was disrupted by yellow-clad SRG bicycle cops, some of whom bludgeoned demonstrators with their mountain bikes. The Appeal has learned that Officer Yuriy Demchenko of SRG 3 is one of the officers accused of using his bicycle as a weapon, and is the subject of at least two use-of-force complaints.

Detective Craig Jacob of SRG 1 is also facing a use-of-force allegation for wielding his bike as a weapon during the May protests. Since joining the NYPD in 2004, Jacob has amassed 13 CCRB complaints, including two allegations of improperly pointing a weapon and one allegation of racially offensive language.

In 2018, Demchenko was the subject of a civil rights lawsuit accusing him of falsifying charges against a Coney Island woman whose house was raided in a narcotics sting. According to court records, Demchenko wrote up a criminal complaint claiming that marijuana, crack cocaine, and codeine were found during a search of the woman’s apartment, information gleaned from an anonymous tip. But no narcotics were recovered during the search. The city settled with the woman for approximately $24,000.

SRG also spearheaded the mass arrest of more than 250 demonstrators, legal observers, and medical workers on June 4 in the South Bronx, during a controversial weeklong citywide curfew. The mass arrests appeared to be orchestrated by Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the highest-ranking uniformed member of the NYPD. Monahan played a prominent role in the 2004 Republican National Convention arrests later ruled unlawful by a United State District Court judge. 

Hundreds of demonstrators were diverted off Willis Avenue by a roadblock of 50 officers and then kettled at 136th Street and Brook Avenue by heavily armored SRG bike cops, many of whom had their names and badge numbers concealed. As was the case with the Union Square protests, SRG officers again battered people with their mountain bikes, forcing the crowd of hundreds into a street sealed on both sides by riot officers. Police climbed on cars to strike the crowd with batons. The SRG’s use of their bikes as “weapons” against protesters was highlighted by James, the state attorney general, in a report from her office on the NYPD’s handling of the summer protests. 

The following day, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea claimed that the group organizing the march was seeking to hurt officers, not engage in protest. “This wasn’t again about protests, this was about tearing down society,” Shea said. Over 100 demonstrators were injured that evening, according to a Sept. 30 Human Right Watch report on the incident that labeled NYPD’s conduct as “serious violations of international human rights law” and the First Amendment.

Stecklow, the Occupy Wall Street attorney, is representing a dozen people arrested at the June 4 protest. He said the kettle was meant to sow fear and discourage protesters from turning out in the future. “Everyone was afraid of being trampled, contracting the virus, even being killed,” he said. “This was done by design—the next time there’s a protest, people are less likely to go out and join.” Stecklow has two separate civil suits in state courts challenging the NYPD’s policing of sidewalk protests, one of which is heading to trial.

The June 4 protest is the subject of at least 17 separate complaints under investigation by the CCRB. In an Oct. 2 appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had not read the Human Rights Watch report, and “some of that characterization doesn’t sound like what I heard at the time, including from our own observers.”

During the ICE protests in Times Square on Sept. 19, SRG officers quickly kettled several dozen marchers and cyclists, moving first on the bicyclists as they stepped into the street with the walk signal.

“They surrounded the bikers from the back and the front. This was a planned attack on peaceful protesters,” said Luis Galilei, a 27-year-old protester from Harlem who was one of the cyclists tackled and arrested by SRG cops in Times Square. Galilei, who faces a disorderly conduct charge along with the 85 others arrested that day, said the officers pinned him to the ground by pressing their knees into his back.

Video of the Sept. 19 mass arrests obtained by The Appeal show instances of SRG officers—some with extensive disciplinary histories—using force to arrest protesters who sat in the middle of Times Square in an act of mass civil disobedience. Sgt. Keith Hockaday, a former Bronx housing cop now assigned to SRG 2 out of the same borough, is seen using his baton to force activists to submit to handcuffs. Over his career, Hockaday has amassed 16 CCRB complaints, including five use of force allegations. None of the complaints against Hockaday were substantiated. He has also been the subject of at least 10 civil suits, including five cases settled by the city for $91,000 total that include allegations of false arrest, falsifying criminal charges, and illegal searches.

Another SRG supervisor who assaulted Times Square arrestees is Sgt. Steven Gansrow, a former narcotics officer in Brooklyn and Queens with 15 CCRB complaints in his personnel file, including two substantiated complaints for an unlawful stop-and-frisk. Gansrow is assigned to SRG 4 in Queens.

One of the SRG bike officers who set up the Times Square kettle was Sgt. Matthew Tocco of the Disorder Control Unit. Tocco has amassed 21 CCRB complaints since joining the NYPD in 2006, including allegations of chokeholds, improperly pointing a gun, beating suspects with his nightclub, excessive force, discourtesy, and refusing to provide his badge number. The majority of complaints—15 of which involve claims of excessive force—were accrued during his time in the West Village’s Sixth Precinct in the 2000s and 2010s. None of the complaints against Tocco were substantiated. 

Also supervising the bike officers in Times Square that day was Sgt. Richard Jones from SRG 1, stationed on 42nd Street one and a half a blocks from the Hudson River. Jones, who has had nine CCRB complaints against him (none substantiated) since becoming an officer in 1999, has a history of alleged misconduct at demonstrations. On Dec. 17, 2011, he arrested Michael Premo at an Occupy Wall Street march and charged him with felony assault. In a criminal complaint, Jones claimed that Premo attacked and injured him while resisting arrest. After 14 months, 13 court appearances and four trial dates, a jury acquitted Premo of all charges. He filed a civil suit against Jones and the NYPD over the incident and received a $55,000 settlement. By surrounding the demonstrators and arresting them within seconds of issuing a pre-recorded dispersal order, SRG returned to tactics from the 2004 Republican National Convention that courts later deemed unlawful.

“In RNC cases, we sued them over a bunch of different arrest locations and practices—one of them was a kettle on 16th Street on August 31, 2004, the ‘day of anarchy,’ when the cops did all these pre-emptive arrests,” said Oliver, one of the attorneys involved in the convention litigation. “In Times Square, they did what they did in the Mott Haven kettle in the Bronx, which was to either direct and let protesters go down a certain place where they had a trap set up, with cops on both ends.”

“They need to provide a warning. It’s not sufficient for them to say, ‘OK, everybody disperse,’ and then come and make arrests,” said David Rankin, an attorney who spoke at a Sept. 21 press conference held by the Times Square arrestees.

The NYPD’s policing of demonstrations may have long-term consequences for a city struggling to dig its way out of COVID-19’s economic chasm. At least 98 notices of claim have been filed with the New York City comptroller in relation to the SRG-led Bronx mass arrest in June alone, potentially costing city taxpayers millions in legal settlements. Since May 26, the CCRB has received at least 18 complaints against SRG officers. The independent oversight agency is investigating more than 750 complaints related to the protests.

Each passing week seems to bring new instances of hyper-aggressive protest policing by the SRG.

On Sept. 26, SRG officers arrested a dozen demonstrators in a tumultuous scene on a West Village street, with riot and bicycle officers diving in among outdoor restaurant patrons to make arrests. The incident shocked passersby and drew instant criticism from legislators. Brad Hoylman, who represents the neighborhood in the New York State Senate, wrote on Twitter that he had contacted the NYPD for an explanation, labeling that evening’s events a “disturbing escalation of force” that was “unwarranted and unacceptable.

And on the night of Oct. 5, 24 demonstrators calling for the arrest of a Texas police officer who shot and killed Jonathan Price were arrested and briefly detained by SRG on minor charges—including preventing officers from NYPD’s surveillance specialists in the Technical Assistance Response Unit from filming the protest—in Lower Manhattan. In remarks to the media, Commissioner Shea insulted the protesters and said they were keeping officers away from calls about violent crime—even though the SRG has been ever-present at protests, and shooting incidents citywide have fallen since a midsummer peak. “We don’t need officers pulled away for these, sometimes I don’t know what you call them—peaceful protesters—maybe spoiled brats at this point,” Shea said.

The NYPD and SRG’s rough treatment of demonstrators for the last several months has fueled, rather than tamped down, street protests. Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a Bronx resident who was arrested on June 4 and spoke with Human Rights Watch for its report, said the initial demonstrations swelled “because police brutality protesters were being viciously, viciously attacked from Brooklyn all the way to the Bronx.”

“It has mobilized a lot of people to get out,” he said.

Florida’s Most Powerful Pro-Police Lobbying Group Is An Anti-Reform Force

The Florida Sheriffs Association gains a third of its multimillion-dollar budget by selling big-ticket items like trucks and mobile command centers to local sheriff’s departments and other government agencies.

Governor Ron DeSantis speaks before the arrival of President Trump during a Sept. 24 rally in Jacksonville, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida’s Most Powerful Pro-Police Lobbying Group Is An Anti-Reform Force

The Florida Sheriffs Association gains a third of its multimillion-dollar budget by selling big-ticket items like trucks and mobile command centers to local sheriff’s departments and other government agencies.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed legislation last month that would allow cops to charge people with felonies for appearing at a “violent” protest and allow anyone who “organizes” a “violent or disorderly assembly” to be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. 

The plan, presented at a press conference in the Lakeland area, would also give legal cover to drivers who kill or injure people with their vehicles if they were “fleeing for safety from a mob.” In 2017, during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a driver killed a protester and was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. In June, a man in Portland, Oregon, was charged with reckless driving and three felony hit-and-run counts after he was filmed driving into a crowd of racial-justice activists. Three people were injured, and two of the three were transported to the hospital.  Under DeSantis’s proposal, if such crimes occur in Florida, those people would be protected.

“We’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities across the country,” DeSantis said of the proposed Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act. 

Several lawmakers were standing behind the governor at the Sept. 21 press conference—and so was Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz. In July, Schultz  was named the new president of the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA), arguably the most powerful anti-criminal justice reform and pro-police lobbying group in America’s fourth most-populous state.

“They are, without question, the most powerful lobby group that consistently opposes sentencing reform in Tallahassee and consistently lobbies for new felonies, new sentencing enhancements, new mandatory minimums, and opposes anything that might roll that back the war on drugs,” Greg Newburn, the Florida state policy director for FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), told The Appeal.

Although the FSA has yet to take a concrete stance on DeSantis’s package of bills—a spokesperson later told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Steve Bousquet that the group “conceptually support[s] his proposals”—Schultz’s presence at the press conference is a reminder that DeSantis’s perhaps unconstitutional legislation could be in enacted during the statehouse’s next legislative session in 2021. Each year, the FSA employs a battalion of lobbyists to ensure that prison sentences remain long, mandatory-minimum drug laws stay on the books, and police departments can buy up all the equipment they’d like.

The FSA has long been a force. It was founded in 1893, and its ranks included Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (the eponym of Broward County), who was Duval County sheriff at the time and eventually became Florida’s governor. But few, if any, accounts explain where the FSA gets so much money to fund its army of lobbyists each year: the sale of equipment to the state’s sheriff’s departments.

“We don’t take tax dollars to lobby against sheriffs,” Newburn said. “But they take tax dollars to lobby against us.”

The FSA has quietly become one of the most well-funded trade groups in Tallahassee. According to its 2017 IRS Form 990s (financial statements that nonprofits must file annually with the federal government), the FSA pulled in more than $11 million in total revenue and listed nearly $21 million in net assets. Its assets dwarfed those reported that same year by the Florida Chamber of Commerce (an estimated $8 million) and Associated Industries of Florida (an estimated $6 million), two of the state’s most well-known big-business lobbying groups. 

According to the FSA’s most recent annual statement online, the organization reported that 27 percent of its annual revenues in the 2018 fiscal year came from membership fees.

But the FSA’s membership fees are just its second-largest source of revenue. An even larger portion—32 percent—came that year from what the organization calls its “cooperative purchasing program”—a service in which it conducts competitive bids for products and services and then allows government agencies to piggy-back off those contracts. The FSA says this process helps save government agencies both time and money, as they then need to field fewer competitive bids.

The FSA charges a 0.0075 percent markup on any item sold using its service. That may sound insignificant, but if a police department buys a new fleet of cruisers or ATVs  (both available for purchase through the program), the markup adds up quickly. Additionally, any government agency can buy products from the program, not just cops. Other items for sale include: a police mobile-command center for $217,293, a police-rated Chevrolet Tahoe (one option is just under $34,000), a boat made for aquatic weed-whacking (including one for $50,000), a 38-ton operating-weight hydraulic excavator (one model runs $311,724), and a 40-ton landfill compactor (one of the choices is $658,717). 

“Bidders are to include the administrative fee of three quarters of one percent (0.0075) in all bid prices,” according to the purchasing program’s contract terms and conditions. It adds: “The fee should never be listed as a separate line item on any purchase order.”

Critics note that the funding structure creates an incentive for cops to buy expensive items like trucks, since the FSA fee funnels cash directly into pro-police lobbying. The FSA says on its website that since starting the purchasing program in 1993, it has sold 55,000 vehicles to government agencies.

FSA employees did not respond to requests from The Appeal to discuss the organization’s program. But critics on the left and right told The Appeal that the FSA wields its huge, taxpayer-funded budget to lobby against the public’s interests.

“Ultimately, these are taxpayer dollars invested against the public interest to maintain draconian, racist sentencing laws and mass incarceration in Florida—and often your local Sheriffs and Chiefs are giving communities reform-minded lip service at home, while supporting the status quo in the state legislature,” Ida Eskamani, a community lobbyist who represents the Florida Immigrant Coalition, New Florida Majority, and Organize Florida activist groups in Tallahassee, said in an email to The Appeal.

Newburn’s group, FAMM, tends to align more with libertarian-leaning conservatives than Democrats. But he told The Appeal that when he tried to help pass bills that would roll back the war on drugs or shorten long prison sentences in Florida, he hit a wall when the FSA started lobbying against him.

He noted, for example, that the agency consistently lobbies to maintain Florida’s “85 percent rule,” a “truth in sentencing” law that requires people sentenced to prison in the state to serve at least 85 percent of their terms before becoming eligible for release.  

“I think if you sat them down and asked why they do this, they’ll just say, ‘Well, we think it works,’” Newburn said. “But if you asked why they think it works, they will sit there dumbfounded. And if you’re waiting for them to give you an answer on that—grab a Snickers, because you’re going to be there for a while.”

In January, the FSA—then under Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri—used its huge budget to create an institute that pushes pro-police scholarship.  That month, the Florida Sheriffs Research Institute published a paper arguing that the state’s 85 percent rule helped reduce crime rates in Florida.

“What our first report finds is that the current research tells us that the 85 percent time-served law has been associated with significant reductions in the likelihood of recidivism,” Gualtieri said in a press release. “Truth in Sentencing works, and it is making our communities safer with less crime and fewer victims.”

Newburn disagreed. 

“It was a dreadful paper,” he said. “It was really bad. But to their credit, at least they made an effort to make a coherent argument.”

Florida’s legislature meets to pass bills for just 60 days beginning every March. In a March 20, 2019, House Civil Justice Committee meeting, Gualtieri stood at a lectern on the FSA’s behalf and warned lawmakers that if local jails didn’t cooperate with ICE, it could lead to an incident similar to a 2017 case in Portland, Oregon, where an undocumented man released from jail, in Gualtieri’s words, “got out and raped a 65-year-old woman.”

During the 2020 legislative session, the FSA opposed a bill from Republican state Senator Rob Bradley that would have imposed limits on maximum sentences for those convicted of certain drug offenses. Even Americans for Prosperity, the lobbying group founded by brothers Charles and David Koch, supported Bradley’s bill. But after the FSA announced its opposition, the bill failed.

“There are very few things in the legislature we find bipartisan support behind,” Eskamani said, “but on criminal justice, Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground. Unfortunately, it’s law enforcement and prosecutors calling the shots.” 

Federal Judges Were Once All Reliably Bad On Prisoners’ Rights Issues. COVID-19 Changed That.

President Trump has appointed a quarter of active federal appellate judges, and they have decisively hampered legal efforts to force prisons and jails to address the coronavirus.

On April 20, demonstrators in a car caravan display signs as they circle the Thompson Center in Downtown Chicago, demanding the release of all incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protest came as deaths at the Cook County jail in Chicago mounted.
(Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Federal Judges Were Once All Reliably Bad On Prisoners’ Rights Issues. COVID-19 Changed That.

President Trump has appointed a quarter of active federal appellate judges, and they have decisively hampered legal efforts to force prisons and jails to address the coronavirus.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The COVID-19 crisis in state prisons and local jails is a result of many long-standing phenomena: inadequate carceral healthcare, overcrowding, societal contempt for people in prison, and limits on the public’s access to information about carceral systems. The failure to react early to the novel coronavirus was thoroughly bipartisan, with blue states failing alongside red ones, and Democratic politicians at the state and local level abdicating their responsibilities over incarcerated people just as much as Republicans.

But there is another story behind the crisis: President Trump has appointed a quarter of active federal appellate judges, and they have proved decisive in undermining legal efforts to force prisons and jails to constitutionally address the coronavirus.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States’s carceral systems were inevitable. But a well-organized effort among civil rights attorneys quickly resulted in lawsuits against state prisons and local jails that failed to protect incarcerated people. The litigation sought remedial measures such as the release of the most vulnerable on the basis of medical conditions and safety measures to limit the spread among the rest of the population. 

The lawsuits had early success winning emergency relief from federal trial judges. In April, an incarcerated class alleged that the staff of the Oakland County jail, a vast complex with almost 1,600 beds outside of Detroit, did not consistently wear masks or provide soap to the detainees. It also alleged that the jail administration threatened detainees for not working even while sick. After one incarcerated person died of COVID-19 in a quarantined cell, jail staff moved his two cellmates back into the general population. In May, a federal district court judge sided with the plaintiffs and issued an injunction against the county jail. But two months later, a three-judge panel vacated the opinion. In a 2-1 split, with both judges in the majority appointed by President Trump, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that “the steps that jail officials took to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were reasonable.”

Similar scenarios played out with the jails in both Miami-Dade County and Chicago’s Cook County, which at one point had the biggest COVID hotspot in the U.S. With the majority including two Trump appointees, the Seventh Circuit vacated aspects of a district court decision that required socially distanced housing at the Cook County jail. Similarly, a Trump appointee to the Eleventh Circuit wrote for a 2-1 majority vacating a district court’s injunction, ordering relief to detainees at Miami-Dade County’s jail. He wrote that the jail could not be blamed for failing to enforce social distancing because it was impossible, and “failing to do the ‘impossible’ doesn’t evince indifference,” the legal standard at issue.

In an April case against the Orange County jail complex in California, a class of detainees said there was a lack of soap or COVID-testing, an inability to social distance, and the commingling of nominally quarantined detainees with the general population. The jail had over 100 confirmed COVID cases. These detainees, too, won an order demanding that the jail take remedial measures, such as waiving the “co-pays” that they must pay in order to receive medical treatment. The jail sought a stay from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to pause the court’s order. But this time, the appellate panel was composed of two Democratic appointees and one Trump appointee. The panel split along party lines to uphold the trial court’s decision. The jail appealed to the Supreme Court, and in August, five conservative justices—including Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh—sided with the Orange County jail. The four Democratic appointees to the Court noted that they would not have granted the stay.

In these COVID lawsuits—the four most prominent brought against state prisons or local jails—eight Trump-appointed judges or justices got a vote compared to eight judges or justices appointed by any Democratic president. All eight Trump appointees voted against the prisoner classes while all eight Democratic appointees voted for them, including Judge Susan Graber, Justice Stephen Breyer, and other moderate judges known for often deferring to the government. In all four cases, the Trump votes were ultimately decisive.

Before COVID-19, this outcome was not self-evident. The treatment of people in prison was once a highly salient and polarized issue, but that era has somewhat passed. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were appointed by Republican presidents in the 1980s and 1990s. Scalia, who served until his death in 2016, and Thomas were openly contemptuous of plaintiff-friendly prison jurisprudence and argued it should no longer exist. In their view, the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause does not apply to prison conditions. Such a ruling would return incarcerated people to a pre-civil rights movement legal status referred to as “slaves of the state.” 

But neither Justices Gorsuch nor Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court with well-defined records on prison conditions, and the issue attracted little attention during their confirmations. Neither justice has demonstrated a significant interest in prison conditions since joining the Court, and the same could be said for the Court as an institution. Despite taking up 60 to 70 cases annually, the Supreme Court has not decided to hear a significant prison case in several years even though such cases make up over ten percent of the federal trial docket.

Several generations of Democratic judges have also been largely indifferent to prison conditions. In a 2015 case, the Supreme Court considered whether a prison had met the high bar of limiting religious practices, which they are only permitted to do if it “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” In Holt v. Hobbs, an Arkansas prison had forbidden a Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard. The government identified “security” as its compelling interest for this rule, arguing that the man could hide contraband in his half-inch beard. The Court unanimously rejected the argument. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most liberal justice on criminal legal system issues and race, published a separate concurrence to make it clear that although she agreed with ruling against the prison on these extreme facts, prisons were still owed great deference in matters of security on any closer call. This kind of reasoning at the highest court, from the most liberal justice, is precisely why a decisive split by political party on COVID-19 class actions was not necessarily predictable. 

But the chasm of outcomes nonetheless occurred, and it is particularly notable on the eve of a presidential election. If Joe Biden wins, his judicial appointments will most likely look like those from a third term of President Barack Obama—mostly moderate liberals, valued more for their experience and diversity than for their ideological purity. There is no doubt that this slate of judges would hold radically different views on abortion, arbitration, class actions, immigration, and numerous other issues than judges appointed in a second Trump term. But before the COVID-19 lawsuits, where the votes of Trump’s appellate judges swayed the outcomes and unanimously favored the prisons or jails, it was less clear that there would be drastic differences between judges appointed by Biden and Trump on prisoners’ rights issues. The biggest pandemic in a century has radically altered that calculus. In the COVID-19 era, the question of whether people in prison received relief from the federal courts turned entirely on Trump’s appointments to the appellate bench. Prisoners’ rights issues turned out to be on the 2016 ballot after all—and they may well be on the ballot again in November. 

Samuel Weiss is the executive director of Rights Behind Bars, which represents incarcerated people in civil rights lawsuits concerning their conditions of confinement.

Policing Studies Measure Benefits To Crime Reduction—But Not Social Costs

Research has shown only that police can be sufficient, not that they are necessary.

Police stand at the entrance to P.S. 188 as elementary school students are welcomed back to the city's public schools for in-person learning on Sept. 29 in New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Policing Studies Measure Benefits To Crime Reduction—But Not Social Costs

Research has shown only that police can be sufficient, not that they are necessary.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Perhaps one of the more unexpected events this turbulent year has been the rate at which efforts to defund police departments gained national political traction. Local governments collectively spend roughly $100 billion per year on policing, and with big cities dedicating about 15 percent (if not more) of their budgets to police, a growing number of people are asking if it may make more sense to spend some of that money elsewhere, like on drug treatment, mental health, social work, or shelter. One of the many questions raised by the defund movement: Is spending on police justifiable from a policy perspective? 

Remarkably, we do not have a good answer. If nothing else, there are only a handful of studies that really undertake clear cost-benefit analyses of policing. But the bigger problem is that even these studies fail to answer the question of the costs of policing, and that’s because of how they’re framed, not technical or methodological issues. There are at least three significant ways that these studies go astray.

The first thing to note is that even taken on their own terms, most studies of the effectiveness of police are not really measuring the effect of police. In reality, studies of the impact of police on crime are more studies of the impact of what Jane Jacobs, in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” called “eyes on the street.” What really deters is the risk of being seen by someone, not necessarily by someone who can or will make an arrest. These studies show that police can be those critical eyes on the street, but they do not show that only the police can be those eyes.

This may seem counterintuitive. The key issue is that most of the deterrent effect from policing does not come from apprehension, which is quite low: Police make arrests in fewer than half of all reported violent crimes and one-fifth or less for reported property offenses, and people report fewer than half of all crimes.  As criminologist Daniel Nagin has pointed out, deterrence comes far more from the police’s “sentinel” function—simply their eyes on the street and willingness to intervene when crime occurs—than from their arrest powers.

But if observing what is happening is what matters most, showing that police effectively do so does not mean that only they can do so. Take private security. Few studies have measured the effect of (usually unarmed) private security on crime, even though the United States employs far more people as private security than as sworn police officers. The few studies that have, however, appear to show that private security also reduces crime, often quite substantially, and perhaps with less risk of lethal or serious violence.

The obvious counterargument is that private security only works because it can detain people until the sworn police make an arrest. Sure, to a point. First, even if true, it implies that we can rely far less on armed police officers than many current studies suggest. But second, and perhaps more important, it’s not entirely clear if that is true. As Nagin also points out, we tend to underemphasize the importance of informal punishment, which might actually be a far more significant deterrent threat than formal punishment, especially given how sporadically formal sanctions are actually imposed. Shame, stigma, that disappointed head shake from a person you respect: all these matter, too, and they can be imposed without arrest, much less any sort of trial or conviction. To the extent that these informal sanctions are key, then it’s the risk of any sort of credible detection of  a crime, not detection with the threat of formal arrest, that really drives deterrence.

In fact, given the often fraught relationship between police and communities of color, detection by non-police actors may be more effective a threat than detection by the police. In many ways, this is what motivates programs such as Cure Violence, which relies on people respected in the community to intervene among people who are at risk for violent behavior—not the police, but former gang members and local pastors.

Our policing studies have shown only that police can be sufficient, not that they are necessary—or at least not as necessary as studies that focus exclusively on policing seem to suggest. There may be cases where the threat of formal punishment is still necessary, but likely far less often than conventional wisdom holds.

The second thing about our current assessments of the effectiveness of police is that they are cost-benefit analyses that measure the wrong costs. (This is a problem that plagues research on incarceration as well.) Perhaps ironically, they measure the benefits correctly: These studies try, as best as possible, to estimate how much people value any reduction in crime that comes from increased policing. But when it comes to costs, these studies don’t try to measure the social costs of policing. In other words, these studies don’t count George Floyd’s death as a cost, or the costs of far less publicized uses of force. They don’t estimate the impact of reduced civic engagement that comes in the wake of police violence, or the emotional and physical toll of the constant fear of police violence that forces Black parents to have “The Talk” with their kids. They don’t account for any of the micro or macro costs of, say, the fact that as many as 79 percent of all young Black men in New York City were stopped by the police at the peak of Stop, Question, and Frisk: the shame, the fear, the emotional and other effects of so racially targeted a policy.

Perhaps this oversight shouldn’t surprise us, since the fiscal costs of policing are generally the costs experienced by those who write these studies. Years ago I called the NYPD after my wallet was stolen from my apartment. They recovered my wallet—that’s the benefit—and since I was treated politely and with respect, the only cost to me really was my taxes that paid for the police. But it is almost surely the case that accounting for the social costs of policing will significantly affect how costs and benefits balance.

There’s a separate problem with using fiscal costs as the cost. The bulk of police budgets go toward wages, benefits, and overtime, which means that police spending is a form of government stimulus spending. Not necessarily an efficient one, but not exactly a cost either. It also means that the only way to really defund police is to cut pay, which itself will carry with it real costs—unemployment and the dislocations that brings—that shouldn’t be ignored normatively or politically. (Failure to think about how much criminal justice spending goes to wages has led to problematic reform suggestions when it comes to prison closures as well.) 

Finally, studies of policing fail to confront the question of the opportunity costs of policing. Even if $1 spent on policing yields $1.63 in less crime—the findings of one well-designed and widely cited study—that doesn’t actually mean we should spend more money on policing. What else could that $1 get us? One study suggests that $1 spent on medical drug treatment cuts crime on average by about $4, and does so without the collateral costs of policing, and with a whole host of other physical, mental, medical, and social benefits. Other studies suggest that certain environmental changes such as improved lighting in neighborhoods could be as popular as hiring more police per dollar spent, and again without the collateral risks of police violence and with additional returns to people in those communities. In other words, showing that a $1 investment in policing has a positive social return does not automatically mean “invest more.” And that outcome can be completely consistent with the idea of “invest less,” especially when there are viable alternatives with higher documented returns, and when cities are already dedicating significant chunks of their budgets to policing.  

None of this is to say that police are irrelevant or consistently impose net social harms; calls for defunding are not inherently calls for abolition. But even those who strongly believe that police play an important and essential role in the criminal legal system need to understand that none of the studies we have clearly establish that police must play a central role in fighting crime, or that the amount we spend on policing is at all optimal. It seems quite likely that the studies we do have establish, at best, an exaggerated upper bound on the returns on policing investment. Given the overlooked social costs, the net return is most likely lower than what these studies suggest. So, the opportunity cost issue is all the more important to confront—especially since many of these studies suggest that much of the police’s “sentinel” efforts could be substantially performed by other actors.

John Pfaff is a professor at Fordham Law School and the author of “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.”

Four Austin Women Reported Their Sexual Assaults. But Police And Prosecutors Failed To Hold The Perpetrators Accountable.

While a debate over defunding the police rages in Austin, a new lawsuit reminds its residents that assault cases in the city are routinely ignored.

Photo illustration by Kt Wawrykow. Photo of Austin police Chief Brian Manley from Getty Images.

Four Austin Women Reported Their Sexual Assaults. But Police And Prosecutors Failed To Hold The Perpetrators Accountable.

While a debate over defunding the police rages in Austin, a new lawsuit reminds its residents that assault cases in the city are routinely ignored.

In 2019, W.D. dated a man in Austin, Texas, who unbeknownst to her, began making plans to gang rape her. W.D. said the man used social media sites to find men willing to participate in the assault. Later, her boyfriend blindfolded her and he, as well as multiple strangers, penetrated without her consent. W.D. said that after confronting her boyfriend about the assault, he raped her again. 

Despite the fact that W.D. provided the Austin Police Department with a trove of evidence—including text messages confirming the rape such as one from her boyfriend that said she “should be scared” because “I raped you”—the Travis County district attorney’s office instructed Austin police to drop the case because W.D. ’s prior consensual sex with her boyfriend “invalidated” the rape claims. (The Appeal is identifying W.D. only by her initials because or the brutal sexual assault she says she endured.)

W.D. is one of four women who filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14 in Travis County Court contending that the Austin Police Department has failed “thousands of women in Travis County” for years.

The class-action gender-discrimination suit against Travis County, the city of Austin,  Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin police Chief Brian Manley, and former Chief Art Acevedo, alleges that “for years female victims of sexual assault in Austin have been disbelieved, dismissed, and denigrated by the APD [Austin Police Department] and DA’s Office.”  The lawsuit blasts the district attorney’s office for “systematically refus[ing] to investigate sex crimes against women based on biased assumptions about their gender.” 

The plaintiffs say police and prosecutors failed to investigate at least one date rape, repeated sexual assaults that required hospitalization, and at least one gang rape that they reported to Austin police while Acevedo, who now runs the Houston Police Department, was in charge. (The lawsuit also alleges that Austin police didn’t investigate an additional date rape under Manley.)

W.D.’s claims in the lawsuit present a portrait of law enforcement failures in sexual assault cases. “Essentially,” the lawsuit says, W.D “presented the APD with a written confession to multiple crimes”—and her rapist, who led a brutal and calculated gang rape, went unpunished.

The lawsuit comes as Austin’s Democrat-dominated City Council is sparring with state conservatives over defunding the local police department. In mid-August, Austin became one of the few major cities in America to substantively defund its police. On Aug. 13, the City Council unanimously voted to cut nearly $150 million from the department’s then $434 million budget and partially reinvest that money in other social services. (Austin Mayor Steve Adler, however, recently said that “in an over $400 million budget, we really voted to cut about $20 million.”) Texas Republicans quickly struck back. “We can’t let Austin’s defunding & disrespect for law enforcement endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle,” Governor Greg Abbott tweeted in September.

The Austin Police Association, the city’s police union, later tweeted that crime victims, including victims of sexual assault, would be “the ones who are harmed most” by the cuts.

But the September lawsuit claims that sexual assault victims in Austin were failed long before this year’s budget cuts. “Women who survive sexual assault in Travis County therefore endure multiple traumas,” the lawsuit says, “first, the criminal assault itself; second, an investigation—assuming one even occurs—that puts the victims under a microscope and subjects them to invasive physical exams with little to no urgency for justice; and finally, the additional trauma of watching their cases and hopes for justice languish and ultimately vanish, due to the inaction and refusal to act by the law enforcement personnel charged with obtaining justice for them.” 

In a 2018 case from the new lawsuit, a woman told police that she was drugged and raped at a conference held at an Austin hotel. Despite the fact that police obtained a video that showed  her entering the hotel with a man who fit the description of her rapist and that “the footage also showed” that she “was unable to stand or walk independently”—police decided to “exceptionally clear” her case “without ever speaking to the victim.” 

The Austin Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. Through a spokesperson, Moore defended her record as Travis County DA and said she believes she will win the case.

“I am confident that this Office has consistently fought for the constitutional rights of all citizens, including sexual assault victims, thoroughly and vigorously,” she said in an email. “I expect this lawsuit to be as unsuccessful in state court as it was in federal court.”

According to the lawsuit, about 1,000 sexual assaults are reported each year in Austin, home to just under 1 million million people and the University of Texas’s flagship campus. Of those complaints, the lawsuit states that just 25 annually are actually completed by law enforcement. The lawsuit also alleges that Austin police and prosecutors treat claims of sexual assault from men with far more seriousness and that rape kits and other key evidence that could be used to solve cases sit dormant once collected by officers.

The lawsuit makes particularly damning claims about Acevedo’s tenure in Austin, which lasted from 2007 to 2016. During that time, according to the lawsuit, the police department “maintained a wall in its sexual assault unit on which numerous pictures of female victims were posted—each one purportedly representing a ‘false report’ that officers had unilaterally determined had no merit.”  Officers, the lawsuit says, “posted pictures of these ‘debunked’ female accusers on the wall as a matter of pride, as trophies of their ‘investigations.’”  In May 2014, body cameras caught two Austin officers joking that, even if assault victims reported their rapes to the police, cops “can’t un-rape you.” And the lawsuit alleges that the department didn’t even take sexual assault allegations of female officers seriously: “Chief Acevedo dismissed allegations of sexual assault between officers as ‘bad sex’ or something the female officer just regretted after the fact, despite evidence demonstrating injury to the female officer.” (Acevedo’s office in Houston did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.)

The suit also accuses several prosecutors of making derogatory statements about female sexual assault victims, including calling some women “unworthy” or “bad victims” if, for example, they had previously consented to sexual contact with people who later raped them. In one case, the lawsuit alleges that prosecutors claimed they could not bring multiple charges against Saffa Bell, a man accused of five separate rapes. Even though they had taken a male victim’s case to trial, prosecutors said they could not prove the female victims’ cases because a jury would not believe the women did not consent to having sex with Bell. While men typically account for just 8 percent of sexual assault claims in the county, the lawsuit notes that half of the cases that Moore’s office takes to trial involve male victims.

“The culture at the DA’s Office supports the belief that a man would not willingly identify himself as a victim of sexual assault unless it were true,” the lawsuit says, “while simultaneously focusing on ‘false reports’ and the possibility of implied consent where female victims are concerned—even when the perpetrator is a stranger.”

This is not the first time Austin police, the Travis County DA, or Acevedo have been accused of failing to properly investigate sexual assault cases. In 2016, the department’s crime lab, which processed DNA evidence including rape kits, was shut down after state auditors found that employees were untrained and that testing procedures were so poor that they imperiled thousands of criminal cases in the county. 

In 2017, Austin reported the highest number of rapes of any major city in Texas; the Travis County DA’s office told KUT, Austin’s NPR affiliate, that it had investigated 600 sexual assault cases that year. Of those cases, KUT reported that only one led to an actual conviction. That same year, the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), a group founded in 1992 to help survivors navigate the criminal legal system, wrote a scathing letter accusing Moore of being complicit in a “system that condones rape and does not hold perpetrators, or itself, accountable.”

And in 2018, a separate group of eight women filed a federal class action suit against the city of Austin on behalf of approximately 6,000 women who reported their assaults in Travis County. But in February, federal Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case in part because he felt any federal ruling would “disrupt” Texas’s “efforts at policy reform on matters of paramount public concern.”  

As part of that case, lawyers for former chief Acevedo, and current chief Manley argued that the women had not demonstrated that the police department’s policies violated “clearly established law” and, “both Manley and Acevedo are entitled to qualified immunity” in regards to the women’s civil rights complaints.  

While that lawsuit is still being appealed, the four women in the September class action suit decided to sue the department in county court. 

“Some of these women, their claims are still within statute of limitations, so it’s an option for the DA to open those cases up and we believe they at the very least they should consider that,” Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney representing the four women, told The Appeal. Ecklund, who also served as an attorney on the federal case, added that “the issue is systemic gender bias. What the plaintiffs want is for survivor voices to be heard—and to train and actually create a culture that is the polar opposite of what exists right now.”

Few, if any, major American police departments take sexual assault cases as seriously as they should, if they take them seriously at all. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, for every 1,000 sexual assaults that occur in America in a given year, just 230 are reported to police. Of those 230 cases, just 46 accused perpetrators are ever arrested. Just 5 complaints actually end in a felony conviction. 

In 2019, The Appeal reported that New York City Police Department appeared to be categorizing many sexual assault claims as “unfounded”—or false—when officers had actually never investigated the cases. One woman, Rachael Stirling, told The Appeal that after she reported being sexually assaulted by the man she’d been dating, Manhattan Special Victims Division Detective Lukasz Skorzewski didn’t arrest him even after he confessed on a controlled phone call to penetrating Stirling without her consent. Skorzewski himself later pleaded guilty to departmental charges after groping and kissing a sexual assault victim. He was suspended for 10 days and docked 30 vacation days.

There are also ongoing Internal Affairs Bureau investigations into misconduct by Special Victims Division officers. The bureau has repeatedly raided various division offices, including one raid that occurred in December.

Sexual assault survivors are calling for the resignation of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who they say has demonstrated little, if any, interest in prosecuting sexual assault cases—especially those involving powerful men. Vance failed to prosecute the film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015  and for years his office avoided charging wealthy pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.  In 2011, Vance’s office argued that Epstein, who died in jail last year,  deserved to have his sex offender status reduced in New York State.

In 2016, Vance’s office struck a plea deal with Robert Hadden, a wealthy, former Columbia University gynecologist accused of sexually abusing 19 women, that let him avoid jail time entirely. In January, an attorney for Hadden’s victims said he may be the “most prolific serial sexual predator in New York history.” That month, Evelyn Yang, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, said she, too, was sexually abused by Hadden. On Sept. 9, Hadden was charged in federal court in Manhattan for enticing and inducing six victims to travel interstate to engage in illegal sexual activity.  Federal prosecutors claim that Hadden sexually abused patients from 1993 to 2012—a civil suit filed against Hadden and Columbia University now has at least 140 plaintiffs. (Vance’s office has repeatedly denied treating wealthy white men like Epstein and Hadden with kid gloves.)

Marissa Hoechstetter, the only named plaintiff in the civil case, has also publicly asked Vance to resign. She told The Appeal that she feels dismayed that it often takes abuse of this magnitude for prosecutors to take claims of sexual assault seriously. Generally speaking, she said, law enforcement officials often fail to do basic legwork when investigating sexual assault cases, such as obtaining personnel records or employee complaints from people accused of assault. She added that prosecutor offices, including Vance’s, tend to keep their decision-making processes private—and that she’d like to see prosecutors open up about why they continually say sexual assault cases are “hard to prosecute.” 

For me, I could not get over this incredible betrayal, which was in some ways worse than what happened to me,” she said of her experience with Vance. “Because I did what was quote unquote ‘right,’ but it was within a system that preferences wealthy white men, especially in New York. I couldn’t let that go.” She said she hopes speaking about her case can “help shine a light into a very closed system that’s easy to hide behind.”

But Manhattan is far from the only jurisdiction where police fail to investigate sexual assault. In 2018, a joint ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal investigation found that multiple U.S. police departments had been using a label called “exceptional clearance” to claim they’d solved far more sexual assault cases than they actually had. To “solve” a case through exceptional clearance, police are supposed to have found probable cause to arrest someone for a sexual assault, but have been prevented from doing so by circumstances out of their control  such as a suspect’s death or a victim’s failure to cooperate. The reporters found that officers were simply applying the “exceptional clearance” label to cases they hadn’t properly investigated.

Jurisdictions with high “exceptional clearance” rates included Baltimore County; Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa); Oakland, California—and Austin.

The new lawsuit filed in Austin last month by the four women came after Jose Garza, a former public defender, defeated incumbent Moore in the DA Democratic primary runoff in July. During the primary season, sexual assault victims, including two who’d been named in the 2018 federal lawsuit against the Austin police and the DA’s office, endorsed Garza, who said during a press conference that Moore had “lost the trust of survivors of sexual assault.” Moore told KXAN, Austin’s NBC affiliate, that the “idea that this office, under my leadership, has mishandled or not handled sexual assault cases is so easily refuted if you look at the actual record.”

But the September lawsuit alleges that Moore’s office and the Austin police failed to improve their record of investigating sexual assault. After the 2018 federal lawsuit, police stopped sending representatives to Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team meetings, despite the fact that the department had done so for decades. In 2017, Moore split from SARRT and created her own organization, the Inter-Agency Sexual Assault Team. Soon after, Austin police stopped sending representatives to SARRT meetings, despite the fact that the department had traditionally done so. Moore claimed the new group would better train police to investigate sexual assault. Advocates for assault victims, however, said Moore simply wanted to retaliate against SARRT for criticizing her record.

Furthermore, the suit alleges that after the 2018 federal complaint was filed, one of Moore’s assistant district attorneys called a family friend of one of the plaintiffs, accused the woman of consenting to sex with her alleged rapist, and further stated that “it’s always the women” who make it hard for prosecutors to prosecute sexual assault cases. 

“We need to create a system that believes survivors when they come forward,” Ecklund, the attorney, told The Appeal. “We can all agree that we understand this is going to be a challenging process once they do report an assault, but there’s just no reason to accuse people of lying when there’s no evidence that’s happening.”

In a Small Illinois City, A Black Man Died After Officers Shoved A Baton In His Mouth. Black Officers Say They’ve Suffered At The Hands Of The Department, Too.

Lawsuits from Joliet Police Department officers are among at least 12 current federal complaints against the agency. The men say their civil rights lawsuits are part of a decades-long history of discrimination.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Joilet Police Department Facebook page.

In a Small Illinois City, A Black Man Died After Officers Shoved A Baton In His Mouth. Black Officers Say They’ve Suffered At The Hands Of The Department, Too.

Lawsuits from Joliet Police Department officers are among at least 12 current federal complaints against the agency. The men say their civil rights lawsuits are part of a decades-long history of discrimination.

When Lionel Allen joined the Joliet Police Department in Illinois in 1989, he knew that it had a reputation for being hostile to Black officers. Around the same time, the department, which patrols a small city about an hour southwest of Chicago, was placed under a citywide affirmative action plan demanding the hiring of more Black officers.

But Allen didn’t expect that the battle to reform the department would take decades—or involve him personally. 

As he rose through the ranks, Allen watched the department endure multiple scandals, including officers accused of using racial slurs and allegedly harassing a Black female officer. In 2018, Allen sued the department in federal court for race discrimination. He retired the following year after three decades on the force.  In his federal complaint, Allen says the Joliet police tried to fire him for complaining about, among other things, white officers pepper spraying Black children and making fun of Black people while on duty. In November 2019, another Black officer, David Jackson, sued the department in federal court, claiming that he was retaliated against for defending Allen in  interviews with local media. 

“In Joliet, white guys can just about commit murder and nothing happens to them,” Allen told The Appeal this month. “But if a Black officer commits a small infraction, they blow it all the way out.”

Now, the department is facing at least 12 separate federal lawsuits, including numerous excessive-force complaints, at least one wrongful-death lawsuit, and four cases filed by current or former officers.  Both Allen’s and Jackson’s suits are ongoing, as is a suit filed by Cassandra Socha, an officer who alleges that fellow officers stole private, explicit photos from her personal cell phone and shared them around the department.

The department is also facing a wrongful-death lawsuit involving Eric Lurry, a 37-year-old Black man who died after Joliet police violently “searched” his body in the back of a squad car during a drug arrest in January. In the months after Lurry’s death, his widow, Nicole Lurry, told the media that the police refused to release any information about the incident. In June, Sgt. Javier Esqueda leaked video of Lurry’s death to a CBS affiliate in Chicago. The footage showed Joliet cops hitting Lurry while he was handcuffed, placing a baton in his mouth, and pinching his nose shut for one minute and 38 seconds. (Joliet Police later said that, because Lurry was possibly overdosing, they placed the baton in his mouth to prevent him from biting down while they searched his mouth for drugs.)

“Hey, wake up, bitch, let’s get it over,” one officer says in the clip while slapping Lurry. “Open your mouth, open your mouth, open your mouth.” In July, Will County State Attorney Jim Glasgow cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing in Lurry’s death and stated that Lurry died of an accidental overdose of heroin, Fentanyl, and cocaine.

After Esqueda, a Latinx officer who’d been on the force for 27 years, admitted to leaking the footage, the department opened an Internal Affairs investigation against him, stripped him of his badge and gun, and placed him on desk duty. In July, Joliet Police Chief Alan Roechner released a lengthy statement condemning what he said was a “false narrative” that the department failed to properly investigate the case or withheld video evidence from the public.

In August, Will County Coroner Patrick O’Neil—who ruled Lurry’s death an “accidental overdose”—announced that he was resigning from his job early “for personal reasons.” He’d held the elected position since 1992.

Even Mayor Bob O’Dekirk has been caught up in the department’s racism scandals. During Black Lives Matter protests this year, O’Dekirk, a former Joliet officer, was filmed grabbing a protester before a scuffle ensued. Days later, a 20-year-old video surfaced online of O’Dekirk physically assaulting two men of color while working for the Joliet police. After former City Council member and pastor Warren Dorris, a Black man, held a press conference at his local church and demanded ODekirk’s resignation, the mayor told the press that “Warren Dorris needs to get over it and move on.”

In a voicemail message left with The Appeal, O’Dekirk said that he was not allowed to comment on Allen or Jackson’s cases but supports efforts to diversify the Joliet Police. (In June, before the decades-old video of O’Dekirk’s assault surfaced online, the city’s Black Police Officer Association said it supported O’Dekirk fully.) But O’Dekirk also referred to the recent Black Lives Matter protest in which he was filmed grabbing protesters as “a riot” that needed to be shut down by police.

The Joliet Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. But Allen says the department’s response to the Lurry case perfectly exemplifies the two-tiered disciplinary system that he says he worked under for decades.

“The white guy can almost commit murder,” Allen reiterated. “But the Black guy knows he’s going to get smashed the hardest.”

That American police departments are historically racist institutions—in the South, policing emerged from slave patrols—is most likely not a surprise to anyone who has been following the anti-police-brutality uprisings that have occurred over the last decade. But throughout the history of American policing, Black officers, too, have faced racist attacks from white colleagues. Stories of racism within police departments have helped to illuminate just how transparently many departments functioned as white-only gangs. In the early 1900s, Samuel Battle, the first Black officer to work for the then mostly-Irish New York Police Department, tried to join the force in an effort to improve relations between cops and Black New Yorkers. He was repeatedly denied entry based on dubious medical-screening “failures.” Sometime after finally becoming an officer in 1911, Battle was left an anonymous note with a tear the size of a bullet hole in it that stated, “N****r, if you don’t quit, this is what will happen to you.”

More than 100 years later, Black officers share similar stories. San Francisco Police Sgt. Yulanda Williams reportedly said she became a cop in 1990 in an effort to improve relations between the police and non-white communities. But in May 2019, Williams sued the San Francisco Police Department after she said she was retaliated against for testifying publicly about racism in the department. In 2015, text messages revealed during a federal court case showed San Francisco officers using a slew of racist, homophobic, and misogynist language, including one officer who referred to Williams as a “n****r bitch.” 

Black officers say the Joliet Police Department, too, has long been a club that the city’s white male residents have used to exert control over the city. Indeed, many of white officers in Joliet belong  to the Moran Athletic Club, a drinking and social club founded in 1931 that Allen says has not historically been a place where Black Joliet residents have been welcome.

The club’s longtime president, Richard Goepper, was a Joliet police officer for 27 years before becoming the city’s deputy liquor commissioner. Goepper, 72, unexpectedly collapsed and died at the club in August. (Representatives for the club did not immediately respond to messages from The Appeal.)

“Part of the problem with the department and the disparity in how discipline is handled is that most of the Black guys from the department are from Chicago, but we’re not even 10 percent of the force,” Allen told The Appeal. “But the white officers, most of them grew up in Joliet. Joliet has a small-town mentality, and they all know somebody who knows somebody, and they tend to do stuff Black officers don’t do, like hunting, fishing, golf, staying out drinking at the Moran Club. Black officers don’t do that.”

Over the years, Allen said he watched as other Black and Latinx officers ran up against the boys’ club that controls the police department. In 1994, then-Joliet Officer Cynthia Williams, a Black female officer was arrested by her own co-workers while off duty after she said she tried to stop her nephew from interfering with a white officer who had placed her brother in a chokehold. (She later sued the department for civil rights violations, but her case was dismissed.) The following year, a Black officer, Benjamin Billups, sued the city after he said he was passed up for a promotion that he’d been entitled to under the city’s affirmative action rules.  (A state appellate court ultimately ruled in Billups’ favor in 1999.) In 1997, a Mexican-American former officer named Renaldo Hernandez sued the department, alleging that he had heard a fellow officer, Tom Stein, use racial epithets directed toward Black people and refer to people as “spics.” After Hernandez discussed the incident with a Black officer in the local courthouse, another officer went to Stein to inform him of the conversation. Hernandez says Stein then attempted to file criminal charges against him. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Hernandez in November 1999

According to Allen’s lawsuit, in 2015, Joliet’s white officers were given the opportunity to bid on which sector of the city they wanted to work in. Allen also claimed that a white officer named Michael Cochran took over the sector he’d been working for the last nine years. He then complained to another officer that he thought the move was racist, especially since he’d seen Cochran use mace on “10-11 year old Black children and then [mock] them when they cried,” called a fellow Black officer “big, black, and handsome,” and joked that he would arrest Black men who had “stolen fried chicken.” Allen says Lt. Marc Reid then initiated an internal investigation against Allen for “conduct unbecoming of a department member,” “frivolous complaints,” and “false statements,” even though Allen says he never filed any formal written complaints against anyone.

Allen then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—and says former Chief Brian Benton said that he would be fired unless he withdrew the complaint.

“This was unprecedented in Joliet Police Department history,” Allen’s attorney, Aaron Rapier, told The Appeal. “After Lionel files his EEOC complaint, the department says to him, you have to accept a 30-day suspension without pay and withdraw your EEOC complaint, or you’ll be terminated.”

According to his lawsuit, Allen attempted to withdraw the complaint, but the EEOC refused and instead found that the department had retaliated against him. In 2018, Allen sued the department, Reid, and Benton. In a July 2018 court filing, a lawyer representing the city denied “any unlawful actions” by Benton, Reid, or the police department.

That same year, a fellow Black officer, David Jackson, became president of Joliet’s Black Police Officer Association (BPOA). Jackson began speaking out to other officers and the media on the BPOA’s behalf. Last year, Jackson, who alleges in his lawsuit that Reid also targeted him for being Black, told the city’s Times Weekly newspaper that he was concerned about Allen’s firing. Jackson says in response he was issued a one-day suspension for making public statements without proper authorization. In court filings, Jackson stated that current Chief Roechner “berated Jackson as if disciplining a child for questioning him on Allen” and vowed to get even with Jackson for fighting back against him. 

In March 2019, Jackson was charged with domestic battery after allegedly hitting his then-girlfriend repeatedly while in the neighboring city of Crest Hill. Jackson alleged in his lawsuit that Roechner sent Joliet officers to the Crest Hill Police department to oversee the case. He further claimed that Joliet officers conducted aspects of Crest Hill’s investigation—and that police said a surveillance video of the evening in question had been deleted before being entered into evidence. (In 2019, Patch reported that the same woman had filed for a protection order against Jackson in 2009.) The charges against Jackson in the 2019 case were later dismissed after the alleged victim withdrew her complaint.

Last year, Jackson asked the department to fund his trip to the National Black Police Association convention, but Jackson says Roechner said the city no longer had the funds. Jackson then sued Roechner and the city in November. In an amended complaint, Jackson said he was retaliated against for filing the lawsuit and that the department now says he is not an employee “in good standing.”

“The Joliet Police Department’s anti-black culture and history of retaliation dates back over twenty years,” Jackson’s suit alleges. “Minority Joliet police officers have long sought redress from state and federal courts, complaining of Joliet administrative level police officers’ resistance to affirmative action, use of ethnic slurs, abuses of  power, discriminatory  promotional practices, frivolous internal  affairs charges and other acts that have humiliated and embarrassed them and held them back in their careers.” (In February, the city argued the suit should be dismissed and that multiple officers involved are entitled to qualified immunity.)

Marc Reid, the supervisor that both Allen and Jackson accused of targeting them based on their race was promoted to deputy chief in 2018.

How Legislation Meant to Overhaul Probation And Parole In Pennsylvania Strayed From Its Roots

Through a series of maneuvers, state legislators narrowed the ambitious scope of Senate Bill 14.

On Aug. 6, 2019, rapper Meek Mill leaves a Philadelphia courthouse after appearing at a hearing in his case.
Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

How Legislation Meant to Overhaul Probation And Parole In Pennsylvania Strayed From Its Roots

Through a series of maneuvers, state legislators narrowed the ambitious scope of Senate Bill 14.

Pennsylvania is home to one of the most restrictive probation and parole systems in the U.S. Probation sentences can be “stacked”: A person convicted of two misdemeanors, for example, can be sentenced to a five-year probation term for each and spend a total of 10 years under supervision. The state’s punitive probation and parole system explains why it has the third-highest proportion of residents under community supervision in the country.  

Rapper and formerly incarcerated activist Meek Mill’s experience with probation in Pennsylvania has drawn substantial media attention.  In 2008, Meek Mill, whose given name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison on drugs and weapons charges followed by an eight-year probation “tail.” Subsequent encounters with correctional control—which included a failed drug test, alleged noncompliance with a court order limiting his travel, and even an arrest in New York City for popping a wheelie in front of a group of fans—repeatedly extended his probation term. 

But Meek Mill’s experience with Pennsylvania’s probation and parole system is not atypical. Statewide, half of felony sentences with these “tails” have probation sentences that last longer than three years. Pennsylvania is an outlier when it comes to such sentences: 33 U.S. states prohibit probation sentences that are more than five years long for most offenses.

In January 2019, state Senator Anthony Williams introduced Senate Bill 14, a probation reform bill that proposed capping probation terms at three years for misdemeanors and five years for felonies, eliminating probation “tails,” and automatically removing people from probation after 18 months if they haven’t committed any violations. The original bill was supported by groups including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the REFORM Alliance, Americans for Prosperity Pennsylvania, and FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). 

But a series of amendments removed all of these provisions from the bill. “This bill would not have helped Meek Mill,” ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legislative director, Elizabeth Randol, told The Appeal in a phone call. “There’s nothing in this bill that removes or decreases the amount of time that somebody spends on probation.” Nevertheless, Meek Mill and the REFORM Alliance (co-chaired by the rapper) continue to support the amended version of SB 14. 

The transformation of SB 14 from ambitious reform legislation to its current narrow focus was a long, convoluted process. In May 2019, a separate probation reform bill, House Bill 1555, was filed to the judiciary committee by state Representatives Sheryl DeLozier and Jordan Harris. At the time, the REFORM Alliance claimed credit for HB 1555 in a press release that touted Meek Mill’s support. As originally filed, HB 1555 wasn’t as robust as SB 14, but its provisions included automatic early termination of probation review at two years and caps on long probation sentences. 

The original version of HB 1555 never reached Governor Tom Wolf’s desk. In December, the bill was amended by House Judiciary Committee chairperson Rob Kauffman. In addition to eliminating provisions related to automatic early termination and caps on longer probation terms, the bill added a provision allowing warrantless searches of people on probation for crimes involving weapons, drug trafficking, and sex offenses. DeLozier said the provision was added to appease probation officers, but the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania explicitly opposed the provision. The amended version of HB 1555 ultimately never reached the floor for a final vote, and the provision relating to warrantless searches died with the bill. 

The original version of SB 14 was introduced in January 2019, and sat in committee untouched for a year and a half. On June 24, the original text of SB 14 was replaced by a bill that effectively used the amended version of HB 1555 as a template. Criminal legal reform advocates say that one of its most problematic provisions is a distortion of HB 1555’s “good time credits” framework. In the first version of HB 1555, probationers could reduce their sentences by completing GED courses or vocational training. In the current version of SB 14, completing an educational or vocational program only leads to early eligibility for an “initial probation review conference” at two and a half years for misdemeanor probation terms and four and a half years for felony probation terms.

The amended version passed the Senate on July 15, and the bill needs to be passed by the House before it reaches the governor’s desk.  

Advocates and probation officers told The Appeal that these provisions would complicate efforts to shorten probation sentences at the county level. “[Existing] law says that the court can terminate probation or decrease conditions without a hearing,” said Helene Placey, executive director of the probation and parole officers association. “We think that presumptive early termination is the way to go.” There’s no need to go in front of a judge and have a hearing.” Placey also cited research demonstrating that probation terms longer than one or two years have little positive effect on public safety.  

Placey pointed to an early termination program already underway in York County, which has facilitated early termination for about 400 probationers each year since the effort began in November 2017. In a phone call with The Appeal, the county’s director of probation services, April Billet-Barclay, said the process happens “entirely on paper”: a probation officer sends a request for early termination to the district attorney’s office, who then signs off on the request and sends it to a judge. Billet-Barclay emphasized that mandating judicial hearings as part of the termination process would be burdensome. “It’s really not necessary … if the probationer comes in, you’re throwing more court costs and fines on them, because every time they come before the judge, they get more costs.” Significantly, inability to pay probation fees and other court costs already prevents many probationers from obtaining access to this early termination program. 

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has pointed to other problems with the amended text of SB 14. In a July 15 statement, executive director Reggie Shuford noted that the bill requires probationers to pay their restitution in full before their probation term can be terminated, and it facilitates incarceration for technical violations. “The Legislature can no longer get away with gaslighting Pennsylvanians about their attempts at reform,” Shuford’s statement reads. “The reality is that this bill makes probation worse.”

Pittsburgh Prosecutors Relied On Man Who Allegedly Killed Baby As Witness In Bungled Case

Documents obtained by The Appeal raise questions about a Pittsburgh-area mass shooting case that fell apart due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Allegheny County DA Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo of District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. from AP Photo/Keith Srakocic.

Pittsburgh Prosecutors Relied On Man Who Allegedly Killed Baby As Witness In Bungled Case

Documents obtained by The Appeal raise questions about a Pittsburgh-area mass shooting case that fell apart due to prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2017, Gregory Parker admitted to Pittsburgh-area law-enforcement agents that he was involved in the 2013 murder of Marcus White, Jr., a 15-month-old baby. But Parker, now age 22, was not arrested—he was the Allegheny County district attorney’s star witness in a 2016 mass shooting in Wilkinsburg, a suburb about nine miles from Pittsburgh. Five people were killed in the incident, including a pregnant woman. Prosecutors relied on Parker’s testimony as a jailhouse informant in their case against two men—Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas—accused of murder in the mass shooting. Prosecutors had been seeking to put both men to death.

But the prosecutors’ gamble backfired spectacularly: neither Shelton nor Thomas were convicted. In February, Shelton was acquitted in after his attorneys said prosecutors waited until the night before the trial to divulge evidence that they’d struck a deal with Parker in exchange for his testimony, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland. So, the 2016 mass shooting remains unsolved. And, after prosecutors finally charged Parker with killing White this year, his family filed a federal lawsuit against the Allegheny County DA’s office alleging it knew of Parker’s culpability in the murder for years and chose not to arrest him.

Now, The Appeal has obtained even more evidence that defense attorneys say DA Stephen Zappala’s office hid from them—including a document alleging that law enforcement agents recorded an interview with Parker in 2018 that was not entered into evidence during Shelton’s trial until Shelton’s defense team complained.

“In 2018, the Allegheny County DA’s office made the decision to release Gregory Parker, a confessed baby killer, in order to salvage their death penalty case against Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas,” Paul Jubas, an attorney representing both Shelton and White’s family, told The Appeal. As part of the family’s complaint, they’ve demanded that Zappala’s office be taken off the Parker case.

“They decided to use Gregory Parker in the Wilkinsburg massacre trial, to release him after he confessed to killing baby Marcus, and to not charge him for killing baby Marcus, despite the fact that they knew that he gave false information about the Wilkinsburg massacre,” Jubas added. During the case, testimony from two other key jailhouse informants—Kendall Mikel and Frederick Collins—also fell apart under basic scrutiny, and prosecutors ultimately declined to call either Mikel or Collins to testify during the trial.

Representatives for the Allegheny County DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal. But in June, a spokesperson for the DA’s office told the media that the White family’s complaints were “wrong on the facts,” “wrong on the law,” and “frivolous.”

This series of bungled cases highlights law enforcement’s long-troubled use of jailhouse informants who agree to testify in separate legal cases in exchange for benefits such as reduced sentences.

Criminal legal reform advocates and law professors have long warned that jailhouse informants are incentivized to fabricate evidence. Jailhouse informants, wrote Harvard Law professor Alexandra Natapoff in a 2018 explainer for The Appeal, “are a particularly risky and unreliable category of criminal informant.” In 2015, the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School, found that 23 percent of all death penalty exonerations involved false jailhouse informant statements.  Furthermore, ProPublica reported last year that more than 140 people convicted of murder between 1966 and 2019 were exonerated because of false jailhouse informant testimony. Jailhouse informant rings have been uncovered in cities including Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago.

The Wilkinsburg mass shooting isn’t even the first mass shooting case tainted by an informant scandal in the last decade. In 2011, a gunman in Orange County, California, shot eight people, including his ex-wife, to death in a local salon. While the shooter, Scott Dekraai, ultimately pleaded guilty, his public defender, Scott Sanders, revealed that Orange County law-enforcement officials  had been secretly running an unconstitutional jailhouse informant program for years. Sanders accused Orange County prosecutors of planting an informant inside a local jail near Dekraai in order to elicit testimony from him. Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the U.S. Department of Justice then launched probes into police informant usage, though no one was ultimately disciplined.

In the Wilkinsburg mass shooting case, prosecutors relied on three jailhouse informants against Cheron Shelton, and all three fell apart in their own unique ways.

Without testimony from these jailhouse sources, the Allegheny County DA’s office appeared to have a weak case. At around 10:45 p.m. p.m. on March 9, 2016, two people allegedly surrounded a backyard cookout in Wilkinsburg and opened fire. One shooter used a .40-caliber handgun and another used an assault-style rifle. The shooter with the handgun fired a blast meant to scare the people in the yard—and whoever used the assault rifle then shot people as they all tried to run inside the home.

But the evidence linking Shelton to the murder was circumstantial at best. The sole witness tying Shelton to the crime was Wilkinsburg Police Detective Michael Adams, who said he saw Shelton acting “weird” a few blocks from the shooting. Adams tried to speak to Shelton, but Shelton simply stared and didn’t answer any of his questions. (During the trial, prosecutors also didn’t disclose evidence proving that Adams had actually run Shelton’s license plate that day until after the trial began.)

To bolster their case, prosecutors relied on the three jailhouse witnesses, including two who initially claimed to have overheard Shelton and Thomas confess to the mass killing. The first witness, Kendall Mikell, told the media earlier this year that he’d previously been barred from working as an informant and had been paid under the table by police and the DA’s office. In February, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the DA’s office had paid Mikell $1,756 from its “witness relocation fund” in 2016. Defense attorneys later stated in court filings that payments from the DA’s office to Mikell were not disclosed and that he was “purposefully” placed in a cell next to Shelton’s.

Prosecutors decided not to rely on the second witness, Frederick Collins, because of his history of outbursts during court proceedings. In 2015, Collins began screaming during a hearing related to a domestic dispute and threatened to kill a woman involved in the incident. Collins was charged, and then, during a hearing related to those charges, he threatened to murder the judge overseeing his case.

That left the third witness, Parker. In February 2017, Parker was indicted. Parker then began cooperating with Allegheny County law enforcement—and on Nov. 30 of that year, he agreed to a sit-down, recorded interview with prosecutors. During that interview, Neal Carmen, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was recorded saying that the government was “going to uphold our end, and we are going to do the best we can. There are guarantees in there that have already been talked about and are hoping to more than what is guaranteed, depending on what is needed.”  Carmen also stated that he hoped to get Parker “back on the street” so he could become a productive member of society.

A Pittsburgh Police detective then yelled: “Hey Neal, it is still recording you know.”

(In a deposition that occurred during Shelton’s and Thomas’s case, Carmen stated that he’d only “guaranteed” that he would inform a judge that Parker had been cooperating with law enforcement, but admitted that Allegheny County Police had offered to help relocate Parker and one of his family members.)

In a Jan. 30 legal filing, Shelton and Thomas’s defense attorneys said that prosecutors failed to turn over any records showing that Parker had struck any type of cooperation deal with the government until the eve of the trial. 

“Exculpatory evidence was withheld in clear violation of Brady under the guise that it was protected grand jury material from other cases when, in fact, it was not grand jury material,” Shelton’s lawyers wrote.

But that’s not the only evidence that appears to have gone undisclosed. According to ATF and Allegheny County Police investigative documents obtained by The Appeal, law enforcement officials interviewed Parker again on Feb. 15, 2018. An Allegheny County Police report shows that Parker said he “had information regarding the Wilkinsburg homicide where 6 people were killed.” A county detective, Todd Dolfi, wrote that Parker said he spoke to a man inside the jail nicknamed “Millhouze,” who explained that someone at the cookout had killed a friend of theirs, and that the two shooters opened fire in revenge. The police report stated that Allegheny Police recorded Parker’s interview, but Shelton’s lawyers told The Appeal the DA’s office also withheld the audio until the last minute.

Eventually, Allegheny County prosecutors stopped relying on Parker’s testimony. In February, a local judge dropped the case against Thomas, granting a motion stating that prosecutors had insufficient evidence to bring it to trial. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski added that relying on jailhouse informants was “treacherous waters; we know that from experience.”

Later that month, a jury acquitted Shelton of every count against him—including five counts of murder, homicide of an unborn child, three counts of aggravated assault, three counts of attempted murder, one count of conspiracy, and six counts of reckless endangerment.

But Shelton wasn’t free for long: On February 25, a federal grand jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania indicted Shelton on charges of felony possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon. Shelton has a prior felony drug conviction, and investigators say that during the mass shooting investigation, they found a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition in his mother’s home. Importantly, however, prosecutors do not believe that gun was used in the 2016 cookout massacre. 

Shelton is still being held in jail pretrial.

Missouri Attorney General’s Office Pushes To Keep Innocent People In Prison

Its decades-long commitment to upholding convictions—even those marred by police or prosecutorial misconduct—has left Missourians languishing in prison for years.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from the Attorney General Eric Schmitt Facebook page.

Missouri Attorney General’s Office Pushes To Keep Innocent People In Prison

Its decades-long commitment to upholding convictions—even those marred by police or prosecutorial misconduct—has left Missourians languishing in prison for years.

This story was produced in partnership with Injustice Watch.

Joseph Amrine spent nearly a third of his life in prison condemned to die before the state’s case against him began to evaporate. Amrine was convicted in the murder of a fellow prisoner in a recreation room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in 1985, and by 1998, several key witnesses recanted their statements. 

In 2001, prosecutors under then Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon pushed for an execution date anyway, arguing two years later before the state’s Supreme Court that Amrine had already tried and failed proving his innocence through lower courts. 

In one exchange, Justice Laura Denvir Stith asked Assistant Attorney General Frank Jung, “Are you suggesting … even if we find that Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?” 

“That is correct, your honor,” Jung said.

The court disagreed, and Amrine was exonerated. But the Missouri attorney general’s office has fought to maintain convictions in potential innocence cases.

The attorney general’s office has opposed calls for relief in nearly every wrongful conviction case that came before it and has been vacated since 2000, according to an Injustice Watch and The Appeal review of court records and a national database of exonerations. That includes 27 cases in which the office fought to uphold convictions for prisoners who were eventually exonerated. In roughly half of those cases, the office continued arguing that the original guilty verdict should stand even after a judge vacated the conviction. (The office, however, played no role in at least 13 exonerations during that time period.) 

This year alone, the convictions of three men were vacated after lengthy legal battles with Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office.

As the primary agency tasked with handling post-conviction issues, the office wields outsize influence over most wrongful conviction cases in the state. (State law allows local courts to handle cases where belated DNA testing could change a verdict, so a smaller portion of exonerations in Missouri are handled without the attorney general.) 

The office’s decades-long pattern of stymieing exonerations has left the wrongfully convicted languishing in prison for years. And its stance on exonerations has persisted as elected attorneys general have come and gone, regardless of political affiliation.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to discuss its handling of wrongful conviction cases. 

But former Justice Michael Wolff, who sat on the state Supreme Court during Amrine’s petition for habeas corpus, told Injustice Watch and The Appeal that the office operates as though its job is to keep convictions intact, “even if you might have convicted an innocent person.”

“You have to pretend that the criminal justice system is without error, and you can’t pretend that,” Wolff said. 

The office is currently fighting efforts that would allow the release of Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murder in 1995. Last year, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s review of the case uncovered evidence that prosecutors withheld information about payments made to the sole eyewitness who has since recanted his testimony. Police fabrications by the lead detective about a motive for the killing, false testimony by the same detective, and a failure to disclose information about a jailhouse informant led to Johnson’s wrongful conviction, Gardner found. And even though Johnson has the support of Gardner, Schmitt argued that local prosecutors lack the authority to vacate convictions. The chief of the attorney general’s criminal division said that giving local prosecutors the power “has the potential to undermine public confidence” in the criminal legal system.

Johnson’s legal team detailed the attorney general’s blanket opposition to claims by the wrongfully convicted in a court filing earlier this year. One of the lawyers, Lindsay Runnels, also clashed with the office when she represented Lawrence Callanan, who was exonerated in June

Runnels said the attorney general fought for years to uphold Callanan’s conviction despite a local prosecutor’s admission that he instructed an eyewitness not to disclose exculpatory evidence in the case, in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland.

She said the attorney general’s office behaves as if “they’ve never seen an innocence case.”

“They think the system bats 1,000,” Runnels said.

Several lawyers interviewed by Injustice Watch and The Appeal noted that the office’s handling of exoneration cases has remained static under the leadership of both Democrats (Jay Nixon and Chris Koster) and Republicans (Josh Hawley and Schmitt).  

Sean O’Brien, who represented Amrine, linked the office’s seemingly reflexive opposition to innocence claims with Missouri’s devotion to the death penalty, favoring finality in court decisions. But that approach “blinds you to innocence,” O’Brien said.

Later this year, Schmitt will face Democratic nominee Rich Finneran in an election for the attorney general seat. In an interview with Injustice Watch and The Appeal, Finneran criticized Schmitt’s handling of wrongful conviction cases and said he’d do things differently if he is elected. 

“It certainly seems as though Eric Schmitt at least has a reflexive instinct to defend every conviction, regardless of whether or not it was properly obtained,” said Finneran, who also blasted Schmitt’s reliance on procedural arguments and technicalities in Johnson’s case as unethical. 

Tricia Bushnell, the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project who has worked on wrongful conviction cases in Missouri, Kansas, and other states, said the attorney general’s “obstructionist” stance is disingenuous. 

In the case of Johnson, whom Bushnell also represents, the attorney general argues that Johnson has to request relief through a different avenue where the attorney general instead of the local circuit attorney would represent the state. 

“Except how will justice be found there when they denied justice to everyone who’s ever filed there?” Bushnell said.

In Ricky Kidd’s case, the attorney general clashed with lawyers from the Midwest Innocence Project for seven years over the process of petitioning a court to review and overturn his conviction. By the time his lawyers got the process going, a co-defendant admitted that Kidd was not involved in the 1996 double murder that landed both men in prison on life sentences. 

“Every time I lost, it was devastating … like a boxer taking a gut punch,” Kidd told Injustice Watch and The Appeal. “The Missouri attorney general’s office is not arguing that we’re not innocent, they’re arguing technicalities.”

Kidd was exonerated last year. But he said the ordeal took an emotional toll on him and his loved ones, especially his children, who are still struggling to make sense of what happened to their family.

“They’re so angry underneath that they don’t know where to place that anger,” Kidd said. “The state is not an individual. My daughters don’t know how to process what has really happened to them.” 

Joshua Kezer was exonerated in 2009, 15 years after he was wrongly convicted for the murder of Angela Lawless. Kezer’s attorneys said that an alternate suspect—who did not resemble Kezer—was identified in the case but that this information was not disclosed to them. 

“They have never said we’re sorry, they have never said we’re wrong,” Kezer said of the attorney general’s office. “And that is unacceptable.” 

More recently, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the attorney general’s office railed against the release of Donald “Doc” Nash. The 78-year-old Missouri man was accused of murdering his girlfriend in 1982 and convicted based in part on dubious expert testimony that has since been discredited—and may have also been fabricated. 

Nash, who his attorney said suffers from heart problems, remained behind bars as COVID-19 spread through the facility where he was held. The state Supreme Court vacated the charges against him in July. 

But even when the wrongfully convicted secure their release, their fight isn’t necessarily over. They must live with the fear that they could be tried again. In December, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist warned two newly released exonerees who had avoided a clash with the state prosecutor, “The attorney general is coming for you.”

Brad Jennings was released from prison two years ago and exonerated in the death of his wife. Still, Jennings feared that the attorney general would keep trying to lock him up. He was right. 

Prosecutors from the attorney general’s office appealed a judge’s decision to vacate his charges, arguing that it was Jennings’s responsibility to locate forensic testing evidence that the police had not disclosed at trial that would support his innocence claim. In April 2018, a panel of Missouri Court of Appeals judges wrote in a decision that they found the state’s argument to be particularly repugnant.   

“Everybody needs to know that the truth doesn’t matter to the attorney general’s office,” Jennings said. “It’s just whether or not they can get somebody convicted.” 

Now that more than 40 prosecutors’ offices across the country have created units to review the integrity of past convictions, law enforcement’s reticence to address wrongful convictions is no longer the norm, said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. 

Krinksy, whose group includes local elected prosecutors from across the country, told Injustice Watch and The Appeal that the Missouri attorney general’s office seems “wedded to an old way of doing business, that autopilot of defending convictions at all costs.” 

That mentality can cause real harm in the public’s faith and belief in the criminal justice system, Krinsky said, especially when cases like Johnson’s draw the attention of the nation. 

“When we have individuals who spent decades behind bars because someone is claiming someone is time-barred, that’s an embarrassment and that’s a stain on the entire justice system,” Krinsky said. “This is the kind of thing where the ripple effect of allowing these sorts of practices to remain in place extend beyond a single jurisdiction.”

Bob Ramsey, who has represented Missouri exonerees Mark Woodworth, Cornell McKay, and Jennings, said he’s seen the attorney general’s office use what he called “dirty tactics” since the early 1990s. 

“I’ve seen them stoop to unbelievable depths to preserve a conviction, and to obtain a conviction,” Ramsey said. 

Ramsey said that in Woodworth’s case, the attorney general’s office discovered a plethora of evidence that should have been disclosed by the state prosecutors to the defense before trial, then dragged the case out for years. The withheld evidence included three letters: one from the judge to an assistant attorney general who tried the case acknowledging the pair had discussed the case on several occasions; a second letter letter from the victim to the judge that prompted the calling of a grand jury in the case; and a third letter from the local prosecutor to the judge indicating that the surviving victim was “adamant” that they charge another suspect, as well as  information that the other suspect had violated an order of protection against the victim’s daughter.

Platte County Circuit Court Judge Owens Lee Hull Jr. eventually removed the attorney general’s office from the case and appointed a special prosecutor; Woodworth was convicted for murder twice, and both convictions were later thrown out on appeal. Ramsey said he’s unaware of any professional consequences that the office or its attorneys have faced as a result of its misconduct in the Woodworth case. 

The assistant attorney general who tried Woodworth at his first trial, Kenny Hulshof, went on to become a U.S. representative for Missouri’s Ninth Congressional District. He held his seat for 12 years. Hulshof was also one of the prosecutors who tried Kezer. 

In 2008, Hulshof ran for governor but lost to Nixon. 

Kidd said society—not just the wrongfully convicted—pays a steep price for innocence cases. Both victims and communities are deprived of safety, while taxpayers pay for years of imprisonment and legal battles surrounding tainted convictions. 

“I think that’s enough for anybody to say, ‘Wait a minute we gotta do better, we have to respond in a way that’s more thoughtful for the people who put us in office,’” Kidd said. 

Jonah Newman and Annabelle Rice contributed reporting.

Texas Family Wants Justice For Deadly No-Knock Drug Raid

In February 2019, police officers in Killeen shot James Scott Reed in his home. One officer entered a guilty plea to evidence tampering, but Reed’s family is still suing the city and several officers in federal court.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Texas Family Wants Justice For Deadly No-Knock Drug Raid

In February 2019, police officers in Killeen shot James Scott Reed in his home. One officer entered a guilty plea to evidence tampering, but Reed’s family is still suing the city and several officers in federal court.

At around 6 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2019, the front door to James Scott Reed’s Killeen, Texas, apartment was nearly blown open. 

Reed, then 41, had been expecting trouble. Weeks earlier, someone drove by his one-story duplex on West Hallmark Avenue and opened fire on his bedroom window. Reed’s home sat on a long street lined with humble, one-story houses with wide porches and empty asphalt lots that manage to look the same gray-brown color as the flat patches of grass growing along the road. After someone fired at his house, Reed bought a silver .380 Cobra handgun to defend himself.

The sun hadn’t yet risen when there was a bang at Reed’s door. Seconds later, his bedroom window was shattered. But this wasn’t another drive-by shooting. A flashbang device was then thrown into the broken window, followed by about a dozen Killeen Police Department SWAT agents descending on the tiny home. They’d obtained a warrant to conduct a “no-knock” narcotics raid on his house. 

Reed likely didn’t know the men were officers when the flashbang flew into his bedroom. And it’s possible he still didn’t know they were law enforcement when they fired at least 23 bullets at him—including one that pierced his torso just under his right armpit. The bullet tore through both his lungs, severed his aorta, and later  killed him. 

In a series of varying—and in some cases contradictory—statements, some of the officers claimed Reed stuck his gun out of his bedroom window and fired a series of shots at them. But a woman staying with Reed at the time, Eva Marie Brocks, repeatedly told local media and investigators that she never saw Reed fire or point his gun at anyone. Instead, she says Reed was reaching for his dresser when he was shot to death by the police. In interviews with law enforcement officials, Brocks stated that the officers only announced they were law enforcement after the gunfire ended. Ballistics evidence also shows that Reed’s handgun was jammed and had a full magazine inside when police recovered it. According to a family lawsuit filed in May, no fired .380 cartridges were recovered from the scene.

Somebody said ‘shots fired,’ and he didn’t even fire shots,” Brocks told KWTX, a Waco TV station, in 2019. “And that’s when all of them went to shooting.”

Despite the similarities of Reed’s case to the March 13 no-knock raid that killed Breonna Taylor—where plainclothes Louisville, Kentucky, police officers burst into her home, did not announce who they were, and killed her in her bed—Reed’s case has received little attention outside of Texas. One of the three officers who fired their guns that morning, Anthony Custance, initially denied shooting at Reed at all before admitting to Texas Rangers investigators that his story was false. Custance, who resigned from the department shortly after the shooting, was later indicted for tampering with the case’s evidence by hiding the rifle magazine he used during the shooting and reloading his gun to make it appear like it had never fired. In September 2019, Custance entered a guilty plea in the case and was sentenced to six years’ probation. He was also stripped of his law enforcement license.

On May 27, two days after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, Reed’s mother filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers involved in the raid. In legal filings, Reed’s family alleges that four officers involved—Richard Hatfield, Fred Baskett, Christian Suess, and Custance—conspired to cover up a botched raid. The family, which has participated in marches in Killeen during the recent Black Lives Matter uprisings, believes Custance isn’t the only officer who should be  punished for Reed’s death.

“This horrible tragedy was 100% preventable: The [Texas] Rangers investigation proves that all four Defendant officers lied about the shooting in an effort to cover up their failures to act in an objectively reasonable manner,” the suit alleges. “Officers Custance, Hatfield and Baskett unlawfully shot and killed Reed without any warning, although they were not in imminent danger and when less deadly alternatives were available.”

Killeen Police Department representatives for the three still-employed officers named in the lawsuit did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. But in mid-July the officers and the city moved to dismiss the suit in federal court, arguing in part that they were justified in shooting Reed dead because he allegedly fired at them. On Aug. 14, attorneys for the city and the defendants again urged the court to dismiss the lawsuit. 

All four officers, including Custance, said in court filings they believe they’re entitled to qualified immunity—the much-criticized legal doctrine by which American public officials cannot be held liable for misconduct unless they violate “clearly established” law.

The no-knock raids that killed Breonna Taylor and James Scott Reed occur routinely in America. Since the Los Angeles Police Department created the first SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team in the 1960s, the units have largely been used to serve drug warrants and conduct narcotics raids. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union found that, in 79 percent of cases, SWAT teams are deployed to serve warrants, and in 62 percent of total cases, SWAT officers are responding to some sort of drug case. In 2015, Vox reported that American cops conduct 20,000 no-knock raids per year, despite the fact that they are, by nature, dangerous and can turn deadly in a moment’s notice. 

Nearly 15 years before Taylor was killed, Atlanta police killed Kathryn Johnston, 92, during a no-knock raid. The raid was spurred by a man who was looking to get out of trouble after police planted drugs on him—he falsely said that there would be drugs at Johnston’s residence, and officers lied on an affidavit to secure a search warrant on Johnston’s home. No-knock raids—even when they result in fatalities—persist in part because courts allow them to. On Aug. 26, an appeals court in New York reversed a gun possession conviction stemming from a September 2014 no-knock raid based on information an NYPD detective received from a confidential informant. When the appeals court asked the NYPD to prove the informant existed, the informant who showed up offered testimony that so wildly differed from how a detective described them that the search warrant was thrown in question. But prior to the ruling, a trial judge had handed down a conviction based on evidence obtained with the seemingly unreliable warrant. Even the appeals court decision did not name the officer involved in the case which public defenders worry will help him avoid accountability.

Reed’s case isn’t the sole fatal no-knock incident in Killeen in the last decade. According to his family’s lawsuit, the police department executed at least 81 no-knock raids since 2012  “without instituting any additional training or precautionary measurements.” In 2014, Killeen SWAT officers conducted a predawn raid on the home of Marvin Guy after a confidential informant told police that Guy may have been selling cocaine. When officers tried to climb into his window, Guy, who was armed, allegedly began firing at the police. One officer, Charles Dinwiddie, was killed. Guy was arrested and charged with multiple felonies, including capital murder. Six years later, his case has still not gone to trial.

Since Taylor’s killing in March, numerous cities, including Louisville, have moved to ban no-knock raids. In mid-June, Killeen suspended no-knock raids for 90 days as protesters chanted Reed’s name through city streets. Reed’s family is still asking the city to ban unannounced SWAT raids entirely.

Reed’s case began similarly to the 2014 raid on Guy’s home. According to documents filed in the Reed lawsuit, police stated they received a tip from a confidential source that he may have possessed cocaine. Police also executed a simultaneous raid on a hotel room where an informant said Reed may have been present with cocaine—but Reed was not inside the room, and Killeen police arrested a woman for drug possession instead.

Reed’s mother stated in the federal complaint that the confidential “source” may also have been connected to the drive-by shooting that had previously occurred outside Reed’s home.

Alexandra Natapoff, a Harvard Law professor who has written extensively about criminal informants, told The Appeal that, although she could not comment specifically on the Reed case, it is common for informants to offer information to law enforcement on rivals or enemies.

“While we lack data, we do know, based on how the institution of informant use works, that it’s common for criminal informants with access to government resources to take revenge using the resources of the state,” she said.

Killeen police stated that they needed to conduct a no-knock break-in due, in part, because Reed was tasered by its officers in a separate no-knock raid that occurred in 2010.

According to the lawsuit, Brocks, the only non-police witness that day, told Texas Rangers investigators that it was virtually impossible for Reed to have fired his gun at the officers, given the speed with which they began shooting.

“In a written statement offered outside of the hysteria of the scene and the stress of being under arrest, Brocks reiterated that the police did not announce themselves before the shots began,” the suit stated. “As mentioned above, she also stated that Reed did not shoot at officers. In fact, she indicated that Reed would have not been able to fire any shots as fast as the unannounced shooting commenced.”

Only two officers—Hatfield and Baskett—initially admitted firing their guns that day. Both claimed to have seen Reed’s hand shoot out from his bedroom window, but the suit notes that another officer who’d helped break the window open said he “did not observe the target, Reed, fire or which officers returned fire.”

During the investigation, Custance initially told his superiors that he did not fire into Reed’s house. He showed the investigators a full magazine that he said had been left untouched the day of the shooting. But Custance had concealed his real magazine from investigators. Despite the fact that he pleaded guilty to evidence tampering in September, on July 10 Custance argued in court that he was still entitled to qualified immunity for his actions during the shooting and therefore should not be held liable for the incident in civil court.

“To begin with, the police action directed toward Reed was excessive force, even if no bullet struck him,” Darryl Washington, the Reed family’s lawyer, wrote in a July 24 court filing. “Moreover, while Custance now claims Reed had a gun and fired it at officers, it is highly disputed whether: he actually saw or could have seen Reed with a gun; Reed actually fired a gun or did anything threatening; or Custance ever issued a warning before using deadly force. These factual disputes do not entitle Custance to qualified immunity.”

“Likewise,” Washington added, “the no-knock, no-announce raid itself violated the Fourth Amendment”—so the operation was illegal from the start.

Prosecutors Are Using Gang Laws To Criminalize Protest

Prosecutors in states ranging from New York to Utah are using decades-old gang laws to target participants in the largest uprising against police brutality in U.S. history.

Protesters listen to speakers and chant in front of the Utah State Capitol building during a protest in Salt Lake City, Utah on June 5.
Photo by George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

Prosecutors Are Using Gang Laws To Criminalize Protest

Prosecutors in states ranging from New York to Utah are using decades-old gang laws to target participants in the largest uprising against police brutality in U.S. history.

On July 9, Madalena McNeil bought several buckets of red paint, a ladder, and paint rollers from a Salt Lake City Home Depot store. Later that night, she accompanied two dozen other people to a demonstration outside the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office, amidst ongoing nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Demonstrators shattered four windows of the office, daubed red paint on the building’s driveway, and engaged in physical altercations with the police.

Roughly a month later, McNeil was arrested on a warrant stemming from the demonstration. Along with several other people arrested, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill charged McNeil with felony charges of criminal mischief with a gang enhancement that, under Utah state law, carries a sentence of five years to life.

“I feel that it sends a very extreme message to anyone who’s considering acting out their civil right to protest, that they are going to be met with the harshest possible charges and response,” McNeil told a local television station on August 6 shortly after she was released on bail. 

On August 21, a retired judge selected as “conflict counsel” by the Salt Lake County District Attorney decided to drop the gang enhancements for McNeil and her co-defendants. However, additional gang enhancement charges for other Salt Lake City protesters accused of property destruction this spring are still pending.

The use of decades-old gang laws to target participants in the largest uprising against police brutality in American history has brought criticism from civil liberties groups and criminal legal reform advocates. However, Gill is far from alone in his decision-making in the McNeil case—law enforcement in Western states have long used gang laws to target activists involved in causes including animal rights, environmentalism, and even “straight-edge” sobriety.

Many states—the majority of them in the West and South—have adopted gang laws similar to California’s STEP Act, which was enacted in 1988. This law outlawed participation in criminal street gangs and codified hefty sentencing enhancements for gang-related convictions. In recent years, gang classification and enforcement in states like California, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have been criticized by civil rights groups for fomenting unconstitutional and biased enforcement. In Los Angeles, a scandal involving the LAPD’s falsification of gang records for dozens of people resulted in the invalidation of one quarter of the entries in the statewide CalGang database.

Mike German, a former FBI agent who spent years infiltrating and investigating white supremacist groups, told The Appeal that there is a push by the Trump administration and Attorney General Bill Barr to frame racial justice protesters and their allies as a domestic terrorism threat while eliding the increasingly lethal activities of the extreme right. “It’s ignoring reality to create a political narrative around the protests to create a particular agenda rather than address the concerns of the protests,” German said. Gang laws, German said, are an effective means for authorities to charge a number of associated people for a single offense, because the statutes function in the same manner as federal and state criminal conspiracy laws.

German said that by using gang laws to pursue alleged crimes by protesters, law enforcement authorities can do an end run around First Amendment protections on freedom of association because of the criminal status afforded to the gang. Most alarmingly, the tenor of national media coverage over the George Floyd protests—particularly an adoption of right-wing talking points around anti-fascists—means that arguments by the Trump administration are more likely to find favor in the judiciary.

“All it’s going to take is one judge to classify Antifa as a gang in one jurisdiction, and others will follow suit,” German said.

In California, local and state law enforcement have adapted the STEP Act’s investigative lens to examine political groups.

In October 2012, the San Francisco Police Department’s gang unit led an investigation into 20 demonstrators arrested during a chaotic anti-capitalist protest. The demonstration and subsequent court case came during sustained Bay Area activism as part of the Occupy and Oscar Grant movements. SFPD spokespeople labeled the arrestees as part of a “criminal street gang” alternatively identified as anarchists or “Black Bloc,” and alleged that several people arrested also took part in the vandalizing of SFPD’s Mission station during September 2012 demonstrations over a police shooting in the neighborhood.

On the state level, California law enforcement have a similar focus on anarchist groups. In 2011, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office prominently featured “criminal anarchists” in the ‘domestic terrorism’ category of its annual “Organized Crime in California” report. The report classified anarchists along with the far-right wing sovereign citizens as the two major variations of “Anti-government Criminal Extremism.” The same report also listed animal rights activists and “eco-terrorists” like the Earth Liberation Front as domestic terrorists.

The push to criminalize left-wing protest groups is a bipartisan approach that has garnered support in some progressive communities. In 2017, following repeated clashes in Berkeley, California, between out-of-town far right militants and anti-fascist counter-protesters, Mayor Jesse Arreguín pushed to label the latter group as a street gang. “I think we should classify them as a gang,” said Arreguín at the time. “They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like militia, and I think we need to think about that in terms of our law enforcement approach.”

Law enforcement in Washington State also approaches left-wing activists through the prism of gang policing and investigations. King County Jail documents provided to The Appeal by Seattle police accountability activists show the agency classified “anarchists”, the “Animal Liberation Front”, the “Earth Liberation Front”, “Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPS)”, and “Hardline Straight Edgers” as “Predominantly Caucasian Biker, Street, and Prison Gangs” alongside the Aryan Brotherhood, the Peckerwoods and the Ku Klux Klan.

Ample evidence also shows that the federal government has several ongoing investigations into left-wing political groups around the United States. A March 2018 FBI internal communication obtained by The Appeal lists an active “Type 3 assessment” of “Anarchist Extremism” out of the Los Angeles field office under the 266H assignment code, which the FBI uses for cases they consider to be anarchist-aligned domestic terrorism. An “assessment” is an intelligence-gathering mission that does not rise to the level of a full investigation, but under the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, permits the bureau to proactive scrutinize people or groups who may pose a threat to public safety without evidence of criminality. 

In August, the FBI arrested Queens resident Samuel Resto and later charged him with firebombing an unoccupied NYPD patrol car during a nighttime protest in July. According to the government’s detention memorandum for Resto, the NYPD was surveilling him when he left his apartment before the demonstration where the police car was torched. The FBI agent who swore out the affidavit for his arrest, Sarah Bernal, is assigned to the New York City Joint Terrorism Task Force. Posts on a left-wing message board claim Agent Bernal has been probing the New York City anarchist community since fall 2019. 

Earlier this summer, FBI agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned people arrested during New York City’s George Floyd demonstrations about their ties to anti-fascist and anarchist groups. Although NYPD is under a decades-old consent decree that restricts the department’s ability to monitor political organizing, in recent years it has fixated on anarchist groups and events as a persistent threat, sometimes to a risible degree. New York City’s efforts against left-wing groups was part of a push by FBI Director Christopher Wray a week after the George Floyd demonstrations began instructing all 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country “to assist local law enforcement with apprehending and charging violent agitators who are hijacking peaceful protests”

On August 27, the local United States Attorney in Portland, Oregon charged 74 people with a slew of federal crimes for participating in months of often chaotic protests. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr have spent much of the summer railing against “Antifa” and “Anarchists” in Portland that have faced off against local, state, and federal law enforcement in a series of clashes that drew international attention. 

Josmar Trujillo, a New York City activist who studies gang statutes and policing tactics, views the application of laws usually reserved for inner-city youth of color to political activists and organizers as a targeted attempt to suppress police accountability protests.

“Cops are tired of just going and bashing heads at protests—they want you to actually pay a much deeper price. It’s one thing to get clubbed upside your head one night, then you get angrier and come back out again the next night,” Trujillo said. “They can just keep you off of the streets, keep you tied up in court spending thousands of dollars keeping yourself out of jail. That not only guarantees that you’ll be out of protests, but your circles will be out of protest, your networks will be out of protests, and people who hear about what happened to you will be dissuaded from joining.”

Support The NBA Strike, Boycott The Police

Athletes should demand more than prosecutions of police officers who kill Black people. The criminal legal system is a guilty system responsible for our oppression. It cannot also be the guardian of our liberation. Here are three racial justice demands that athletes can support right now.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers does an on court interview following the team's win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 24 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Support The NBA Strike, Boycott The Police

Athletes should demand more than prosecutions of police officers who kill Black people. The criminal legal system is a guilty system responsible for our oppression. It cannot also be the guardian of our liberation. Here are three racial justice demands that athletes can support right now.

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

From the window of their car, three Black babies watched a cop shoot their father seven times in the back. He survived, reportedly paralyzed and currently hospitalized in critical condition. Cops are the anonymous conductors of the victim to hashtag train. This involuntary passenger is Jacob Blake, raised in Evanston, Illinois, living in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

On Tuesday night, during demonstrations in honor of Blake, a 17-year-old white, self-declared militiaman named Kyle Rittenhouse shot protesters. Two people were killed and Rittenhouse has been charged with homicide. Cars are still hot from the rebellion fires. Wounds are still fresh from the bullets.

Hundreds of miles south, the NBA bubble was filled with Black Lives Matter confetti. The words decorated each Disneyworld court. After games, many players solely discussed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other victims of police violence. League officials provided a pre approved list of social justice phrases, like “Equality” and “Say Her Name,” that most players accessorize across their jerseys. On any night, Doc Rivers, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, and his colleagues sport “Coaches for Racial Justice” pins. Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who opposed the NBA bubble formation for social justice reasons, even donated $1.5 million to WNBA players who choose to rest or protest instead of play

The Milwaukee Bucks raised the stakes on Wednesday night. Minutes before playing, they went on strike, stopping their playoff game to support protesters against police violence in Kenosha. The Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream also refused to play games and kneeled instead. Strikes spread across sports and 14 major league games were postponed, including in Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball. Even tennis superstar Naomi Osaka also said that she would not play a semifinals match set for today:

…before I am a athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis…. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?

Athletes, perhaps thousands, mostly unknown, have kneeled, marched, or taken Sharpies to their sneakers against state violence. But strikes are rare. Five years ago, the University of Missouri football team refused to play, acting in solidarity with Black student activists organizing for racial justice on campus. The year after, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at football games during the national anthem. Kaepernick knew that America, land of the free, was also the home of the caged. In fact, we’re number one—for police killings and for mass incarceration. Cops have put more Black people in jail for protesting police murders than police who have murdered Black people. 

Writer Mychal Denzel Smith applauded Kaepernick, yet queried, “What if pro athletes refused to play?” Maya Moore answered. The WNBA player skipped seasons to help overturn Jonathan Irons’s wrongful conviction. Thanks to Moore’s advocacy, he completed nearly half of a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault charges before finally leaving his Missouri prison this year. 

As players decide whether to protest or play, they will be tempted to call for prosecutions and for voter registration. We are in the middle of an uprising, a pandemic, and an election season, so these two demands might feel almost natural. Yet Black organizers are demanding much more transformational change, and these players and teams can use their influence and resources to assist.

First, the players must continue to organize and refuse pressure from owners to resume the season. The owners will lose money, sure, but they are unlikely to lose their lives to police violence. The NBA cannot even control the racist police officers at games, including the treatment of their Black executive management. Just days ago, bodycam footage was released of a California sheriff’s deputy shoving Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri after the team’s victory in the NBA finals last year. 

Professional athletes could also call on the cities they represent to endorse the most significant demand in the largest protests in America’s history: defund the police. At least 18 cities have pledged to shift resources from police departments and toward organizations and policies that undo the root causes of harm. At the federal level, Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley are championing the Breathe Act, legislation powered by the Movement for Black Lives to to divest from state violence and to protect and invest resources in Black communities. Athletes can endorse this act and support its implementation.

Furthermore, each team represents cities that have legacies of state-sanctioned or state-sponsored violence. Players could demand that their cities create reparations commissions for victims of police, prison, and vigilante violence. Organizers in Chicago, Illinois, have succeeded in pushing a reparation ordinance that offers education, counseling, physical space, and money to victims of police violence and their communities, and Asheville, North Carolina, approved home ownership and business program reparations for Black residents. These are good starts.

If professional athletes choose to demand prosecutions, I hope they understand that this demand is rarely met, and if it is, the cop, if convicted at all, faces little to no prison time. More perversely, the prosecution may not deter other cops from killing Black people. So all calls to put one person in prison does not make any other Black person more safe. The cops responsible should be fired and never allowed to work in public or private law enforcement again. Although this may feel dissatisfying, calling for this level of accountability undermines the idea that our only hope for justice is a tenuous conviction in the hands of the same systems responsible for our murders. It’s why we must defund the police who killed Breonna Taylor, not merely arrest the officers who killed her and other Black people. The criminal legal system is a guilty system responsible for our oppression. It cannot also be the guardian of our liberation.

The only way to stop police from shooting and killing Black people is to stop contact between them. The only way to do that is to shrink the size and scope of policing by reducing their resources. 

NBA players have come a long way and should be proud. In 2012, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Florida during the NBA playoffs. The Miami Heat raised awareness by taking pictures with hoodies on. In 2014, when Donald Sterling, a former Los Angeles Clippers owner, made racist comments to his girlfriend, warning her to stay away from Black men, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and their teammates entered their playoff game with their warm up jerseys inside-out in protest. Cleveland officer Michael Brelo was cleared of charges after he stood, Rambo-style, on top of a car, and fired bullets into the windshield, killing a Black couple. When Brelo was found not guilty of manslaughter in 2015, LeBron James told protesters that “violence is not the answer,” and urged them to instead turn their energy into excitement for the Eastern Conference playoff games. Yesterday, James tweeted “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.” And last night, the Los Angeles Clippers and James’s team, the Los Angeles Lakers, voted to boycott the NBA season. 

NBA players realize racism is always in season. And they are fighting back.

NYPD Expands Use Of Controversial Subpoenas To Criminal Cases

Administrative subpoenas—which do not require a judge’s approval—are typically used for the department’s internal investigations, but The Appeal has learned that they are being used in criminal cases.

On June 2, NYPD officers block the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge as people protesting police brutality and systemic racism attempt to cross into Manhattan from Brooklyn after a citywide curfew went into effect.
Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

NYPD Expands Use Of Controversial Subpoenas To Criminal Cases

Administrative subpoenas—which do not require a judge’s approval—are typically used for the department’s internal investigations, but The Appeal has learned that they are being used in criminal cases.

When a prosecutor attempts to obtain evidence related to a third party, such as bank or phone records, they issue a judicial subpoena for the materials they seek. Across the country, judges are available around the clock to review and fulfill such requests.

Each subpoena lists the court or grand jury under whose authority the subpoena was issued. That judicial body is also where issues with and objections to the subpoena—such as matters of scope and propriety—can be raised by defense counsel.

Such safeguards, however, are not present in an investigative technique now being used by detectives in New York City: serving criminal suspects with administrative subpoenas issued by the NYPD. Traditionally used by the NYPD for internal investigations of alleged misconduct or impropriety by police department employees, the administrative subpoenas have baffled local defense attorneys and prompted criticism that they are being used to evade the independent oversight inherent in the judicial subpoena process.

In at least four cases dating back to 2017 reviewed by The Appeal, NYPD detectives have used administrative subpoenas to request information for criminal cases. The cases concern robbery and grand larceny investigations.

“If you receive a normal one of these subpoenas, you know where to go to quash it,” said Jerome Greco, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Digital Forensics Unit. “With the administrative ones [from] NYPD, they’re returnable to One Police Plaza. So if you wanna move to quash, where do you go? Who gets to make that decision? Where do you seek redress?”

The NYPD’s suit-and-tie investigators go by the self-appointed title of “Greatest Detectives in the World,” and have their reputations burnished by television shows such as “Law and Order” and “Blue Bloods.” But in recent years the department’s investigative ranks have faced extensive scrutiny for envelope-pushing investigative techniques, from the use of DNA dragnets (mass collection of DNA samples by the NYPD) such as the swabs collected from 360 of Black and Latinx men in Queens during the 2016 search for Karina Vetrano’s killer, slipshod handling of sexual assault cases, and persistent “testilying”—lying on the witness stand—that has left at least one disgraced narcotics detective facing criminal charges and out of a job. 

According to the city charter and state law, the NYPD and other city agencies like the New York City Fire Department and the Department of Buildings are authorized to issue administrative subpoenas for matters such as internal disciplinary investigations or code enforcement. But the legal authority claimed by the NYPD to use such subpoenas in a criminal context is murky. Each of the administrative subpoenas reviewed by The Appeal makes reference to Section 14-137 of the New York City Administrative Code as the underpinning statute for the request. Others even reference a section of the federal anti-terrorism Patriot Act that covers access to stored telecommunications records.

All criminal cases reviewed by The Appeal concerned violations of New York State law, and were ultimately brought in New York State courts.

Martin Stolar, a veteran defense attorney who has practiced criminal law in New York State since 1969, encountered such a request while representing a Staten Island teenager in a 2017 child exploitation investigation. Google had received an administrative subpoena from the NYPD’s Legal Department for information about the electronic accounts of Stolar’s client. “Law enforcement agencies in the United States don’t have the power to compel citizens to produce themselves or documents,” Stolar told The Appeal. Stolar sought to quash the administrative subpoena, but couldn’t do so with the NYPD. So he filed a civil suit in Manhattan Supreme Court in order to challenge the request for his client’s digital information. Rather than litigate the case, the NYPD withdrew the administrative subpoena—but then turned around and produced a search warrant for the complete digital history of Stolar’s client’s Google account.

“Shortly after I filed the papers, I heard from some fairly high up people in legal, they’re going to withdraw [the] subpoena. On Friday morning they showed up with a search warrant and ransacked my clients’ house, searching it and taking all their electronic devices,” Stolar said. The administrative subpoenas, he said, were plainly illegal.

“If they had enough evidence for a search warrant, that’s the proper procedure, that’s the Fourth Amendment—no searches and seizures without a search warrant.”

NYPD spokesman Al Baker said in an email statement that the department uses “these administrative subpoenas as important tools, early in investigations, and often to help determine whether to move forward in the courts.” Baker added that the Patriot Act reference was recently deleted from subpoenas “where terrorism is not being investigated.” He declined to respond to questions about the number of administrative subpoenas issued by NYPD’s Legal Division annually, or a breakdown of what offenses they are used to investigate.

This year has brought challenges to the NYPD’s use of administrative subpoenas in the disciplinary context, when the Internal Affairs Bureau unsuccessfully tried to obtain direct messages from the Twitter account of Tina Moore, the New York Post’s lead reporter, at One Police Plaza. Moore published leaked video footage of a shooting inside the 41st Precinct in the Bronx that angered department brass. NYPD backed down after a legal challenge from the Post‘s attorneys and changed their regulations governing how such subpoenas could be issued.

But in July, the NYPD obtained the AT&T cellphone records of a freelance journalist who covered the 2019 arrest of actor Cuba Gooding Jr. on forcible touching and sexual abuse charges. According to the New York Daily News, Internal Affairs investigators used phone records to identify and confront an NYPD officer about a leaked mugshot of the actor that ran in a Daily Mail article. The NYPD has claimed the subpoena was issued before the department changed its regulations regarding the issuance of administrative subpoenas to members of the media.

There are also challenges to the use of administrative subpoenas from within the NYPD’s ranks. This month, former officer Efrain Santiago filed a federal lawsuit claiming the department used an administrative subpoena to obtain phone records documenting his off-duty work as a chauffeur for a parolee. Santiago was twice brought up on disciplinary charges for associating with a person convicted of a felony.

“The NYPD implemented a policy of illegally, through fraud and deceit, of issuing documents reported to be subpoenas to obtain private records of those in their employ despite never having a warrant nor justifiable basis to obtain said records and without the signature of a judge,“ Santiago’s lawsuit claims.

Santiago retired from the NYPD in 2018 after 20 years of service and is currently an active duty Air Force member deployed in the Middle East.

“This is a blatant end run around judicial oversight,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, of the NYPD’s use of administrative subpoenas.

In light of the ongoing racial justice protests in New York City and the NYPD’s history of political surveillance dating back to the early 20th century, Fox Cahn fears that administrative subpoenas could be used to investigate alleged crimes that took place during the protests. “The nightmare scenario is that they’d use it in a situation where you’d get a lot of pushback if you went the warrant round—we’re talking things with a clear racial nexus or political affiliations,” he said.

Fox Cahn said that the NYPD already has a relatively low bar for obtaining search warrants and that administrative subpoenas invite abuse by circumventing judicial review and oversight. 

The administrative subpoenas reviewed by The Appeal date from 2017 and 2018, when Larry Byrne served as the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters. Byrne did not respond to a request for comment.

“Larry Byrne systematically fought any effort at external oversight, be it through FOIL, from the City Council, or the Mayor’s Office. He wanted the NYPD to be a self-governing entity,” Fox Cahn said.

The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness Of True Crime

White voices and victims dominate the genre, which can skew the perception of what constitutes a crime.

Illustration by Daniel Zender.

The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness Of True Crime

White voices and victims dominate the genre, which can skew the perception of what constitutes a crime.

Even beyond the subject matter—a long-unsolved lynching of a Black man in Georgia—Wesley Lowery’s recent story in GQ was jarring. The July feature has the hallmarks of classic true crime: the ambitious investigator, the zealous prosecutor, the family that would not let the case be forgotten. It’s a great story, squarely in the vein of other cold case classics, including Pamela Colloff’s “Unholy Act,” Matthew McGough’s “The Lazarus File,” and Robert Kolker’s “A Serial Killer in Common.” And yet it is, in one profound way, extremely unusual. Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is Black. And the true crime genre is very, very white.

True crime is, relatively speaking, small. None of the Big Five book publishers bothers with a dedicated imprint. But the genre wields outsize cultural sway far beyond publishing, especially since the success of 2014’s “Serial” podcast—about the highly contested homicide conviction of Adnan Syed in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, Maryland—and HBO’s “The Jinx,” the 2015 docuseries about real estate heir Robert Durst and several homicides he is suspected of having committed. (Durst will stand trial for the December 2000 homicide of Susan Berman next year.) So it matters a great deal that most true crime focuses on white police officers and detectives, white victims, and white prosecutors working to avenge themaimed, said Lowery, “at a presumed white audience.” He believes, rightly, that this is effectively a judgment about what constitutes a sympathetic victim.

I called Lowery not long ago to talk about that whiteness, which swamps the genre across books, magazines, newspapers, and podcasts—and how the color barrier has influenced Americans’ impression of crime itself.

Lowery noted that Samuel Little, perhaps one of the most prolific murderers in American history—he credits himself with 93 victims —remains relatively unknown. Serial killer-related content is extraordinarily popular among Americans; is it not unreasonable, Lowery wonders, to credit this ignorance to Little’s alleged victimsdisproportionately Black women? Little’s confessions have been met with skepticism from some in law enforcement and journalism. Lowery said Little remaining under the cultural radar “speaks to the extent to which the subjective decisions that are made about what to portray in true crime is a financial decision, made based on what is presumed a white audience will care about.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has been for many years. The racial disparity is hard to quantify, but it’s surely been evident for the last two decades, before which true crime was regarded as trash. During each of those years, Mystery Writers of America bestowed its Edgar Awards. Among the categories: Best Fact Crime. Five or six books are nominated each year.

In the last 20 years, few nonwhite writers have been nominated in the category, and none have won. (In 2018, the organization rescinded an achievement award to disgraced Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein.)

Journalist Sarah Weinman’s latest anthology, “Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession”in which I have storyfeatures only one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. Weinman is aware that this absence reflects the genre itself. “When pain and trauma is grist for the entertainment mill, certain stories are, still, valued over others,” she wrote in a July essay for BuzzFeed News.

The implications of that value judgment are staggering. Think about what it means to have white writers tell the world about crime that, most often, affects Black peopleor that white editors get to choose what crime is worth a book, a feature, a podcast. Think about how this skews some people’s perception of what even constitutes a crime.

It’s hard to overstate how inaccurate and damaging the results and perceptions created by so much whiteness has been. Generations of readers have been led to believe that murder victims most often are women killed by men and that Black serial murderers are rare. Neither assertion is true. According to the FBI, the majority of homicide victims are men killed by other men, and the race of serial murderers is commensurate with the racial makeup of the U.S. as a whole.

The fallout extends beyond misperception into policy, and it has for decades. For example, as Rachel Monroe detailed in her 2019 book “Savage Appetites,” the rise of the victims’ rights movement, led by the mother of Sharon Tate—a white actress whose murder at the hands of Manson Family members has been documented ad nauseam—led directly to the rights of defendants being restricted. The severity of punishment is rarely even questioned. “[True crime] frames the justice system as inherently just, and it frames long prison sentences as something to aspire toward,” says journalist Rachelle Hampton. “It very much sets up a neat line between us—people who are not incarcerated—and them, people who are incarcerated.”

To this day, reporters enable law enforcement to spread misleading statistics—to suggest, with scant evidence, that major cities, including New York, are suffering through an unprecedented rise in crime. That, too, is false.

“We end up misrepresenting what the world actually looks like,” says Lowery.

Or as Jean Murley, author of “The Rise of True Crime,” puts it: “Modern true crime is almost a fantasy genre.”

How did this happen? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

Writers of color were excluded from the beginning.

American true crime began at the National Police Gazette, founded in 1845. Alongside stories about horse races, boxing matches, and community goings-on, were accounts of murder. The magazine was exceedingly popular, and was quickly consumed by 150,000 subscribers. Its success led eventually to True Detective Mysteries, a magazine founded in 1924, and Official Detective Stories, a decade later.

These magazines often contained messages from law enforcement, including the ruthless FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—whose stewardship of the agency included sending a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. urging him to kill himself—and even accounts written by the police themselves. Although the origins of the crime stories are murky, most were handed to editors by the police. “The magazines had the imprimatur of officialdom and law enforcement,” says Murley. “The motivation of the police was not just to get people to understand murder within their communities, but more importantly, to side with them.”

These police were almost certainly white—in 1943, for instance, Black officers represented less than 1 percent of the NYPD. The reporters to whom they were leaking? Also white.

The lack of Black reporters in mainstream newspapers was so stark, it was noted by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission. “The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community,” the commission recommended in its 1968 report. “Recruit more Negroes into journalism and broadcasting and promote those who are qualified to positions of significant responsibility.”

For the most part, well into the 1960s, Black journalists wrote for the major Black newspapers: the Chicago Daily Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Amsterdam News. They covered hundreds of lurid and ghastly crimes, particularly in the South. But those were, in essence, crimes with Black victims for a Black audience—deemed by white editors unworthy of mainstream papers or detective rags like Confidential or True Crime.

“The frequency with which Black men in particular were hung, and sometimes castrated and hung, in the South without any prosecutionand, if there was the rare prosecution, almost inevitable acquittalindicated that crimes against people of color were not considered crimes by the larger society,” Walter Lowe Jr. told me recently.

Lowe was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1971. There were four major newspapers in the city: the Sun-Times, the Daily News, the American, and the Tribune, with a combined reporting staff, according to Lowe, of nearly three-hundred. Lowe was the paper’s sole Black reporter.

“We were expected to cover the Black issues. We were not assigned, ever, to cover a lurid, sensationalist crime, or even a minor crime involving white people,” he recalls. Shut out of the white-cop-to-white-reporter-pipeline, Lowe would not write about the mysterious disappearance of Helen Brach or the Chicago mob. But Representative Ralph Metcalfe fighting the Mayor Richard Daley machine? Sure.

Even Black detectives, Lowe said, weren’t assigned crimes with flashy white victims. They were expected to solve crimes in their own community. “There was no Alex Cross,” he observed, referencing novelist James Patterson’s detective protagonist.

Professional segregation was in place, informally, at the New York Times as well. Mel Watkins, hired as a copy boy, became the first Black editor at the Times’s Sunday Book Review in 1966. When Watkins got to the paper, the only other Black employees he saw operated the elevator or worked in the cafeteria. An insidious edict was in place:  White writers frequently reviewed the work of Black authors, but the reverse was not permitted. This was, he says, “thought to be the natural order.” Even so, Watkins once suggested that James Baldwin review a book by Norman Mailer; the proposal was rejected. Mailer reviewing Baldwin, however, “would’ve been greeted with much less resistance.”

Back then, true crime, to the degree it existed, wasn’t taken seriously. Despite the serialization of “In Cold Blood” in 1965, and its publication in book form the next year, the Times Book Review treated this not as a burgeoning genre but a one-off. Even crime fiction, says Watkins, was considered “second level,” and was relegated to Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals at Large” column, which ran for nearly two decades.

Black writers were publishing nonfiction, however, in which, Watkins believed, criminals were often treated as heroes. “Being lawless was to be, in fact, defying the repressive societal laws,” he says, a point of view exemplified by the writing on Stack O’Lee, Shine, and the larger-than-life Jack Johnson. When the Times did review the nonfiction of Black writers, the subject matter tended to be the civil rights movement: Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton. The focus of such work was indeed crime, Watkins felt, even if white readers did not recognize it as such. “Crime, from the Black perspective, is societal crime,” says Watkins. “You have this situation where society becomes the adversary.” The criminality to which Black Americans were routinely subjected was not lost on Watkins, whose father never put money in a bank because he’d seen Mississippi bankers claim it had vanished.

In his professional capacity, Watkins often dealt with book editors, and the lack of diversity was just as pronounced at the publishing houses. Decades later, he can name the three Black editors with whom he interacted: Erroll McDonald of Knopf, Charles Harris of Amistad Press, and Toni Morrison at Random House. (McDonald, who edited “In the Belly of the Beast” by Jack Henry Abbott, who was twice convicted of manslaughter, said in a brief conversation that he knows very little about true crime. Other book editors I contacted either declined to comment or didn’t reply.)

Before we got off the phone, Watkins imparted a final thought: Black writers had published true crime, but it was sub rosa. Look, he said, at Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” about a 20-year-old Black man from the South Side of Chicago who killed a white woman and burned her body in a furnace. Watkins viewed this as “almost true crime.” He suspected the book was a fictionalized depiction of an actual crime. Which it was; Wright himself said it was based on murders committed by “The Brick Moron,” Robert Nixon, who was electrocuted in 1939 after allegedly killing several white women. Wright, said Watkins, “changed it into a novel in order to make his point.” This was out of necessity. “There was a reluctance to let Blacks write in an authoritative manner about realistic injustices.”

This reluctance endured for decades.

David Krajicek was police bureau chief at the New York Daily News from 1987 to 1992. It was a period of sky-high homicide rates in New York City, with 2,245 murders in 1990 alone. The NYPD public information office, he says, was the gatekeeper, and determined the extent to which journalists were notified about any of them. A cop in Queens would report a homicide to his sergeant, who in turn would tell a lieutenant, who talked to the precinct commander. The precinct commander contacted the Queens central command, who then passed the information up the chain. There were numerous filters before news of a crime would reach police headquarters and then, finally, the deputy commissioner for public information, who decided what was worth sharing with reporters.

Around the Daily News, reporters joked that, in order to be written about, a murder must contain all the elements—“a white, attractive female killed in a horrible way, in an interesting place,” as Krajicek put it. Murders that didn’t fit the bill (say, a quadruple homicide in the Bronx) simply didn’t get covered.

Daily News reporters did 18-month rotations on his crime desk. Success on the beat was largely contingent on maintaining a roster of cop sources, and not being perceived as adversarial. “Based on one story, you can lose all of your sources at the NYPD. If they decide that you’re a dick and you’ve done them wrongdone an individual cop wrongthe reputation spreads immediately,” Krajicek recalled. “If you show up with Black skin, their presumption’s already made about what your reputation is.” Natalie Byfield, a Black reporter who covered the Central Park Five case, had a particularly difficult time. She later wrote: “As a young African American female journalist watching and participating in the unfolding jogger coverage, I felt the sting and the heat of racism as I plotted my own course through the newsroom and the city.”

Socializing with the police wasn’t required, but it was useful. It was the favored practice of cop-friendly columnists, including Jimmy Breslin, who lamented, said a former Newsday editor, that “reporters don’t go out anymore to drink with police.”

Krajicek, early in his career, rode shotgun as cops took him on roundups of sex workers. “Ride-alongs,” as they’re known, are a long tradition on the beat. Understandably, not every reporter greets them with the same level of excitement.

In 2006, when Slate’s Joel Anderson was working for the Shreveport Times, he took over the night cops beat. His white, female predecessor was friendly with the police, who noted that Anderson wasn’t as pretty. As part of his orientation, he was pressured to do a ride-along. “I had no interest in doing any of that shit,” says Anderson. It would soon be clear to him that police have a version of events that sometimes conflicts with the victim’s and the accused’s versions. It wasn’t his job to figure out which party was most credible. Cops, Anderson was told, were “the guardians of the truth.” To approach the beat any other way was to do it wrong.

Anderson, who was soon reassigned to city government, realized incident reports were, at best, subjective post facto versions of events, and “not necessarily a reflection of what happened.” (In 2015, it should be noted, the district attorney overseeing Shreveport’s county, Caddo Parish, said Louisiana should “kill more people.”)

A way around the official version of events is to either decenter law enforcement or bypass it entirely.

The absence of that perspective is why, even 40 years later, James Baldwin’s coverage of the Atlanta child murders—now the subject of a five-part HBO docuseries—is so startling.

As Casey Cep chronicled in the New Yorker, Baldwin was lured to Atlanta by Lowewho had moved to Playboy as an editorafter dozens of the city’s Black children were murdered between 1978 and 1981. The resulting essay, titled “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” proudly defies true crime tropes. Baldwin’s focus was not the murders or the investigations, but systemic anti-Black violence. He did not see the murders as sui generis. The killings, he believed, “did not so much alter the climate of Atlanta as reveal, or, as it were, epiphanize it.

Baldwin’s insistence on writing about the larger issues at play—that societal sickness was as much to blame for the dead children as any murderer—and his refusal to treat the events as a minute-by-minute account, confounded critics. “There is far too much sermonizing here on the overall state of race relations in America and not enough digging into specific facts of the Atlanta murders,” clucked the New York Times.

Baldwin did talk to detectives, but he didn’t take them at their word and never had. “We did not feel that the cops were protecting us, for we knew too much about the reasons for the kinds of crimes committed in the ghetto,” he wrote of his childhood, “but we feared black cops even more than white cops, because the black cop had to work so much harderon your headto prove to himself and his colleagues that he was not like all the other niggers.” He was more interested, recalled Lowe, in how white Americans historically viewed Black men as killers and rapists of white women. On his two trips to Atlanta, he wrestled with the assumptions around what constitutes a criminal and what constitutes a victim. He believed that Wayne Williams, who eventually stood trial for the murder of two adults, was probably innocent. He was having difficulty, says Lowe, “with not only the idea that the murderer might be Black but that the murderer might have some sort of pedophile profile.”

Lowe, who considers Alex Haley’s “Roots” to be the greatest work of true crime, continued: “[Baldwin] was like a doctor diagnosing a complex disease. But at the time, everybody wanted him to be a much more accusatory voice.”

The genre has evolved, somewhat.

A highly regarded true crime story from recent years doesn’t have a single on-the-record quote from law enforcement. The word “detective” appears only once. These absences in Karen K. Ho’s 2015 Toronto Life feature, “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” are particularly striking because it is, at least superficially, an old-fashioned minute-by-minute account about the murder of a Vietnamese family.

“I did not know how to interview cops when I did my story,” says Ho, who had never before written anything investigative. During the two years of reporting and writing, she neither met with police nor talked to them by phone. The story, which lays out in great detail how the Canadian daughter of Vietnamese immigrants hired hitmen to kill her parents, was based on jailhouse interviews, sworn video statements, letters, court transcripts, and yearbooks. It is also partially a memoir, for which Ho interviewed her own family.

It didn’t occur to Ho that interviewing police would be useful, or that the story demanded their perspective. Ho had not been raised to treat them with reverence or as an unquestionable source of information, and she still felt that way. She couldn’t relate to stories, even great ones like The Marshall Project and ProPublica’s “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” in which investigators played the hero. For her, Jay Caspian Kang’s 2013 New York Times Magazine story about a middle-aged Korean man who shot and killed seven people at a university in Oakland, California, was more of a touchstone. “[Kang] showed me why having a nonwhite perspective on a crime involving people of color was an asset, and not a detriment or hindrance to my reporting of it,” says Ho.

Ho expertly wrote about the overarching failures that led to the Pan murders. Just as Baldwin told readers about the anti-Black violence that made the killing of Atlanta’s children inevitable, Ho revealed the academic pressure brought to bear on children of Asian immigrants. Referring to her father and her own upbringing, she wrote: “I felt like a hamster on a wheel, sprinting to meet some sort of expectation, solely determined by him, that was always just out of reach.”

Talking to Ho sparked a reconsideration of what true crime ought to be. The genre is so white largely because the definition of crime is so narrow. Ho cited Andrea González-Ramírez’s Type Investigations feature on domestic violence in Puerto Rico. Isn’t that crime? she asked. What about the work of Adam Serwer, who writes with cutting poetry about systemic anti-Black brutality? What about Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s story on Dylann Roof? Aren’t these works of true crime, too? 

A few days later, I called Steven Thrasher, who, while not a true crime writer by trade, had written about Michael Bloomberg’s fondness for incarcerating the city’s Black men and a series of fine stories on the “Tiger Mandingo” case. He’s also been one of the more prominent voices warning against “copaganda”—sunny, kid-gloved portrayals of law enforcement. We talked about how true crime so often prizes the perceived oddity. “Exceptionalism becomes the story,” he said. Oftentimes, true depravity is deadly repetition.

Thrasher pointed to a lecture delivered by former Guardian columnist Gary Younge in 2016, in which Younge cited the tired maxim, attributed to a New York newspaper editor: When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news. But what if, asked Younge, we’ve got it backward? What if the thousand people shot and killed by police in the last year is the real story? Or what if the dog-bites-man story is quite literal? He cited a Department of Justice report on the Ferguson protests, which found that “in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American.”

If a dog bites man again and again and again, that, too, is a story.

The genre of true crime should expand to the point where it is unrecognizable from what it is today. It should include the work of Wesley Lowery, Joel Anderson, and Albert Samaha, and also Aura Bogado, who writes horrifying dispatches on America’s ongoing crime against humanity: its immigration system. Bogado, doing excellent, humane work for Reveal on a beat that is often prominently populated by white men, has written about the federal government forcibly drugging children at a Texas residential treatment center. I expect Bogado would find the notion of her stories being classified with the likes of Truman Capote and Ann Rule more than a little laughable. The genre is, she told me, “a niche within the larger world of journalism, which is itself a segregated world, right?”

That must change, if it is to have continued relevance and value. Progress has been slow, but substantive; consider the peerless work of Cree reporter Connie Walker, and her CBC investigation into a vanished Native child. But it’s a notable exception. Pervasive whiteness is a decades-long problem that won’t be solved quickly, if ever.

After all, as Walter Lowe told me, you can’t sell a product for which there is no audience. To have more books, features, and podcasts by and about nonwhite people, there must be a demand for them. (There is.) In order for there to be sufficient, recognized demand, he said, nonwhite victims must be seen as people. That part, maddeningly, is not a given.

“The horse is what’s happening in the street; it’s the growing interest by white people in an accurate history of this country. The cart is whatever shifts in literary culture result from that,” continued Lowe, who cited Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” “What has not been dealt with is the miseducation of the white person in America. What is happening right now, from grammar school up through college, is a serious re-examination of the way American history has been taughta serious re-examination of the racist lens through which many white folks in America have been taughtand wanting to change the lens, to be more equitable to the points of view of people of color and Native Americans.”

Only after such a fundamental change will there be lasting demand for true crime, and a more sophisticated and inclusive sense of what “qualifies” for the genre, by and about people of color. That, Lowe concludes, “is the horse that is going to pull the cart.”

‘It’s Feudalism, Pure Exploitation’

The Doe Fund says it pays homeless and formerly incarcerated people New York City’s minimum wage of $15 per hour. But the nonprofit charges weekly fees that can drive their wages below the federal minimum of $7.25.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

‘It’s Feudalism, Pure Exploitation’

The Doe Fund says it pays homeless and formerly incarcerated people New York City’s minimum wage of $15 per hour. But the nonprofit charges weekly fees that can drive their wages below the federal minimum of $7.25.

Blue-shirted men wielding brooms are a common sight in New York City’s business improvement districts (BIDs) where the city entices real estate development and an influx of new business investment. The workers are some of the city’s most vulnerable people—the formerly incarcerated, homeless or sometimes both—and they are paid and managed by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit at the nexus of welfare and the criminal legal system. But the Doe Fund is not their employer. Instead, the nonprofit’s lowest-paid laborers are legally considered “clients” in a workforce development program, so they don’t have the typical protections that New York City workers enjoy. 

According to contract language reviewed by The Appeal, Doe Fund client pay is not considered a wage, but instead a “training incentive” that recognizes “progress in the program.” The Doe Fund says it pays clients New York City’s minimum wage of $15 an hour, but its workers receive far less. Until this month, the Doe Fund charged a $165 weekly fee to all clients. On July 1, the fee increased to $249 each week. Because it’s a flat fee removed from clients’ weekly paychecks, the fee now drives $15 per hour pay well below $8 an hour—and in some cases, even lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. According to the Doe Fund, clients typically work 35 hours each week. A person working 35 hours—30 paid hours, excluding lunch breaks—would earn just $201 after the Doe Fund charges its $249 fee, or $6.70 an hour. 

In a telephone interview with The Appeal, Bill Cunningham, a Doe Fund spokesperson, noted that the wages from the program aren’t taxed. But a New York City worker making minimum wage earns about $12 per hour after tax, significantly higher than the sum earned by Doe Fund clients. 

There’s legal precedent supporting the notion that this “workfare” arrangement violates minimum wage laws. In 1995, 40 homeless plaintiffs sued the Grand Central Partnership claiming that they were paid below minimum wage. That BID was paying people $1 to $1.50 an hour, a small fraction of the city’s $4.25 minimum wage; the Doe Fund is  paying its clients a slightly larger fraction of minimum wage. “We are alarmed to learn of complaints that the Doe Fund is deducting $100 more per month from the pay of homeless workers, possibly resulting in sub-minimum wages,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy with the Coalition for the Homeless (which represented homeless plaintiffs in that class action suit). 

In 1998, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor—now a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court—ruled that the Grand Central Partnership BID violated minimum wage laws. “Despite the defendants’ intent, they did not structure a training program as that concept is understood in case law and regulatory interpretations but instead structured a program that required the plaintiffs to do work that had a direct economic benefit for the defendants,” Sotomayor wrote. “Therefore, the plaintiffs were employees, not trainees, and should have been paid minimum wages for their work.”

Critics characterize BIDs as “shadow governments” that rake in millions while paying comparatively little for performing services like cleaning city streets. A 2016 article by Crain’s New York found that clearing litter from sidewalks and gutters accounts for just 25 percent of the $130 million spent by BIDS every year. The Doe Fund’s workforce development program, then, supports the efforts of New York City commercial landlords and business owners to avoid paying for comparatively more expensive sanitation workers. Contracts with unionized workers would cost businesses about three times as much. 

“It’s feudalism, pure exploitation,” one Doe Fund program client told The Appeal under the condition of anonymity. “They receive money from the city and private donors, and they take money from us. A thousand dollars a month. Where is it going?”

The answer to that question remains unclear. Cunningham said the fee was increased for several reasons, the foremost being that BIDs haven’t changed their $12 per hour contracts with the Doe Fund to reflect minimum wage laws. He also pointed to unexpected coronavirus-related costs, such as PPE and transporting meals to hotels leased by the city. And he told The Appeal that the fee funds services for clients—housing, food, clothing, vocational training—and repeatedly compared the program fee to the cost of rent for individuals earning minimum wage while insisting that the Doe Fund was more favorable for clients, even when clients earned below the federal minimum wage. 

Earlier this year, New York State Assembly member Andrew Hevesi introduced a bill that would prevent homeless shelters from charging rent to residents, and its provisions may apply to the fee that the Doe Fund charges its clients. “People should not be forced to hand over their hard-earned income from low-wage work cleaning city streets to the operator of their shelter,” Nortz of the Coalition for the Homeless told The Appeal in an email.

Doe Fund executives George and Harriet McDonald each pay themselves about $430,000 per year, and their son, John McDonald, earns a $290,000 yearly salary as executive vice president of real estate. The Doe Fund’s headquarters is the McDonald family brownstone on the Upper East Side, and the nonprofit pays for that, too, at a yearly cost of $200,000 on “rent and utilities.” Blue-shirted Doe Fund clients clean the McDonalds’ street as part of their “beautification” route, powerfully illustrating the family’s use of formerly incarcerated labor for personal benefit

The Doe Fund is also contracted by the New York City Department of Homeless Services to operate shelters across the city, including facilities in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Bushwick. Over 600 people live in the Doe Fund’s shelters and hotel rooms leased by the city, and 410 of those people participate in the nonprofit’s workforce development programming.

The Doe Fund’s shelters don’t just serve homeless people—they also house many formerly incarcerated men. One of the organization’s stated goals is to reduce recidivism and help people successfully re-enter society. About half of the workforce development program’s 410 clients are on parole or community supervision, and roughly 75 percent have had some experience with the criminal legal system. The workforce development program contract specifies that noncompliance with its conditions can result in a parole violation. Former Doe Fund employees say that many of the conditions are racist and paternalistic: Contract language prohibits “visible underwear” and “do-rags,” imposes a 10 p.m. curfew, bans pornography, and requires that clients submit to “random drug and alcohol testing” and fingerprinting. The contract also notes that parole officers will be consulted if shelter residents request a curfew extension to, for example, spend a weekend with a family member off site. 

In the first month of the Doe Fund’s programming, clients clean and maintain the shelter buildings; once “orientation” is complete, clients begin “beautifying” public and private spaces in the city as part of the workforce development phase. Because sanitation work is legally considered part of the workforce development program and not employment, clients have to work in order to remain in the program and receive vocational training. Clients only “graduate” after completing vocational training classes over the course of nine to 12 months. But these courses disappeared during the coronavirus pandemic, which leaves clients in a state of limbo where they’re expected to work indefinitely while earning below minimum wage. Clients have not been provided a date for when the bulk of vocational training will resume. In an email statement, the Doe Fund said it had resumed some educational and vocational courses with a mixture of in-person and remote learning starting July 3—but clients told The Appeal that they hadn’t been in class since early spring. 

Researchers say the Doe Fund should be situated not just in business improvement but in the broader political economy of prisoner re-entry. Reuben Jonathan Miller, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, told The Appeal that the precarity of Doe Fund clients symbolizes a concept he calls “carceral citizenship,” an alternate form of political membership for people who have been accused or convicted of a crime. “Criminality is doing this interesting work of translation,” he said. “You’ve got 40 hours of work, but I’m going to take $250 each week. The criminal label lets you do that. If this happened with anybody else, you might call it exploitative—but because it’s formerly incarcerated people, not so much. Where are you going to go for a new job? Who are you going to complain to?”

Indeed, formerly incarcerated people typically experience much higher unemployment rates than the general population—especially in pandemic era New York City where the unemployment rate is above 20 percent. The Doe Fund’s website proudly notes that clients were deemed “essential workers”—though they don’t have legal status as employees—and deployed to clean streets throughout the darkest stages of the pandemic in the spring. 

Miller also emphasized that re-entry service providers typically focus on individual transformation—“soft skills” such as changing one’s attitude toward work—instead of direct connections to the labor market and permanent housing. He says the Doe Fund’s use of the term “graduate” is both intentional and meaningful. “Graduates are credible messengers,” Miller said. “They are people who have changed their lives. I was blind, now I see. Now I run a program. This is a redemptive story. But ritual and symbolism aren’t enough.”

The Doe Fund’s sanitation services are primarily funded by BIDs, which are part of New York City’s gentrification engine—and policing is deeply connected to gentrification. The city’s first BID was formed in 1984, and the districts function as a sort of public-private extension of city government that have been called “cartels for landlords.” Broadly speaking, BIDs are a symptom of white flight and the reduced tax base that accompanies it; businesses that depended on tax-funded city services (including sanitation) turned to BIDs in order to keep costs low. 

BIDs played a significant role in former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “clean up” of Times Square in the mid-1990s, where adult establishments and sex workers were ruthlessly targeted by city officials. In 1998, the city implemented a zoning law that banned a variety of adult businesses from operating within 500 feet of schools, homes, and churches. The Times Square Alliance BID acted as a sort of anti-pornographic custodian in the 2000s, taking steps to push out businesses that attempted to circumvent loopholes in that zoning law. 

Although the Doe Fund contracts with several BIDs, including Dumbo and Downtown Brooklyn, not all BIDs use nonprofit intermediaries to reduce wages and deny legal protections to their workers. For instance, the Downtown Alliance BID employs at least some unionized sanitation workers, as does the 34th Street BID. 

BIDs have close working relationships with the NYPD, and often hire their own security forces to extend “order maintenance” policing more fully. In San Francisco, police used BID surveillance cameras to spy on protests against police violence in real time. So, if police and private security forces can be considered the “front end” of gentrification—ushering “disorderly” people away from sites of real estate and commercial development with tickets and arrests—coercing underpaid formerly incarcerated laborers to “beautify” sites of gentrification might be considered the “back end.” 

The Doe Fund’s influence extends deep into New York politics. The nonprofit is a real estate developer, and the organization maintains more than 1 million square feet of housing in part through financial support from New York State. In addition to receiving tens of millions of dollars in public funds to operate homeless shelters, the organization lobbies the city on homeless services policy (and situates its own services as a better “solution” to homelessness than permanent housing). 

This political work also crops up in the personal politics of Doe Fund management; last year, Politico reported that employees who criticized the Amazon HQ2 deal (or Governor Andrew Cuomo more generally) faced retaliation from George McDonald. The McDonald family has donated at least $250,000 to Cuomo’s election campaigns. The Doe Fund is also tied to New York City’s political leadership: former Mayor Michael Bloomberg has given the organization millions of dollars, and the Doe Fund reciprocated this support by sending “van loads” of program clients to testify in favor of his third term in 2008. 

Connections like these aren’t lost on the Doe Fund’s clients. “George McDonald and Michael Bloomberg are best friends. They were shooting pool in one of the facilities together,” one client told The Appeal. The Doe Fund appears poised to export its welfare-punishment framework nationwide: The organization’s most recent annual report notes that its model is expanding into other cities, including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and two cities in Colorado. But it’s possible that cities where George McDonald holds less political sway could resist the expansions. 

Seattle Mayor Known As ‘Tear Gas Jenny’ For Police Treatment Of Protesters Has Troubled History As A Federal Prosecutor

As U.S. attorney in Seattle, Durkan prosecuted a severely mentally ill man in a terrorism case using an informant convicted of child sex abuse—and claimed to have reformed the same Seattle Police Department that has tear-gassed peaceful protesters for weeks.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaking in March at a news conference about the corona virus outbreak.
Photo by Elaine Thompson, Pool/Getty Images

Seattle Mayor Known As ‘Tear Gas Jenny’ For Police Treatment Of Protesters Has Troubled History As A Federal Prosecutor

As U.S. attorney in Seattle, Durkan prosecuted a severely mentally ill man in a terrorism case using an informant convicted of child sex abuse—and claimed to have reformed the same Seattle Police Department that has tear-gassed peaceful protesters for weeks.

On Nov. 24, 2014, a St. Louis grand jury announced it would not indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson with fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown. That same day, Jenny Durkan, who had served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington until that September, wrote in the Washington Post that she understood the decision because of the “high legal burden” prosecutors face when attempting to criminally charge police. Durkan wrote that she faced a Ferguson-like crisis when, in 2010, Seattle officer Ian Birk fatally shot John T. Williams, a Native woodcarver, after Birk said he saw Williams holding a pocket knife. The “knife” turned out to be a whittling tool. Despite public anger—and the police department’s own Firearms Review Board’s finding that the shooting was unjustified—Durkan claimed in the Post op-ed that her office was unable to charge Birk under federal law.  

Instead, Durkan said the shooting pushed her office to reform the Seattle police. Her office and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division conducted a “pattern or practice” investigation into the department and determined that it routinely used excessive force.

“Today both the city and the department have new leaders who have embraced reforms,” she wrote. “Years of work remain to implement the new policies and truly change the culture. But all parties—community, police, elected leaders and the DOJ—are building the type of department the city needs and wants.”

Now, nearly six years later, Durkan faces yet another crisis of policing, this time as Seattle’s mayor: Seattle police are still not in compliance with the federal consent decree that Durkan negotiated as a federal prosecutor. In May, Durkan requested the federal government terminate the consent decree. And her police department has tear-gassed protesters since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, earning her the nickname “Tear Gas Jenny.” 

More recently, left-leaning Seattle residents, including some Democratic Party activists, have demanded Durkan’s resignation over the actions of the police she herself once claimed to have reformed. 

In mid-July, Democratic voters in three Seattle legislative districts passed resolutions demanding that Durkan step down.

“As of tonight the @36th, @37Dems, and @43rdDems have all called on @MayorJenny to resign,” the 43rd District Democrats wrote online July 16. “Seattle deserves a Mayor who will protect our protesters and journalists from police violence and who will work to defund SPD.”

Roughly 40,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Durkan be recalled. On July 20, Nat Puff, a well-known Seattle musician, comedian, and internet personality who performs under the stage name “Left at London,” released a two-track EP online to her 174,000-plus Twitter followers titled “Jenny Durkan, Resign in Disgrace.”

Elliott Grace Harvey, a founder of the Fire The Mayor coalition that is pushing for Durkan’s recall, told The Appeal that they watched politicians and Seattle police escape accountability after the violent 1999 World Trade Organization protest crackdown and wanted Seattle residents to know they could do more to hold elected officials accountable.

“Ultimately, she is the executive of the city,” Harvey said. “When you declare a civil emergency as the mayor, you have both the prerogative and responsibility to command the police department.”

But on July 23, Durkan responded to the attempted recall petition against her in court by saying that “contrary to Petitioners’ claims, Mayor Durkan welcomes accountability and careful review of recent events from SPD’s accountability partners and the community at large. Come regularly scheduled election time next year, Seattle voters can and will hold Mayor Durkan accountable for the City’s successes and failures during her administration.”

Like mayors in other progressive cities, including Portland, where Ted Wheeler unveiled police reform in June only to find himself the target of protesters and even Trump’s federal agents who later tear-gassed him, Durkan’s predicament exposes the limits of police reform in the post-George Floyd era. 

Durkan’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

Progressive Seattleites have been skeptical of Durkan since she was elected in 2017, largely due to her history as a federal prosecutor. Durkan, the daughter of a prominent state lobbyist, was appointed U.S. attorney in 2009 by President Barack Obama and held the position until 2014. In 2017, Seattle Weekly delved into Durkan’s record as a prosecutor and noted that in 2011, she launched what was at the time referred to as the largest series of raids on dispensaries since the state originally legalized medical marijuana in 1998. That same year, as the Washington legislature voted to expand the state medical cannabis law, Durkan co-wrote a letter to then-Governor Christine Gregoire stating that her office would continue to prosecute marijuana growers. 

“The prosecution of individuals and organizations involved in the trade of any illegal drugs and the disruption of drug trafficking organizations is a core priority of the Department,” the letter stated. “This core priority includes prosecution of business enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana.”

But in 2018, as mayor, Durkan instead said vacating marijuana convictions was a “necessary step to right the wrongs” of the war on drugs and that she’d seen the harm caused by cannabis prohibition while working as a prosecutor.

In June 2011, Durkan’s office announced that it foiled a terror plot by two men—Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh—in which they planned to murder military recruiters at a federal building in Seattle. But, as the case dragged on, his loved ones argued that Mujahidh had been living with serious mental illness and had possibly been entrapped by federal agents. Durkan later described Mujahidh as a “coldhearted, enthusiastic partner” in a “murderous scheme” led by Abdul-Latif. When reporters revealed that the handsomely paid informant in the case, Robert Childs, had been convicted of child molestation and rape, and was caught deleting text messages that were supposed to be preserved as evidence in the case, Durkan declared that it is not “saints that can bring us sinners.” In 2019, Childs was arrested again after Seattle police tested a long-ignored rape kit taken from a 12-year-old girl in 2006 and said the DNA matched Childs’s profile.

In November 2019, Mujahidh filed a pro se motion asking a court to vacate his 17-year prison sentence. Mujahidh argued that, due to his schizoaffective and bipolar disorder diagnoses, he struggled to hold a series of minimum-wage jobs and had a history of mental health issues and hospitalizations dating back to when he was three years old. In the motion, Mujahidh attached a pre-sentencing investigation which detailed his staggering mental health history, including approximately 18 psychiatric hospitalizations and an interview with his mother who described a series of bizarre behaviors that began when he was just a toddler, including opening the door of a moving vehicle. 

In March, a judge denied the motion to vacate Mujahidh’s sentence.

The Mujahidh case is part of a long and troubling pattern of federal terrorism prosecutions of mentally ill defendants. In 2015, Harlem Suarez, a Florida Keys resident, was prosecuted federally for allegedly plotting to bomb a public beach. But Suarez’s family instead said he had a mental disability and was conned by a paid FBI informant. And in December 2019, New York Times and ProPublica reporter Pam Colloff raised serious questions about the conviction and death sentence of James Dailey in a 1985 murder in Florida, a case driven by Paul Skalnick, who, like Childs, is a child molester turned informant. 

In 2012, Durkan launched prosecutions of Occupy Wall Street protesters accused of smashing bank windows and fighting with police on May Day in Seattle. Durkan’s office, according to the Los Angeles Times, launched a sweeping probe into local anarchists and ultimately jailed two Olympia, Washington, residents for allegedly refusing to testify against other members of the anarchist community. The two detainees, Katherine “Kteoo” Olejnik and Matt Duran, reportedly spent five months in jail, including two in solitary confinement.

In a 2014 news release announcing her departure from the U.S. attorney’s office, the DOJ said that Durkan had expanded use of civil-asset forfeiture—the long-criticized practice by which state and federal law enforcement agents can seize a person’s money or property, typically without even having to convict them of a crime. The feds said that Durkan’s office had collected at least $822 million in asset-seizures in just five years.

But when Durkan ran for mayor in 2017, police reform was a central part of her platform. “The only way to continue to make progress is to keep pushing on reforms, and to hold people accountable,” Durkan said

After the fatal shooting of John Williams in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington requested a civil rights probe into the Seattle police’s conduct, and Durkan’s office opened an investigation in 2011. Durkan’s office eventually found that the department had wantonly used force against people of color and that one in five instances of use of force by Seattle officers violated the U.S. Constitution. The city entered into a consent decree with the DOJ, but the ACLU and Durkan herself both labeled many of the city’s proposed reforms as “toothless” and “too vague” throughout the process. In 2018, after instituting a body-worn camera program and overhauling numerous use of force and investigatory policies, federal Judge James Robart said that the Seattle police were finally in compliance with the consent decree. 

But that designation didn’t last, and the fault lay with Durkan. By 2018, she was Seattle’s mayor,  and that year, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild union negotiated a labor contract that, as Judge Robart warned, contradicted significant aspects of the consent decree. (The contract, for example, allowed arbitrators to easily allow fired problem police officers to return to the force.) During contract negotiations, 24 community groups asked Durkan not to sign the document. She did so anyway. 

“If you’re concerned about public safety, we needed this contract,” Durkan said.

In 2019, Judge Robart announced that the Seattle police had fallen back out of compliance with its federal monitoring program. Despite the fact that the department is still not in compliance with federal standards, in May Durkan and the Department of Justice asked Robart to terminate the monitoring program.

The Seattle Police Department has transformed itself,” Durkan said in a press release issued barely a month before Seattle officers began tear-gassing their own citizens. On June 3, six days after the Floyd protests began in Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes rescinded the city’s request. On June 5, Durkan issued a “30-day ban” on police tear gas usage—only for Seattle PD to use a loophole in that ban and gas civilians again two nights later.

Over the weekend, Seattle police tossed flash-bang grenades at legal observers and used pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters, all in violation of a federal court order issued in June in Black Lives Matter v. the Seattle Police Department, according to the National Lawyers Guild Seattle chapter.

“The police chief can only be removed by the mayor,” Harvey, the Fire the Mayor coalition leader, told The Appeal. “There’s no mechanism for the general public or city council to do that. Everything leads back to the mayor, who is selected by the voters and can be removed by the voters.”

Starve The Mass Incarceration Beast By Shutting The Front Door

To decarcerate New Orleans, we must defund the police department.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

Starve The Mass Incarceration Beast By Shutting The Front Door

To decarcerate New Orleans, we must defund the police department.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

It’s a miracle that no one was killed on June 3 when the New Orleans Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber balls on peaceful protesters marching as part of the national movement for Black lives.  Members of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) reported that the crowd was packed closely together on the Pontchartrain Expressway, an elevated highway in New Orleans, when police discharged gas. The sound of screams panicked the crowd, and people began to run. Only the collective chants of “Go slow!” and “Don’t run!” from the protesters prevented community members from being trampled. People near the expressway’s edge feared being pushed over the guard rails to their almost certain deaths on roadways far below.  

After this unwarranted attack, Police Chief Shaun Ferguson insisted his officers had not used rubber balls that night, despite videos showing otherwise. He later admitted that he was wrong. This episode of police terror on the expressway, followed by police deception, was a painful reminder to many in our community of the murders of Black men on the Danziger Bridge in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the subsequent cover-up by the NOPD.  These crimes, and many other harms done particularly to communities of color, are why the police department was subjected to the federal consent decree in 2013 that it still operates under today.

Ironically, the New Orleans City Council had a meeting scheduled the next day in which it would formally commend the NOPD for its conduct during prior nonviolent demonstrations against police violence and white supremacy (the commendation was part of a larger resolution supporting the protests.) 

Within a few hours, the OPPRC had organized hundreds of public comments against the commendation, and the department did not receive it. Instead, the City Council decided to hold a hearing on the police’s use of force against protesters, and council members committed to draft an ordinance banning the use of tear gas. A rally on June 11 demanding the defunding of the NOPD’s $194 million operating budget drew hundreds of community members, many newly galvanized by the uprisings that began in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a result of that day’s organizing, the New Orleans City Council received over 1,500 public comments, many demanding that the NOPD be demilitarized and defunded.

Since 2004, OPPRC has led New Orleans in the fight to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Orleans Parish, and to improve the conditions of confinement for those held in the parish jail.  The OPPRC’s work has led to a dramatic decline in the number of people of incarcerated in New Orleans. In 2005, about 6,300 people were incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison—more than five times the national average. Now, less than 800 people are imprisoned at the Orleans Justice Center, which replaced Orleans Parish Prison.  The OPPRC’s work has resulted in the most significant reduction in jail population per capita in the United States. 

We’re not just talking numbers—we’re talking people. Mass incarceration ruins lives, destroys families, and destabilizes communities. After a few days in jail, people often lose their jobs, homes, and custody of their kids then return to the community further traumatized by the violence inside carceral facilities. OPPRC stands at the frontlines of the struggle against racialized generational impoverishment and dispossession by ensuring that fewer and fewer New Orleanians are incarcerated.

For years, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman has attempted to expand the often deadly jail through the construction of a facility for people with serious mental illness. Because we know that a new jail is the last thing our community needs and that Gusman’s often deadly jail has been operating under a federal consent decree since 2013, OPPRC has fought to halt this proposal every step of the way.  We are encouraged that the New Orleans city government is finally starting to support our stance in opposing the creation of this facility.  But this isn’t enough.  On July 13, attorneys involved in the jail’s consent decree said they didn’t oppose Gusman’s request to bring the jail back under his control, all as staff violence against incarcerated people—and COVID-19 infections—continue. 

More important, New Orleans spends nearly a quarter of its budget on policing.  It is necessary to defund the NOPD and reallocate the funds to housing, education, healthcare, economic justice, and the many other research-backed methods that we know will decrease crime while helping to create better conditions in our community.

Our country is experiencing a growing consciousness about—and a cultural renaissance around—what it will take for us to truly shed the painful legacy of white supremacy. This reckoning obliges us to look beyond individual bias and into the roots of all of our institutions—from government and the workplace to healthcare and, of course, the criminal legal system—and to change or, if necessary, uproot them. It’s not only statues and flags that are monuments to white supremacy: Laws, prison buildings, and police departments share the same dubious distinction. Community organizers from around the country, many of them long-term activists for police and prison abolition, are finally being heard and heeded by large numbers of people. It is a moment when Mariame Kaba can ask in the pages of the New York Times: “What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all?”  

Like many cities across the country, New Orleans has consistently disinvested in social services and affordable housing. In fact, New Orleans is in many ways a symbol of the dangers of privatization and the defunding of services that actually benefit people, including its replacement of public schools with an all-charter system after Katrina. These practices of neoliberal austerity have left Black and Latinx communities wracked by poverty—the child poverty rate in New Orleans is at the same level it was pre-Katrina—and, yes, crime. Therefore, we too ask: “What would our city look like with $195 million of its budget to spend on housing, food and education for all?”  In fact, we must ask it.  If not now, when?

In repeated conversations with Sheriff Gusman and his lawyer Blake Arcuri, OPPRC has heard the same tired claim: “It’s out of our hands. Once people are brought here by the police, we have to house them.” So in a sense law enforcement itself has made the argument for us: To abolish the Orleans Parish Prison, we must defund NOPD.  If the police department is the channel that feeds the monster of mass incarceration, it’s time to starve the beast by shutting the front door.

Sade Dumas, a native New Orleanian, is the executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition.

David Brazil is a community pastor.  With Sarah Pritchard, he co-founded Abolition Apostles, a national jail and prison ministry.

New York City’s Public Housing Rules Could Force Many Released Prisoners Into Homelessness

As thousands of people are freed from local jails, a group of nonprofits and activist organizations says the city's housing authority must revamp its policies that banish the formerly incarcerated.

Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

New York City’s Public Housing Rules Could Force Many Released Prisoners Into Homelessness

As thousands of people are freed from local jails, a group of nonprofits and activist organizations says the city's housing authority must revamp its policies that banish the formerly incarcerated.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the population of New York City’s jails has been nearly halved. According to New York state data, the city’s average daily jail population dropped from 7,214 people in June 2019 to 3,878 in June 2020—a 46 percent decline. And according to the most recent jail reduction fact sheet from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the city released nearly 3,400 people from local jails between March 16 and May 25 alone. These releases most likely represent the largest single cut to the city’s jail population in history.

Housing rights advocates, however, warn that a significant percentage of the people released will most likely have nowhere to go unless the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) curtails longstanding policies that have discriminated against justice-involved people or the previously incarcerated. A previously unreported May 6 letter from a  group of 20 housing rights advocacy organizations demanded that NYCHA end long-criticized policies that bar recently arrested people from even visiting the city’s 326 public housing facilities. These policies include provisions allowing NYCHA to banish recently arrested people for years or, worse, permanently bar children as young as 16 from living with their families in public housing.

The letter’s signatories—including the Vera Institute of Justice, Legal Aid Society, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York’s Institute for Justice and Opportunity—wrote that unless NYCHA significantly changes course, its policies will force many of the people recently released from jail during the pandemic right into homelessness.

“We appreciate that the City and State have taken steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons and keep our communities safe, though work here is not done and each should release many more people,” the letter states. “However, we are concerned about the dire emergency housing needs of justice-involved people due to early release. New York City is already in the midst of a housing crisis, and more than half of the people who come home from prison each year are released into homelessness. Many of the people being released may be former NYCHA residents and/or still have family living in NYCHA developments.”

In June, the agency responded to the advocates’ open letter by stating it would temporarily waive some guest-visitation restrictions and speed up reviews for those who ask to overturn permanent bans from city properties.

“We know that it is imperative for NYCHA to continue to update its policies to ensure we provide fair and just access to housing while also balancing community safety goals,” NYCHA chairperson and CEO Gregory Russ wrote in a June 12 letter obtained by The Appeal.

But in an email to NYCHA also obtained by The Appeal, the advocates wrote that the agency’s proposed changes weren’t acceptable.

“We are disappointed with NYCHA’s response to our request and to the crisis,” the group wrote. “The changes NYCHA is making to the temporary guest policy do nothing to address the housing needs of criminal legal system-impacted individuals during a global pandemic. Those needs are the entire reason underlying our request.”

In an email to The Appeal, a NYCHA spokesperson said the agency will continue to examine its policies amid the pandemic. “NYCHA is currently reviewing our policies related to criminal justice involvement as we strive to balance the safety of our residents and the needs of those formerly incarcerated long term,” the spokesperson said. “To immediately respond to the issues raised during the current COVID-19 crisis, we worked to create an electronic PE Lift process and are temporarily allowing visitors to remain on NYCHA properties while they await their application reviews.”

NYCHA maintains some of the strictest eviction policies in the nation. Those arrested on misdemeanor charges can be banned from public housing facilities for a minimum of three years, while those arrested on felony charges can be banned for up to six. Anyone caught committing a crime on NYCHA grounds can be banished for the rest of their lives, and those caught harboring unauthorized people can themselves then be evicted as well. 

Standards for “permanent exclusion” are far more subjective than those in criminal court; NYCHA maintains the right to evict tenants for conduct it says endangers “the health and safety of other tenants,” or for “sex or morals” offenses, “common law nuisance[s], and other similarly vague categories. 

“A person who’s excluded is not even allowed to visit for Christmas or birthdays,” Nora Reissig, the former director of NYCHA’s Department of Family Services, told The Appeal. “This tears families apart. For most families that’s a joyous event, but not if you have somebody who has to sneak in or hide if anyone knocks on the door.” In 2013, the New York Times reported that roughly 1,500 recent parolees had listed NYCHA properties as their home address and thus were most likely living unauthorized in public housing. In 2016, the Village Voice profiled Darnell Smith, who said he was living unauthorized in his family’s Harlem apartment after leaving prison and repeatedly hid in a closet from NYCHA investigators to make sure his wife and children did not get evicted.

In 2013, Reissig helped NYCHA and the Vera Institute of Justice launch what is now known as NYCHA’s Family Reentry Program, which was then a pilot project. It allows incarcerated people to return to NYCHA housing immediately after leaving prison. In 2016, Vera reported that just one of the initial 85 participants was convicted of a new charge while in the program.

Although NYCHA has since made the Family Reentry Program permanent, advocates for the formerly imprisoned say the program reviews and approves far too few applications each year and is not prepared for the influx of people released amid the pandemic.

JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society (another nonprofit that signed the May 6 letter), told The Appeal that she was disappointed that NYCHA hadn’t expanded the re-entry program before the pandemic hit. She referenced a study showing that in 2017 more than half of those released from New York state prisons move directly into homeless shelters—and said that many of those people could potentially find homes with families in NYCHA properties.

“Permanent exclusion has a disparate impact on people of color,” she said. “You have to look at the damage it does to the poorest New Yorkers. When you look through a racial-equity lens, there’s an additional impetus to change a policy that, just like what you have in the criminal justice system, disproportionately impacts people of color and their families.”

Similarly, Kinshasa Hillery, director of the Legal Empowerment and Assistance Program at RiseBoro Community Partnership (a nonprofit that signed the May letter), told The Appeal that she’s seen NYCHA bring eviction proceedings against one woman with mental illness who allowed an unauthorized visitor to enter her home.

“They just need to see an arrest record,” she said. “They can put you through eviction proceedings regardless of the outcome of actual criminal proceedings. It’s always been a very powerful tool for NYCHA to over-police and overregulate its community.”

In the May 6 letter, housing advocates asked NYCHA for four specific changes: waive temporary-guest requirements for a minimum of six months and commit to not evicting anyone who brings in an unauthorized guest for the next year, temporarily suspend permanent-exclusion inspections,  automatically lift any permanent exclusion more than five years old, ensure that every tenant is properly informed if NYCHA changes any of the aforementioned policies.

Instead, the agency offered a compromise that advocates say is inadequate. In its June 12 response, NYCHA wrote that temporary guests will be allowed to stay in public housing while their applications are pending (NYCHA typically has 60 days to approve or deny a visitation request) and, if denied, will be given 30 days to submit documents showing any unauthorized tenants have left the property. NYCHA also said it would “expedite” re-entry reviews, but only for people who requested the review, which critics say is a difficult and byzantine process.

“By continuing to penalize residents and applicants with conviction histories, NYCHA is relying on a fundamentally racist and unjust system and is a part of the system of perpetual punishment faced by over-policed communities of color,” the advocates wrote back. “It is unsupportable for NYCHA to continue its policies that preclude the victims of this unjust system from being able to live with, or even visit, their families. NYCHA must reckon with its own racist policies and practices and the ways in which it, as a landlord, oppresses people of color.” 

It’s Time To Defund The University of Mississippi Police Department

From crackdowns on Black students decades ago to more recent arrests during protests against neo-Confederates, the department has served as a tool for enforcing white supremacy.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

It’s Time To Defund The University of Mississippi Police Department

From crackdowns on Black students decades ago to more recent arrests during protests against neo-Confederates, the department has served as a tool for enforcing white supremacy.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In the fall of 2019, the governing board over Mississippi’s eight public higher education institutions, the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), appointed a new chancellor at the University of Mississippi (UMiss) in Oxford. The new chancellor, Glenn Boyce, had previously worked at three predominantly white private schools known as “segregation academies” and was paid by the IHL’s Board of Trustees to be a consultant for the chancellor search process, in which he was ultimately selected. To announce the appointment, Boyce was set to speak at a news conference held by the Board.

In response, a coalition of faculty and students organized a protest to call for more democratic university leadership. Hundreds of people, including students, faculty, and alumni, showed up in support. As students held signs reading “Abolish IHL” and “Students and Workers Run This School,”  Ray Hawkins, the chief of the university’s police department (UPD) picked me up and wrestled me out of the room. This physically violent act was followed by members of the alt-right and neo-confederates harassing me for months. But it was not the first time that UPD forced a student into the frontlines of white supremacist violence and, as long as the department exists, it will not be the last.

Fifty years earlier, in 1969, Black students at UMiss officially chartered the Black Student Union (BSU). Unbeknownst to the students, months after charter, the FBI was surveilling them. Because of a recent Freedom of Information Act request by UMiss assistant professor of history Garrett Felber, we now know that the FBI worked closely with UPD to document the activities of Black students across campus. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even recommended that the local FBI office “take immediate steps to develop member informants in the BSU.”

Over the course of the 1969-70 school year, Black students protested racism at UMiss and released a list of 27 demands, including a “condemnation of the racist attitude and statements of members of the Board of Trustees,” and a “minimum wage for campus employees.” In February 1970, the international singing group Up With People performed on campus. In an effort to have their demands met, Black students took the stage and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. 

During and after the concert, 89 people were arrested. Some students were taken to a local county jail, while others were held at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, home to the state’s death row.

A local prosecutor later dropped criminal charges against the protesters, but eight students were expelled. “We did not have any weapons, and our protest was completely nonviolent,” Linnie Willis, one of the expelled students, told the New Yorker this year. “I went to jail in my hometown, not at Parchman; that was worse, since I became a marked person and could never be employed in Oxford.” Willis had completed all the requirements for her degree when she was expelled, but UMiss did not give her a diploma for 50 years.

In the last five years, there’s been another wave of student organizing on campus. In 2015, Dominique Garrett-Scott, then an undergraduate, was one of the leaders of the fight to remove the Mississippi state flag, which included the Confederate emblem, from campus. Their fight was successful: That year, the flag was taken down. (In late June of this year, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill to retire the flag). The backlash, however, included hyper-surveillance and counter-protesting from neo-Confederates. In 2017, a student running for student government included the Mississippi state flag on his campaign sign. Taia McAfee, then a freshman, painted over the Confederate emblem with “BLM” and was later arrested by UPD. 

Connecting multiple generations of activists at UMiss is the fight against the entrenched white supremacy and those who protect it: the police. Over several decades, this has not only subjected students to police violence, but also takes resources away from campus workers. In the 2019-2020 school year, UPD had an annual budget of over $3 million, and its chief’s salary was $114,130. At the same time, as the coronavirus pandemic began, dozens of workers at UMiss struggled to buy groceries and pay rent, which compounded the fact that an estimated 20-25 percent of workers at UMiss do not make a living wage. 

Campus policing not only invites overt police violence, but by taking resources that could go to students and workers, inherently contributes to other acts of violence across campus. Between 2016 and 2018, there were 49 on-campus rapes reported, but excluding UPD’s “security report,” support for sexual assault survivors is virtually nonexistent. In 2019, UMiss’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Office, which provided support for survivors, merged with another office, and the campus counseling center started limiting student appointments to 10 per academic year. University administrators have been consistent in what they have communicated to students and workers for the last 50 years: They care more about policing us than taking care of our needs. 

This past month, as activists and city governments took down statues down across the country—including the removal of several Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia— the IHL’s Board of Trustees unveiled their plans to renovate a “Confederate cemetery” and relocate the Confederate statue that sits in the middle of campus. The price tag for the proposed project is $1.1 million and includes security cameras around the premises for constant surveillance by UPD. 

As UMiss continues to increase its investment in the police and promoting and protecting white supremacy, the coronavirus pandemic continues—and many workers at school struggle to make ends meet. This contradiction existed long before the global pandemic, but the level of suffering in our communities has been exacerbated by administrators continuing to prioritize capital and policing as the virus has spread. The funds for maintaining white supremacy at UMiss should be redirected to providing workers a living wage, to sexual assault prevention, and to the general well-being of people in our community. It is time to build on calls, begun in 1970, to defund UPD. 

Cam Calisch is a graduate student and community organizer at the University of Mississippi.  

As COVID-19 Permeates Prisons And Jails, Baltimore Defendants Continue To Be Held Without Bail

An Appeal analysis shows that the percentage of people held without bond remains steady, at roughly 33%, although arrests are down during the pandemic.

The Maryland Correctional Institution, Jessup, Maryland.
Photo by Marvin Joseph/The The Washington Post via Getty Images.

As COVID-19 Permeates Prisons And Jails, Baltimore Defendants Continue To Be Held Without Bail

An Appeal analysis shows that the percentage of people held without bond remains steady, at roughly 33%, although arrests are down during the pandemic.

On April 28, Angela Burneko sat and listened to Baltimore City prosecutors argue that a teenager who uses a wheelchair was a threat to public safety.  Burneko, a volunteer with the legal observer group Baltimore Courtwatch, said prosecutors from the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office tried to convince a judge that a Black 18-year-old arrested for illegal firearm possession—stemming from an incident in which he  was shot and paralyzed—was a public safety threat if he wasn’t incarcerated pretrial.

“The ASA still made a claim that just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they can’t ‘get around or be a danger to the community,’” Burneko told The Appeal. “I have etched that into my brain. I’ll never forget this.”

The case, Burneko says, exemplifies what Baltimore public defenders, defense attorneys, and legal observers say has been a consistent problem amid the coronavirus pandemic: Despite the fact that jails and prisons are often the epicenters for the virus, prosecutors working for State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby routinely request to hold people without bond.

Using data provided by Open Justice Baltimore, a group that tracks court records in the city, The Appeal analyzed nearly 7,000 cases in Baltimore City’s district courts between Jan. 2 and July 7. Although the total number of cases dropped 34 percent in the months after the city declared a COVID-19 state of emergency on March 19, the percentage of cases in which defendants were held without the opportunity to post bail—roughly one-third of all people who pass through the court system—has remained solid. From Jan. 2 to March 19, 1,196 of 3,557 cases analyzed by The Appeal—roughly a third of the cases charged in the city —were imprisoned without bond. Since March 20, defendants in roughly a third of the 3,346 total cases analyzed by The Appeal have been held without bail.

For those denied  bond, the three most common charges were second-degree (typically misdemeanor) assault, first-degree (felony) assault, and drug possession with the intent to distribute. 

Spokespeople for the state’s attorney’s office told The Appeal that, as a matter of policy, the office is still requesting no bond for assault cases involving domestic violence and drug cases in which guns are involved.  Indeed, after Mosby announced in May that she would no longer prosecute low-level drug possession, prostitution, trespassing, and other offenses because of the pandemic, in June she dismissed 586 outstanding warrants related to those cases, which the office says means prosecutors are taking the pandemic seriously and changing their practices. In March, Mosby also sent Governor Larry Hogan an open letter urging him to take action to lessen jail populations before the pandemic worsened.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, my office has been committed to promoting public health and public safety by reducing the inmate population in both jails and prisons throughout Maryland,” Mosby told The Appeal in an email statement. “As a result of our expanded bail policies and the crimes we no longer prosecute in the city of Baltimore, the jail population is down almost 50% compared to last year. Illustrative of our most recent commitment to depopulating jails and prisons, we proactively quashed and dismissed almost 600 outstanding warrants. Recognizing that public health must be balanced with the need for public safety in a city beset with violence, we are not readily recommending the release of individuals charged with certain serious offenses such as murder, rape, domestic violence, and gun offenses.” 

But Burneko and her colleague at Courtwatch, Christopher Comeau, told The Appeal that in bail review hearings they’ve witnessed across the city, prosecutors still seem to be requesting to hold people without bond in nearly every case. In Twitter threads about hearings on June 16, 17, and 19, Courtwatch noted that, of 57 cases the group observed, prosecutors with Mosby’s office requested that 46 people charged (81percent) be held without bond.

“They seem to still be asking the court to hold the overwhelming majority of defendants without bond,” Burneko said. “It’s a big exception to the rule if the state says anything about releasing the person under any conditions. If that happens, our group chat here will light up.” She added: “They seem to be putting a gun in every crime now—the ASAs make a point in every hearing that the case is drug trafficking with a gun to justify locking people up.”

Similarly, Marianne Lima, lead attorney for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Pretrial Detention Initiative in Baltimore City, told The Appeal her office is frustrated that despite the pandemic, Mosby’s prosecutors seem to be blanket-requesting no bond for those accused of gun possession or domestic violence, no matter what the underlying facts of a case might be.

“The fact that prosecutors aren’t doing more to look into the veracity of these charges is frustrating,” she said. “I think it’s their duty to do this — it’s frustrating that the mere presence of some contraband equates to a deprivation of liberty. If a state’s attorney was just sitting next to a gun without touching it, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be locked up over that.” She added the office needs “to do a better job individually considering each person’s circumstances, they’re clearly not being thorough enough.” Once a person is detained without bond, she said, they may sit in jail for quite a long time, since COVID-19 has slowed and in many cases paused criminal trials.

The gulf between prosecutors and defense attorneys in Baltimore on bail exemplifies issues playing out in virtually every major city in America right now: whether even self-described “progressive” prosecutors are willing to avoid exposing all people who haven’t gone to trial—even people accused of violent crimes—to coronavirus in jail.

In 2017, the state of Maryland attempted to revamp its bail procedures in order to reduce the use of cash bail and make the state’s criminal legal system less harsh on poor defendants. But multiple studies have shown that reforms may have in some cases backfired: A 2018 study by the activist groups Color of Change and Progressive Maryland found that although rates of cash-bail use dropped in Prince George’s County after the reforms passed, more people were instead being held pretrial without the option to post bond at all. 

Analysts say the same trend has occurred in Baltimore as well. In 2018, University of Baltimore Professor Colin Starger told the Washington Post that rates of those held without bond in Baltimore went “through the roof,” after the bail reform act passed and that people accused of second-degree assaults, in particular, were held far more often without any bond after the 2017 reforms. Before the reform act passed, those defendants would typically have at least been offered the opportunity to post cash bail.

Several defense lawyers and public defenders who spoke to The Appeal said they were frustrated at the number of people imprisoned without bond for second-degree assault and drug possession with the intent to distribute.

“We’re declared innocent until proven guilty, but with COVID-19 conditions inside jails we are rolling the dice on a death sentence before someone even gets a trial date,” Matthew Zernheldt, legal director for the Baltimore Action Legal Team legal support group, told The Appeal. “The system needs to expand options for release for higher penalty charges. Instead of burdening folks with fees, our courts could rely on a multi-tiered system that allows people to call-in or check-in biweekly, or examine limiting community movement in extreme cases.”

Mosby’s office is also far from the only big-city prosecutor’s office struggling with how to handle so-called violent defendants during the pandemic. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has, similarly, continued to hold people without bond on gun and domestic-violence cases