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Injustice Roundup: My Weekly Roundup of Stories on Abusive Police Officers, Prison Guards, and Prosecutors

Injustice Roundup: My Weekly Roundup of Stories on Abusive Police Officers, Prison Guards, and Prosecutors

In the era of Trump, it can be hard to keep up with essential stories about injustice in America. This is my weekly column where I give a rundown of important headlines that have unfolded that may have gotten past you. If you have not done so already, please subscribe to our regular newsletter here. It’s the absolute best way to stay informed.

Louisiana sheriff says how much he wants to keep good men in prison so they can clean his car and change his oil

For many of us in this community that fights injustice daily, the words Caddo Parish immediately make us cringe. In many ways, it is ground zero for so much that is horribly wrong with the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, Louisiana passed a criminal justice reform package that aims to reduce the prison population by at least 10%. In a press conference about how much he dislikes many of these reforms, Sheriff Steve Prator, in plain English, openly states how he hates seeing good men let go because they are the ones that “can pick up trash,” “wash cars,” “change oil in our cars,” and “cook in the kitchen.” Watch it for yourself. It’s troubling and basically shows how our current systems of mass incarceration are slavery by another name.

California prosecutor illegally withholds evidence, the state bar recommends her law license be suspended, she testifies that she’d do it again

Injustice is local and it’s likely that you have not heard of how outrageously corrupt the District Attorney’s Office in Orange County, California is and has been for years on end. I study these offices across the country and few rival how gross this one is from the top on down.

Back in 2013 Deputy District Attorney Sandra Lee Nassar deliberately withheld key evidence from defense attorneys. That’s illegal. The California State Bar has now recommended that her law license be suspended for a year and that she be put on probation for at least three years while she proves to the bar that she has been rehabilitated. Why? Because the state bar found evidence not only of other misconduct, but testimony revealing that she said she’d do it again.

“One issue that distinguishes the present case (from the others) is (Nassar’s) lack of insight and understanding regarding her own misconduct,” the bar said in its recommendation. “This court found deeply disturbing (Nassar’s) testimony that she would engage in the same conduct again. In her capacity as a prosecutor, (Nassar’s) lack of insight on this subject represents a tremendous threat of future harm to the public and the administration of justice.”

Here’s my take: Sandra Lee Nassar should never again be allowed to be a criminal prosecutor.

The truth is finally being told about Manhattan’s District Attorney — Cy Vance

In the span of about 10 days, the house has come crashing down for Manhattan’s District Attorney, Cy Vance. While he regularly throws the book at Black and Latino youth in the city, we recently found out that he made case after case disappear not just for Harvey Weinstein, but for the Trump family as well — each who gave him large donations around the time he opted to drop the strong cases against them.

Sadly, he is running unopposed for reelection and the date has already passed for someone better to get on the ballot. People are considering running against him as write-in candidates, but calls are growing for him to step down altogether. I support those calls. His integrity and public reputation are compromised.

The DA of Salt Lake City justifies the absolutely unjustifiable police murder of Patrick Harmon

Sadly, I’ve seen hundreds of horrible videos of people being killed by police in America. The video of the police execution of Patrick Harmon will stick with me for years. A 50 year old black man, Harmon can be seen and heard on video before the shooting sobbing at the possibility of going to jail. Police appear to have initially confronted Harmon because they didn’t like how he was riding his bike on the road. When they ran a check on Harmon and learned that he had an open warrant, police decided to place him under arrest. At that point, he panicked and ran, then police shot him repeatedly in the back.

Mind you, Harmon was a toothless, life-worn man, who could’ve been chased down with a brisk walk. Officers chose instead to shoot him on the spot.

The DA insists the shooting was just fine. They always are, according to him. It’s disgusting.

Multiple NYPD officers accused of rape and child prostitution

I’ve written a great deal about the NYPD’s 42nd Precinct. Some of the officers there are among the most corrupt men I’ve ever encountered. That’s why it was no surprise that an officer from the precinct, 40 year old Raul Olmeda, not only paid a 15 year old girl for sex, he also filmed it. Prosecutors have charged him with over a dozen different crimes.

This comes at the same time as DNA from two different NYPD cops has been matched to DNA taken from rape kits after the officers were accused of raping a Brooklyn teenager that they had handcuffed after a traffic stop.

What I know is that the evidence on all three of these men is more than enough to not only arrest, but convict virtually any everyday New Yorker.

Why Would Prosecutors Refuse DNA Testing?

In this Oregon capital case, it could ensure that the state doesn’t execute the wrong man.

DNA Lab at University of Michigan

Why Would Prosecutors Refuse DNA Testing?

In this Oregon capital case, it could ensure that the state doesn’t execute the wrong man.

On March 20, 1998, Harriet Thompson was found dead in her Salem, Oregon, apartment. The scene was gruesome, “a scene from a slaughterhouse” the District Attorney would say — blood stains on the floor, bloody shoe-prints, bloody towels, a bloody bathroom and a broken, bloody knife. The police formulated a theory that the crime was a murder-robbery.

A week later, the police arrested Jesse Lee Johnson because he had some of Thompson’s jewelry, allegedly giving earrings to his girlfriend and selling a ring. Johnson admitted he had been in Thompson’s apartment — he knew her — but denied being involved in her death. At trial, prosecutors presented some forensic evidence — a cigarette butt, footprints and fingerprints — to argue that Johnson had been in the house that day and had killed Thompson. Prosecutors offered to let Johnson plea to manslaughter, which he turned down. He was then convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Johnson has maintained his innocence for twenty years. Now, his counsel, Steven Wax of the Oregon Innocence Project, is asking for DNA testing of 38 samples from the crime scene. Many of them were never tested; others were tested using an older DNA test that has fallen out of use because it is not as accurate as current methods. The Marion County District Attorney’s office is opposing any requests to test more evidence, arguing in their brief that “this is not a DNA case.”

Even though DNA testing has helped exonerate over 340 people, there are still prosecutors who oppose disturbing standing convictions, favoring finality over justice.

For example, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough defended the capital conviction of Marcellus Williams even though post-conviction DNA testing pointed to a different person. McCullough’s office and the Missouri Attorney General’s office continued to argue that other evidence, mostly consisting of jailhouse snitch testimony, pointed to Williams’s guilt. Ultimately, the Missouri governor stayed the execution pending an investigation.

In another recent Philadelphia case, Anthony Wright faced execution for a rape and murder that he did not commit. Wright — who was only 20 at the time of his arrest — says he gave a confession after being threatened by the police. Post-conviction DNA testing, which the original prosecutor Lynne Abraham resisted, pointed to another suspect. Despite the fact that a judge ordered a retrial based on the DNA results, then-District Attorney Seth Williams prosecuted Wright again and lost.

And, even though DNA testing is the gold standard for convictions and exonerations, there are differences in how DNA evidence has historically been processed as well as how that evidence can be used and interpreted. In the early stages of DNA exonerations, the evidence was relatively simple — DNA from a rape kit, for example, definitively excluded the exoneree from the crime.

In Johnson’s case, the DNA evidence requires more interpretation because, as Johnson admits, he was in the apartment. Therefore, it would make sense that his DNA would be found on objects also in the crime scene. For example, some evidence was tested for DNA, but the results were not conclusive. Some DNA samples — like those from the bloody bathroom and the likely murder weapon — excluded Johnson, but law enforcement never matched the DNA to anyone else. Some DNA samples were mixed and difficult to process. Some DNA matched other people. And some DNA samples did match the defendant, but they could also have been present because Johnson had been in the apartment before. (The state used other evidence — like footprint matching — at trial, but the results were not only potentially tainted by law enforcement but have also been deemed unreliable by the scientific community.)

This is likely to be the next generation of DNA exonerations — cases where the DNA can point to other suspects or cast appreciable doubt on a conviction.

Last Friday, Johnson’s counsel argued in favor of additional DNA testing while the DA’s office defended their position that the current Oregon law does not apply to Johnson’s case because, they argued, there was not enough to show that the results would fully prove Johnson’s innocence. Steve Wax, Johnson’s legal counsel, argued that the Oregon statute only required a “reasonable possibility” that the evidence points to innocence. It would be impossible to prove otherwise until the testing is complete, as Wax explains. Via email he told me after the hearing, “Seven exclusions of Mr. Johnson’s DNA from items at the murder scene raise significant questions about the conviction that we are hopeful further testing could answer.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Plans for new Los Angeles jail frustrate criminal justice reform advocates

Plans for new Los Angeles jail frustrate criminal justice reform advocates

A planned jail expansion in Los Angeles has generated intense opposition and protest from civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations.

Last month, 100 protestors challenged the city Board of Supervisors to redirect funds earmarked for new locked facilities toward community services and other “alternatives to incarceration.”

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors first approved the plan to allocate $2 billion to build a 3,885-bed jail to replace the 5,276-bed Men’s Central Jail, located downtown, in 2015. The plan also calls for the construction of a 1,600-bed women’s facility to replace the current women’s lockup in Lynwood.

Critics maintain that there are far better ways to spend what they believe will ultimately be a $3.5 billion investment by the city in these proposed replacements.

“We can find $3.5 billion to build more jails, but we can’t find money for schools. We can find money for Olympics, but we can’t find money for parks,” said Greg Akili of Black Lives Matter, one of the groups leading the charge against the proposed expansion. “If you’ve got $3.5 billion, invest it in the people.”

Jayda Rasberry of the Los Angeles based grassroots group Dignity and Power Now agrees: “These beds represent trauma, torture, embarrassment, isolation, shame and death.”

Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell and District Attorney Jackie Lacey both support the proposed new facilities, arguing that they will lead to improved treatment of mentally ill inmates. Lacey told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that the replacement jail “will allow us to treat them more humanely, provide more resources for them.” Current estimates put the mentally ill population at approximately 20% of the 17,000 people incarcerated in Los Angeles.

Critics of the new facilities do not disagree that the Men’s Central Jail is old, decrepit, overcrowded, and long overdue for closing. But they question spending public money on another locked facility. Natalie Pifer, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Rhode Island, told In Justice Today that city officials should consider a “better way to care for the mentally ill,” one that is “done outside of the carceral setting.”

Moreover, Patrisse Cullors, a Los Angeles native and a founder of Black Lives Matter, argues that the city should impose a moratorium on all new jail construction until it has a better grasp on the impact of recent state-level criminal justice reforms. These include proposals to overhaul the bail system, re-classify some offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and early release measures — all of which will likely decrease the city’s overall incarcerated population.

“What we should be doing,” Cullors maintains, “is getting a clear understanding of who’s in our jails and investing in their health and well-being instead.”

Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of California, told In Justice Today that, in one respect, she believes the proposed jail represents an improvement because it houses fewer inmates than the old one.

“Any reduction of bed space is good,” she said.

But Reiter conceded that moving forward to build the jail would, in effect, bring to an abrupt halt the larger public discussion about city investment priorities.

“It will be a long time before we have this debate again,” Reiter said.

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