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Las Vegas jury decides that a brutal murder does not justify the death penalty

John Valerio shows that violent offenders can change.

Las Vegas jury decides that a brutal murder does not justify the death penalty

John Valerio shows that violent offenders can change.

John Valerio admits that what he did in Las Vegas, decades ago, was monstrous. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not remorseful and that I don’t think of Ms. Blackwell and the things that happened in 1986,” he told a jury last month. “I was a menace. There’s no other way to put it. I made a lot of mistakes.”

Valerio stabbed a sex worker 45 times in 1986. The victim, 26-year-old Karen Blackwell, was found dead in the backseat of a car ten days later. She had been stabbed in the head, neck, chest, abdomen, and vaginal region, and for this heinous crime, Valerio was convicted of first degree murder in 1988. The jury that found him guilty concluded that the crime constituted “torture, depravity of mind, or mutilation” and sentenced him to die. But on August 28, 31 years after the horrific crime, Valerio learned that he wouldn’t be executed after all. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

The 52-year-old was resentenced by a new group of jurors in Clark County, after his original punishment was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. The appellate court ruled that “depravity of mind” was too ill-defined to be used in capital sentencing — a conclusion that was also drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980.

With a rare opportunity to drastically alter a death row prisoner’s fate, jurors decided last month that Valerio should be held accountable for his horrifying crime but does not deserve to be killed by the state. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo argued that Valerio is unchanged and that the death penalty is “right” and “just.” But speaking before the new jury, defense lawyer Tom Pitaro emphasized second chances. “The question is, do you fundamentally believe that the human spirit is redemptive, reforming and changing, and can be? Doesn’t mean it has to be, but can it be?” he said. “You are now sentencing John Valerio, 2017, at age 52. You’re not sentencing John Valerio, 21, 1986.” Valerio also stressed that he is a transformed man who “[makes] better choices today.” Jurors ultimately agreed that someone with a violent past can not only change for the better but also receive mercy — a concept championed by opponents of the death penalty and overlooked by many advocates of criminal justice reform.

The decision also reflects shifting national attitudes about capital punishment, specifically. The number of people executed each year has been dropping steadily since 1999, per data from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which tracks and analyzes capital punishment trends. Likewise, the number of new death sentences has plummeted since the late 1990s, reaching a record low of 31 in 2016. Last year was the sixth consecutive year that fewer than 100 people were sentenced to die. Steadily declining public support for the death penalty can be attributed to a greater understanding that the process is flawed and inhumane.

Valerio’s case shows that the power of redemption, and having to confront someone whose life rests in your hands, also play a role. During an interview with the LawNewz Network early this month, Pitaro explained that one juror firmly believed in the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder. But after seeing and hearing Valerio, her opinion changed. “The abstract and the real is what this case was about,” Pitaro said.

What Donald Trump Can Learn From Colin Kaepernick

What Donald Trump Can Learn From Colin Kaepernick

Donald Trump should take a few lessons in leadership from Colin Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, Anquan Boldin, and other NFL players who bravely use their platforms to lift the voices of the least powerful, and do so in a way that honors this country’s deep and important protest tradition.

Last year, Colin, a 29 year old Pro-Bowler with a 126 million dollar contract, took a knee during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed citizens and other injustices in the criminal legal system. He took a knee for Eric Garner, a man who NYPD officers choked to death even as he pleaded — “I can’t breathe.” He took a knee for Walter Scott, a man in North Charleston, South Carolina, whom a police officer shot in the back while Scott was running away. He took a knee for Freddie Gray in Baltimore, for Tamir Rice in Cleveland, for Michael Brown in Ferguson, and for the hundreds of other disproportionately black, mostly impoverished, often unarmed people that police officers kill each year.

Colin’s bravery cost him dearly. Kaepernick’s worst season in the NFL is demonstrably better than the best season many quarterbacks in the league right now have ever had. But he can’t get a job. Many teams who desperately needed a solid starter, or even a reliable backup, this season ignored Colin Kaepernick at their own expense.

Jim Souhan, a respected sportswriter in Minneapolis who covers the Vikings, said it best in his piece entitled “The Vikings Should Have Gambled on Colin Kaepernick.” After a brutal loss for the Vikings, Sohan wrote:

Last year, Keenum threw nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions before being benched. Last year, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Kaepernick is bigger, stronger, faster, possesses a better arm and has been a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, where he came within one pass of winning.

The NFL has conspiratorially blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem to protest the unjustified shootings of black Americans by police.

Some owners don’t want him on their team, wrongly conflating a peaceful protest with an attack on our country or our soldiers.

There is no comparison between Keenum and Kaepernick. The Vikings and other teams decided that they prefer comfortable losses to uneasy victories. Sunday’s loss was about as comfortably numbing as they get.

I haven’t been able to shake what Souhan said. Not just the Vikings, but the Browns, the Bengals, the Colts, the Bears, and the 49ers — all winless — made the exact same decision that they, too, preferred “comfortable losses to uneasy victories.”

This is not OK.

Colin Kaepernick did not break the law. He is an upstanding citizen. He has never been arrested. He has never been suspended. In fact, what he did do, by taking a silent knee during the National Anthem to protest injustice and police brutality in America, didn’t even violate NFL rules.

But here he is — in essence — fired, terminated, banned even, from the NFL during the prime of physical career. Yes, I know that the NFL doesn’t hire quarterbacks — the 32 individual teams do — but it is clearer now than ever that what we are watching is absolutely not a football decision.

Both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, and two of the best quarterbacks of all time, have each argued that Colin Kaepernick deserves to be in the league right now. Colin has led teams to victory against each of those men on their own fields. Yet players that have never made it to the playoffs once in their career, that have never defeated the Packers or Patriots at home, have jobs and Colin Kaepernick does not.

What we are witnessing is the unethical, immoral sacrifice of Colin Kaepernick’s career because he dared to take a quiet stance against injustice in America. It’s wrong. It’s gross. It’s unfair.

Here’s the thing, though. When Colin took a knee, took a risk, took a stand against an unjust criminal legal system, he helped to ignite a movement.

Yesterday, Donald Trump called them sons of bitches, the NFL players who take a knee each week during the national anthem to protest injustice in America. But that just shows how little Donald Trump knows about protest, about speaking up for the voiceless, about putting your money where your mouth is. Trump calls them sons of bitches, and I call them heroes.

Donald Trump is a man that uses his power and platform to crush our most vulnerable neighbors. Whether he’s promising to build a wall to keep out hard-working immigrants; ordering ICE to round-up and deport people who have made a living and a life in this country; or pushing to strip health care from millions of people, Donald Trump is the antithesis of Profiles in Courage.

By contrast, Colin Kaepernick is a man of impeccable character and integrity. This past season his teammates voted to give him the highest honor available for his life on and off the field. Just this past week the NFL Player’s Association gave Colin their Community MVP Award for his outstanding community service and generosity. And now he is a man without job — standing up for his values cost him everything. But do you know what Colin does when he’s down on his luck? He continues to donate money — over $900,000 and counting — to fight injustice. He spends his weekend handing out suits to formerly incarcerated citizens who are returning to their communities and looking for jobs. He’s a man who puts his money where his mouth is.

Colin isn’t alone. Malcolm Jenkins, the standout safety for the Philadelphia Eagles, who raises his fist each week during the national anthem, like Colin, has donated from his clothing line to provide dress clothes for returning citizens who need a job and a second chance. Along with Anquan Boldin, who retired from the Detroit Lions this year to focus on philanthropy, Malcolm is helping to lead the push for Clean Slate legislation in Pennsylvania, which, if passed, would automatically seal the records of people convicted of certain low level offenses after ten years. Both Malcolm and Anquan also have spoken against life without parole for juveniles (America is the only place in the world that has such sentences), pushed to end cash bail (which keeps people locked up based on their poverty, not their safety risk), and pressed against the long mandatory minimum sentences that fuel mass incarceration.

When these guys take a knee or raise a fist tomorrow, they aren’t disrespecting the flag or our country. These players are engaging in deeply patriotic, selfless, and brave protest to raise awareness to the injustices that persist in America’s criminal justice system. America would be a better place, if Donald Trump showed a fraction of the courage and leadership these players show everyday.

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

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The Trials of Leon Cannizzaro

The Trials of Leon Cannizzaro

Leon Cannizzaro faced off against the New Orleans City Council this past Wednesday. What began as a request for the council to restore $600,000 in funding to the District Attorney’s office turned into a referendum on Cannizzaro’s punitive tactics and general lack of concern for people’s constitutional rights. He’s been written about before for harassing defense attorneysthreatening eyewitnesses who change their testimony with perjury charges, and ignoring compelling cases of actual innocence.

Cannizzaro’s overall budget is about $15 million, one of the highest prosecutor budgets in the state of Louisiana. Cannizzaro has long bemoaned his office’s budgetary restraints, arguing that they detract from his office’s ability to do its job. This year, the City Council reduced Cannizzaro’s budget by $600,000 (about 5% of his budget), an amount that last year had mostly gone to a Conviction Integrity Unit that Cannizzaro voluntarily disbanded after failing to exonerate a single person. The meeting on Wednesday turned into what seemed like a referendum on Cannizzaro’s effectiveness.

New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams was one of the people most critical of Cannizzaro.

“We don’t want to be embarrassed by The New York Times, Washington Post, other national media, who think that we’re running some kind of southern-fried, backwoods operation that is putting rape victims in jail and sending out fake subpoenas,” he said, referring to recent news reports and a report by Court Watch revealing that Cannizzaro had been jailing raping victims and issuing fake subpoenas.

The City Council also brought up, with disapproval, the fact that Cannizzaro send more youth to the adult system than other prosecutors in Louisiana. “We need the DA’s practices to come into the 21st century,” one Council member said.

The latest scandal, reported by Charles Maldonando at The Lens, is a fake subpoena allegedly used to pressure a teenage molestation victim to testify. The documents in question, which purported to be valid legal documents but were not, threatened criminal sanctions if the recipients failed to meet with prosecutors for an interview. (While prosecutors can compel witnesses to appear and testify, they must get a judge to sign off. These papers did not.) The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint about this issue against Cannizzaro’s office.

Cannizzaro, for his part, whined about the budget cut, saying that it would impact victims and their families. Every year since 2011, he has complained about his budget, saying it has caused him to move misdemeanor cases out of municipal court and that it is a reason behind the city’s crime rate. This is part of a larger war Cannizzaro has been waging against city officials — including Mayor Mitch Landrieu — who are increasingly weary of Cannizzaro’s mad-dog tactics.

In June, Cannizzaro penned an op-ed where he blasted Landrieu for failing to understand his office’s “aggressive enforcement strategy,” which Cannizzaro argues is appropriate. He also attacked Williams, his main critic during Wednesday’s meeting. Cannizzaro argues, and continues to argue, that his office needs money to be as aggressive as possible.

It is telling that the New Orleans City Council is now able to see through Cannizzaro’s fear-mongering tactics and appreciate that charging more people and sending more people to prison is not tackling the real challenges the city faces.

Note: A request for comment to Cannizzaro’s office went unanswered.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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