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Kym Worthy refuses to admit fault, again

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy
Wayne County

Kym Worthy refuses to admit fault, again

In 1996, a 12-year-old girl named Christina Brown was found dead in a Detroit apartment. She had been beaten to death with a toilet tank lid; she’d also been stabbed. Lamarr Monson — who had been living with and dealing drugs with Brown thinking she was older — came home and found her dead. He called for the neighbors to dial 9–1–1.

Monson became an immediate suspect. Authorities thought Brown had been stabbed to death, so they tried to connect Monson to the knife found in the apartment. “This case can be closed with a confession from Monson,” one police report read. Police somehow coerced Monson into giving some inconsistent statements incriminating himself by supporting their original (and wrong) theory of the crime. Monson went to trial and was convicted of first-degree murder.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, led by David Moran, fought for Monson’s freedom based on DNA evidence found on a knife used to murder Brown. The DNA belonged to Robert Lee Lewis, who had actually been the original suspect identified by his girlfriend, who said that Lewis had confessed to her at the time of the crime. The witness had come forward previously, but then changed her mind because Lewis had threatened to kill her and her family. She recently came forward again to affirm what Lewis had said at the time.

In January, Monson won a new trial based on the testimony of the girlfriend, a bloody thumbprint belonging to Lewis, and evidence that Monson’s original “confessions” had been coerced. Last week, Wayne County prosecutors decided to drop the charges, citing destruction of evidence and “passage of time.” Key pieces of evidence had never been tested for DNA at the time of trial, including the toilet tank lid with a bloody print that turned out to be Lewis’s. The police also did not disclose that several anonymous tips had been called in pointing to Lewis. (Monson’s lawyer had previously asked the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit to intervene. According to Monson’s briefs, they refused, with Wayne County District Attorney Kym Worthy writing that the Conviction Integrity Unit “is not staffed with any attorneys.”)

Perhaps most notable, however, was the prosecution’s reaction. Worthy, who assumed her position in 2004, blamed everyone else for Monson’s exoneration, all in an effort to avoid admitting a mistake by her office. She said that she had contacted Lewis, who denied involvement, and she blamed the policies of the Detroit Police Department for their “failure…to retain critical evidence.” Her comments never conceded that Monson was likely innocent, instead preserving the illusion that he could be tried again if only the police had done a better job: “Due to the destruction of evidence, issues surrounding the way the police obtained Monson’s confession and the passage of time, we are unable to re-try this case.”

This wishy-washy behavior isn’t unusual for Worthy. When Davontae Sanford was exonerated in 2016 Worthy gave a long press conference complete with PowerPoint slides where she doggedly explained that the arrest, prosecution and sentence were somehow reasonable and fair. Sanford — who is legally blind and suffers from developmental disabilities — was wrongfully convicted at the age of 14 for a shooting that another man had confessed to at the time. Sanford had given a coerced confession. When asked about an apology for Sanford, Worthy refused to respond.

The normalization of preventable jail deaths

The normalization of preventable jail deaths

On August 13th, corrections officers at Portland, Oregon’s jail found 37-year-old Dee Glassmann dead in her cell during their routine morning “wake up” call. If you’re wondering what happened, you’re not alone: Multnomah County officials won’t release any information about the circumstances of her death for up to eight more weeks, when her toxicology report will be completed. I know this because I called the medical examiner’s office, the Sheriff’s office, a mental healthcare provider that once worked with Glassmann, the county Board of Commissioners’ chair, and all four of the board’s district leaders.

Though it wound up being a futile day of phone calls, it was also a reminder of the ease with which the people funneled through our prisons and jails are anonymized and forgotten.

The straightest answer to my inquest came from the medical examiner’s office, which told me Glassmann’s toxicology report wouldn’t be completed for six to eight more weeks, and that no information would be publicly available before then. The rest of the calls were a mess of finger pointing. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office directed me to the medical examiner. The county health department directed me back to the sheriff. The county board members’ assistants diligently took messages from me, and suggested I call the jail. For fear of losing his job, a mental health worker would tell me nothing about his encounters with Glassmann. A member of the county’s communications office again suggested Sheriff Michael Reese. Not only did the cause of Glassmann’s death remain a mystery, none of the county officials seemed to have heard of her.

“What was the inmate’s name?” multiple people asked as they took messages for board members who never called back. “Can you spell that for me?”

Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, the county health department’s public information officer, did return my call. Glassmann’s death, she seemed to suggest, was just part of the business of running a jail.

“Twenty to thirty thousand people come through the jail every year, and some people unfortunately pass away,” said Sullivan-Springhetti. “All I can tell you is that Multnomah County doesn’t have a confirmed cause of death yet.”

Oh. Okay. Herding mostly low-level, nonviolent offenders through the corrections system like cattle just happens to cost some of their lives. “Of course it’s a tragedy for that person and that family,” Sullivan-Springhetti added.

The gaping holes in the story of Glassmann’s death might be disturbing, but a death behind bars is far from unusual in the U.S. Roughly 1,000 people die in jails every year, and many of those deaths are shrouded in secrecy. An investigation into the phenomenon of jail deaths by the Huffington Post found that at least one-third of those deaths occur within just three days of a person’s arrest or booking. Many of these deaths are preventable. The tragic, higher-profile deaths of people like Sandra Bland in Texas have brought some attention to the issue, but as Glassmann’s death shows, it’s still happening.

Though Glassmann was in jail for a burglary charge, records show previous arrests for heroin possession. A search through public posts she made on her Facebook page, now a “memorialized account,” reveal references to drug treatment, methadone, and hospitalization. Without any concrete answers about her death, these scraps of information suggest (but of course don’t prove) that like millions of other Americans, she may have struggled with opioid addiction.

As more people struggling with addiction become ensnared in the criminal justice system, withdrawal treatment in jail settings is more important than ever. Between 2014 and 2016, at least 20 lawsuits alleging that an inmate died in custody from opiate withdrawal complications were filed, according to Mother Jones. Withdrawal symptoms are notoriously brutal, but they can also be fatal if left untreated, and treatment in jails and prisons can be hard to come by.

On any day, roughly 630,000 people are detained in jails across the country, winding through an often haphazard system that is ill-equipped to handle the mental illnesses and addictions that accompany many members of the at-risk populations most likely to wind up behind bars. Unpreventable tragedies happen in these places, but so do avoidable deaths. For people like Glassmann, too many unanswered questions remain — and the response that “sometimes people unfortunately pass away” simply isn’t enough.

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Terry Williams finally gets a chance

Terry Williams at Germantown High School

Terry Williams finally gets a chance

Of all the death row stories, perhaps none is quite as heart wrenching as that of Terry Williams, who was sentenced to death in Philadelphia three decades ago. This week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided that Williams should finally get another penalty-phase trial, which means that Williams has a chance to explain why he deserves the mercy that no one ever showed him during his short life outside of prison.

The young life of Terry Williams as a black boy in 1980s Philadelphia is horrific by any standard. He was the victim of relentless abuse since birth. His mother and stepfather beat him regularly with belts, switches, extension cords— anything. At 6, he was raped by an 11-year old friend who tricked him with cupcakes and cartoons. A year later, he was sexually abused again. After that, a teacher tried to earn Williams’s trust, only to begin sexually exploiting him as well. He was gang raped by boys at a juvenile detention facility. He then began having sex with older men (who baited him with money and food), who also beat him. His mental health deteriorated noticeably.

In 1986, 18-year-old Terry Williams was arrested and tried for two separate murders, both of older men who had taken advantage of him sexually. The first trial was for the death of 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, whom 17-year-old Williams had stabbed and beaten to death. Hamilton was well-known in the neighborhood both for providing the local youth pills and for his penchant for sex with kids. In light of these mitigation circumstances, the jury found Williams guilty of third degree murder.

For the next trial, which involved the death of 50-something Amos Norwood, the Philadelphia prosecutor Andrea Foulkes, under the direction of then-DA Ronald Castille (who sent 45 people to death over his tenure), had a plan to ensure that Williams would be sent to death row. The facts of the case are fairly similar to the Hamilton trial. Norwood had sexually abused Williams during his teen years. A several months after the death of Hamilton, Williams met up with Norwood in a parking lot. Norwood pushed Williams against a car and began having sex with him as Williams begged him to stop. The next day, Williams and a friend beat Norwood to death.

During the Norwood trial, the jury never heard evidence of Williams’s horrific childhood nor his history of abuse nor his abuse at the hands of Norwood. The jury never heard that Norwood had been abusing Williams for five years. Instead, Foulkes portrayed him as “a kind man [who] offered him a ride home.” Williams had an incompetent defense attorney, who met him for the first time the day before jury selection, and a faulty mental health expert. He was sentenced to death.

In September 2012, just days before Williams’s scheduled execution, a judge took the extraordinary step and stayed the execution, ordering a new penalty-phase trial because Foulkes had concealed evidence of Williams’s abuse. There’s not really a debate that Foulkes knew about Williams’s troubled history. She had already tried him for another murder that same year. And, she know that Norwood had been abusing Williams throughout his teens — documents in the prosecution’s file in her handwriting prove this. Five jurorsalso verified that, had they known about the abuse, they would not have voted for death. The victim’s widow even wrote a letter saying that Williams should not be executed.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams refused to remove Williams from death row and vowed to fight the decision even though hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition and dozens of former prosecutors urged him to grant clemency. Williams showed very little mercy for a victim of abuse, saying publicly that he was “weary of this murderer’s effort to portray himself as a victim.” But, he was thwarted by Governor Tom Wolf, who stayed all Pennsylvania executions until a thorough evaluation of procedures to ensure fairness. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Wolf. Williams was saved for the moment.

Terry Williams’s case was appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed Williams’s death sentence in 2016 because Chief Justice Ronald Castille — a judge on Williams’s case — had also been Foulkes’s boss when she prosecuted Terry Williams. Since then, Seth Williams has been forced to resign as District Attorney of Philadelphia and pled guilty to criminal charges for corruption. Terry Williams’s case is unresolved.

So, what should we take away from this case? It’s a win for Terry Williams, so far as anything involving his case can be perceived that way. More than that, however, it’s a tale of how far prosecutors will go to protect their past decisions as well as how no one was ever found accountable for the injustices in Terry Williams’s trial. Castille was the Chief Justice on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court until he retired honorably in 2014. Andrea Foulkes now prosecutes for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. If the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes, what can then justify defending it in the case of Terry Williams? This is just further evidence that capital punishment doesn’t make sense.

Larry Krasner, the incoming Democratic nominee for District Attorney, has publicly promised never to seek the death penalty. He will follow in a growing tradition of prosecutors who hope to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. But it’s hard to see how any change can ever compensate for the young man that could have been Terry Williams.

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