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Jury For White Man Who Killed Black NFL Player Has One Black Person

Joe McKnight in 2010
Photo by NFL via Getty Images

Jury For White Man Who Killed Black NFL Player Has One Black Person

The Louisiana jury that will decide whether a white man shot a black former NFL player in self-defense during a road rage incident has just one black juror.

The fatal shooting of former New York Jets running back Joe McKnight in December 2016 quickly triggered accusations of racism in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s largest county.

The suspect, Ronald Gasser, shot McKnight three times in broad daylight at a stoplight five miles southeast of New Orleans. McKnight was unarmed. Gasser confessed, but was initially released without charges by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The local NAACP chapter declared McKnight was “lynched” and accused then-sheriff Newell Normand of giving Gasser “special treatment.”

In a defensive press conference on December 6, 2016, then-sheriff Newell Normand insisted “this isn’t about race” before reading aloud a string of racial slurs he claimed protesters had used against him and other officials, and invoking “black-on-black crime.”

Jefferson Parish has a long history of racist law enforcement. Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee famously told reporters in 2006, “We know the crime is in the black community. Why should I waste time in the white community?”

Gasser’s trial for second-degree murder started Friday. But the skewed jury makeup will probably amplify suspicions of unfair treatment. Though African Americans make up more than a quarter of the population in Jefferson Parish, there are no black men on Gasser’s jury and just one black woman, according to local attorney Chick Foret.

Jefferson Parish has a habit of keeping black residents off juries. A 2003 report by the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, a capital defense nonprofit, found that Jefferson Parish prosecutors removed black prospective jurors in felony trials at more than three times the rate they removed white ones. Though racial discrimination in juries is unconstitutional, the Louisiana Supreme Court has studiously ignored most challenges.

The high rate of exclusion means that 80 percent of criminal trials in Jefferson Parish have no black representation on the jury, according to the civil rights nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

The exclusion of black jurors in Louisiana is no accident. The state has historically gone to great lengths to silence black voices in the criminal justice system. White supremacist lawmakers rewrote the Louisiana constitution in 1898 to allow non-unanimous jury verdicts, hoping to nullify any black influence by requiring only a 10-person majority. The constitutional convention clearly stated its purpose was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state.” More than a century later, Louisiana is one of just two states in the country that allows non-unanimous jury verdicts.

The erasure of black jurors has played out as Jim Crow lawmakers likely hoped. It’s far easier to secure convictions with non-unanimous juries, particularly after prosecutors have excluded black jurors. But Gasser’s odds are significantly better than that of the average black defendant — nationally, white men who kill black men are eight times more likely to be ruled justifiedthan any other killers in the U.S.

Federal Court Hears Constitutional Challenge to a New York Statute that Incarcerates Working Class People of Color

Folding knives like this one have led to thousands of arrests in New York City.

Federal Court Hears Constitutional Challenge to a New York Statute that Incarcerates Working Class People of Color

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday heard oral arguments in a challenge to New York’s controversial “gravity knife” statute, the latest chapter in a fight against a law that has drawn broad criticism from criminal justice reform groups, in part for its disproportionate impact on people of color.

Two of the plaintiffs in the case, John Copeland, a visual artist, and Pedro Perez, an art dealer, were arrested in Manhattan nearly a decade ago for possession of folding knives they say they used in their trades. The third, Native Leather, is a Greenwich Village apparel shop accused of selling prohibited knives in 2010.

The trio is represented by Knife Rights, an Arizona-based organization that advocates for what it considers the constitutional rights of knife owners. Since 2011, the group has been suing Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance on behalf of their members for what they contend is his unconstitutional enforcement of the nearly 70-year-old statute.

Enacted in 1958, the gravity knife law was initially aimed at a large variety of knives similar to switchblades, which were then common on city streets. But according to public defenders, in a trend driven in part by the NYPD’s unofficial arrest quota system, the statute is frequently used instead to arrest blue-collar workers who often have no idea their weapons are illegal.

At the heart of the case is what has come to be known as the “wrist flick” test, used by police to differentiate “gravity knives” from legal folding knives. Under New York State’s peculiar definition, any folding knife that can be opened and locked in place with the snap of a wrist can be classified as unlawful, regardless of whether it was intended to operate that way.

But a knife’s ability to be “flicked” open relies in part on its user’s strength and skill, Knife Rights argues, and is therefore inherently subjective. With no uniform test to determine what is and is not a gravity knife, the law as enforced is unconstitutionally vague, they say.

“There’s literally no way to know whether you’re engaged in legal conduct,” Daniel Schmutter, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the three-judge panel on Thursday. Someone seeking to comply with the law, he explained, might set out to perform the wrist flick test themselves, fail, and think the knife is safely “unflickable.” But whether a knife’s owner can “flick” his or her knife is irrelevant if a skilled police officer can do so.

“The problem arises not when [the knife] opens, but when it doesn’t open,” Schmutter said. That vagueness, plaintiffs argue, violates the principles of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Vance’s office argues, and state courts have affirmed, that the test is perfectly clear. If a knife can ever be opened with a wrist flick, under any circumstances, then it meets the definition of an illegal knife. Moreover, they say, the wrist flick test has been employed since the law was passed in 1958.

“It’s the same test that’s been used since the inception of the statute,” offered attorney Elizabeth Krasnow, who is representing the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, citing an assistant district attorney and government witness who testified to the uniformity of his tests over the past 30 years.

Legal defense groups like the Brooklyn Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society complain that innocent clients — construction workers, plumbers and other working class New Yorkers — are frequently arrested for knives essential to their work, and which are widely available at city retailers. Invariably, they are unaware that knives sold openly in city stores can be considered illegal.

Even worse, public defenders say, while the charge is normally a misdemeanor, anyone with a prior criminal conviction can be hit with a felony by the DA’s office, and face up to seven years in prison. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested under the law in the past decade, according to a Legal Aid analysis, and of those defendants, 84 percent were Black or Latino. The state legislature in 2016 and 2017 passed reform measures that would have stemmed the arrests, but each was ultimately vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Vance, the titular target of Knife Rights’ suit, has become the focus of much of the reformers’ ire, in part because his office has zealously prosecuted gravity knife cases. According to an amicus brief filed by the Legal Aid Society in support of the plaintiffs, over a five-month period in 2015, Vance pursued more than four times as many felony gravity knife possession cases as all other New York City DA’s combined. He has also been the most vocal opponent of amending the statute, lobbying against every iteration of the reforms since 2014.

The case has created some strange courtroom scenes, not to mention some unlikely alliances. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, for example, has thrown its support behind legislative changes to the law, as has the National Rifle Association.

Evidentiary hearings have also been tricky. In the district court, some exhibits — knives which the government, after all, contends are illegal weapons — had to be transferred by police through a complicated chain of custody. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler referred to that particular challenge in a quip to Knife Rights attorney Schmutter on Thursday. If he had wanted to bring an exhibit to help with his presentation, she noted, he might have run into problems at a secure federal courthouse.

“You probably couldn’t get it through the guards,” she said.

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Death by Prosecution: Was There a Bigger Player in Drug Case Involving Man Who Killed Himself After Federal Indictment?

Caleb Smith and Amanda Leach
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Death by Prosecution: Was There a Bigger Player in Drug Case Involving Man Who Killed Himself After Federal Indictment?

Caleb Smith was an overwhelmed but idealistic 26-year-old with a master’s degree in biomedical science, studying for medical school entrance exams. When he wasn’t learning about the human body, Smith, a resident of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, worked on his car, watched anime cartoons, and played with his beloved Siberian Husky.

But Smith’s dream of becoming a doctor was abruptly cut short when he killed himself last September, less than one month after federal prosecutors charged him with the death of his girlfriend, 26-year-old Amanda Leach, who fatally overdosed in May 2016 on illicit fentanyl he accidentally purchased online. Smith, grieving the death of his girlfriend and feeling the weight of the federal government bearing down on him, fatally shot himself on September 1, 2016, one day after he was released from jail. His trial date had been set for the following October.

Smith thought he had purchased a popular ADHD medication from an online vendor to help him study, his mom told local news, but the pills, which he received by mail, instead contained illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Leach repeatedly asked Smith for some of the Adderall he thought he had purchased, Smith’s mom, Kathy Smith, said. Soon after Smith gave Leach the pills, she was found dead in her apartment. Three months later, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania charged Smith with distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death, otherwise known as “drug-induced homicide.”

The guilt over his girlfriend’s death — and the specter of a minimum 20 year prison sentence — proved too much for Smith, who had no prior criminal history. Smith’s mother told local newspapers that he fell into a deep depression after his girlfriend died. “He told us every day, ‘I want to blow my head off,’” she told local media. “I said, ‘please, Caleb. Please don’t do this. I love you.’” (The Smith family and friends did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.)

Smith’s mom said the he repeatedly called himself a murderer. “I said, ‘No you are not. A murderer is someone who meant to do it.’ I couldn’t get that through his head.”

But federal prosecutors thought otherwise.

Smith’s case illustrates a new trend of prosecutors at both the state and federal level turning accidental drug overdoses into homicides. Born out of the “tough on crime” crack-cocaine era of the ’80s and ’90s, “drug-induced homicide” statutes hold dealers legally responsible for the deaths of their customers who overdose on the drugs they sold. Although the statutes went unused for decades, state and federal prosecutors now deploy them as a desperate attempt to mitigate the toll of the opioid crisis that killed over 40,000 people in 2016, according to the CDC. Severe penalties will deter dealers from dealing, prosecutors’ thinking goes; but there’s scant evidence supporting that notion. The Appeal recently reported on research by the Drug Policy Alliance that found that the number of drug-induced homicide prosecutions increased by 300 percent from 2011 to 2016. Yet fatal heroin and fentanyl overdoses more than quintupled during that same window. Heroin contaminated with fentanyl, which is many times more potent than heroin, is as cheap and accessible as its ever been.

Not only are these prosecutions ineffective in alleviating the epidemic; prosecutors’ definition of “dealer” stretches the word nearly beyond recognition. Originally crafted to target major traffickers, the majority of drug-induced homicide prosecutions target friends, family, and romantic partners — like in Smith’s case — who do not fit the traditional profile of a dealer, according to research by Northeastern University’s Health In Justice initiative (which I’ve contributed to). Instead, these defendants are drug users themselves, who gave or sold a small amount of drugs to their peers or loved ones.

Smith wasn’t the only target in the death of Amanda Leach. A review of the evidence in Smith’s case by The Appeal reveals that the investigation also focused on an alleged major drug trafficker, 26-year-old Aaron Broussard of Hopkins Minnesota, operator of (which has since shut down) — the website from which Smith purchased the drugs that killed his girlfriend.

Three months after Amanda Leach’s overdose, the FBI arrested Broussard in Hopkins, Minnesota. Federal prosecutors charged him with distributing fentanyl resulting in death. According to the government’s legal documents, Broussard ordered drugs online from “international sources” and repackaged the drugs himself. He then shipped “hundreds of Priority Mail” parcels from a post office in Hopkins, Minnesota, to customers across the country who died after using them.

Illicitly manufactured fentanyl killed nearly 20,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The deadly opioid is the number one driver of overdoses in America. A particularly insidious trend of today’s overdose crisis is the shipment of black market fentanyl by mail. Packages containing illicit fentanyl are small and innocuous, creating a needle-in-a-haystack situation for law enforcement trying to intercept dangerous packages. Broussard allegedly used — named to deceive authorities into thinking the site sold dietary supplements — to sell powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl to customers by mail. Federal prosecutors alleged that Broussard’s scheme was linked to 10 fatal overdoses, including Leach’s.

“In all cases, the victims had ordered less dangerous drugs but, unbeknownst to them, received fentanyl instead,” according to the government’s court filings in Broussard’s prosecution.

One of Broussard’s alleged victims was a woman who overdosed on April 8, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A plastic bag of white crystalline powder was found in her bedroom, and the victim’s mother discovered a package that had a return address to a post office box linked to Broussard in Hopkins, Minnesota. The woman survived the overdose, but with potentially life-long neurological damage caused by a lack of oxygen flowing to the brain.

Another alleged victim was 41-year-old Jason Beddow, professor of economics at the University of Minnesota. Beddow was found dead in his office in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 14, 2016. Once again, a bag of white powder was found at the scene. An investigation by the United States Postal Inspection Service found that Beddow received a parcel from a “ClickN-Ship” account allegedly used by Broussard. A coroner determined that Beddow had an “elevated level of fentanyl” in his system at the time of his death.

Following his indictment by a federal grand jury on December 6, 2016, Broussard pleaded not guilty, and is awaiting trial.

“My client may have sent this [chemical] out, but he didn’t send it to them with any idea of what their purpose was for,” says Broussard’s attorney Bernard J. Brown, “the (government’s) case is circumstantial, and I think it’s a far leap that the government is trying to make in this particular case.” Brown adds that his client did not intend in any way to harm the recipients of the chemicals.

From the government’s allegations, Broussard seems more culpable than Smith; he was an actual drug dealer, and his alleged customers were unaware of the contents and potency of the drugs he allegedly shipped. But had Smith not killed himself, he and Broussard would have been charged as co-conspirators in the same indictment, a spokesperson for Middle District Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney David Freed told In Justice Today. And Broussard’s alleged drug-dealing by mail scheme carries the same 20 year mandatory minimum sentence that Smith was facing for ordering the drugs.

“[Smith’s] case illustrates the senseless ensnarement of partners or friends of drug users who are being charged with really heinous crimes for actions that do not reflect the severity of punishment that’s being applied to them,” says Leo Beletsky, professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. Beletsky, who is also the principal investigator at Health In Justice, a group of researchers and journalists tracking public health policy, added that there was no intention of harm in this particular case. “No reasonable person would frame Smith as a murderer or killer — it’s an example of a total accident,” he said.

The aggressive prosecution of Smith recalls that of digital rights activist Aaron Swartz, who faced 35 years and up to $1 million in fines for allegedly downloading thousands of academic articles with a secret computer connected to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network. Swartz committed suicide in 2013. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, contended, “Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice.”

Prior to ordering what he thought was Adderall, Smith, like Swartz, was an overachiever who loved science and technology. But in the eyes of federal prosecutors, none of that mattered: They believed Smith murdered his 26-year-old girlfriend. The result is a tragic and avoidable loss of life, all because of prosecutors who pride themselves on a “public health response” to addiction but actually deploy punitive and carceral measures. One life was lost to an accidental overdose. Another was lost to seeing no way out of an aggressive federal prosecution.

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