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Queens Prosecutor: Kalief Browder’s Suicide Wasn’t About Rikers

City Council Member Rory Lancman, who was debating Assistant District Attorney James Quinn over the future of Rikers Island, blasted Quinn's comments on Browder, who spent three years incarcerated without a trial.

Protesters at a rally for Kalief Browder
Flickr/Felton Davis (CC by 2.0)

Queens Prosecutor: Kalief Browder’s Suicide Wasn’t About Rikers

City Council Member Rory Lancman, who was debating Assistant District Attorney James Quinn over the future of Rikers Island, blasted Quinn's comments on Browder, who spent three years incarcerated without a trial.

In a heated debate last week over whether New York City should close Rikers Island, Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn sparred with City Council Member Rory Lancman, chairperson of the council’s Committee on the Justice System, who could become Quinn’s boss in next year’s election for Queens DA. The debate highlighted the tensions between Lancman, a self-professed reformer, and an office that has been notably slow to reform.

Led by an 85-year-old incumbent who has been in power for nearly three decades, the Queens district attorney’s office is one of only two in the city (Staten Island’s is the other) that publicly opposes the slow-moving closure of Rikers. Some advocates have also questioned the plan, which aims to reduce the jail population while increasing the number of jails.

At the debate, Quinn defended his office’s stance, arguing that the city’s jail population should not be cut to what he considers an arbitrary number to fulfill demands for the jail’s closure. Quinn said he stood by his past comment that people detained at Rikers “belong in Rikers.”

Lancman disagreed. “With all due respect,” he said, “there are many policies from the Queens district attorney’s office that contribute to incarcerating poor Black and Latino people.” He pointed out that, unlike other city DA’s offices, the Queens DA has not vowed to reduce its prosecution of low-level offenses. “You cannot avoid the fact that the policies of the Queens district attorney’s office put more people in jail than ought to be.”

Lancman also criticized the Queens DA’s office for its failure to approve a conviction review unit, as the other four boroughs have done, and for its controversial plea deal practices. Under that system, Lancman argued, defendants charged with felonies are coerced into waiving their speedy trial rights.

Quinn didn’t deny that the intent of this practice is to have defendants waive their rights to a speedy trial, but justified the practice by arguing it is highly inconvenient for Queens residents to be called for a grand jury. “If they don’t waive, we have to bring people like this”—he pointed to the audience—“from all across Queens County to go into the grand jury and take a day off and testify against that defendant in order to indict him.”  

But perhaps the most contentious moment of the night came when Quinn lashed out at the anti-mass incarceration movement, taking aim at the national outcry that followed the death of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who spent three years in jail without trial for an alleged theft of a backpack.

While in Rikers, Browder endured beatings by guards and inmates and roughly two years of solitary confinement. In solitary, Browder attempted suicide once. After being released, Browder told The New Yorker, “I’m not all right. I’m messed up.” Six months after getting out, he tried again. Two years later, the 22-year-old took his life.

Quinn sought to minimize the role Browder’s time in jail played in his death. “Kalief Browder did not commit suicide at Rikers Island,” Quinn said, his finger wagging at the crowd. “He committed suicide two years after he got out of Rikers Island. That is a fact. Everybody knows it.”

Quinn was loudly applauded for these comments during the debate, which took place in Kew Gardens Hills, a majority white neighborhood in Queens.

In his retelling of Browder’s case, Quinn also asserted that Browder had been held on a high bail because he “went out and committed another robbery,” violating his probation for a previous incident. In fact, Browder spent three years in jail denying that he committed that robbery, and he was released in year 2013 when the charges were dropped.

In response to Quinn’s applauded comments, Lancman hit back. “I do not know what satisfaction you get by the potential fact that he killed himself two years after he was in Rikers Island,” Lancman said. “And not in Rikers Island itself.” He subsequently issued a statement via Twitter. “This moment from my debate with the Queens D.A.’s office floored me – I still haven’t gotten over it,” Lancman wrote. “No matter what you believe about Rikers Island, human decency demands that no one applaud when we discuss Kalief Browder committing suicide.”

Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother and president of the Kalief Browder Foundation, called Quinn’s comments “disrespectful” and argued that Quinn was lying about his brother’s history in an attempt to defend Rikers. During the debate, Quinn asserted that Kalief Browder had mental health issues before his time at Rikers, a claim that Browder claimed was baseless and disrespectful. “This is 100 percent wrong,” Browder said in a phone call. “Where did he get his facts or information from?”

The Queens district attorney’s office did not respond by press time to The Appeal’s queries about Quinn’s explanation and evidence for these comments.

Findayawah Gbollie, a Legal Aid Society attorney practicing in Queens, called the comments “shameful.” “He said that he had committed another robbery, not even that he was accused of committing another robbery,” said Gbollie. “They don’t see a difference between committing a crime and being accused. So what’s even the point of having a jury, having a judicial process, if the mere accusation is equal to a crime itself?”

A Grand Jury Indicted An Alabama Police Officer For Murder. Then A Mayor Came To His Defense.

Jeffery Parker was shot to death by a police officer in his Huntsville home. A grand jury handed up an indictment for murder, but the mayor and City Council appear to be throwing their support behind the officer.

Jeffery Parker and his fiancée Michele Louthan
Michele Louthan

A Grand Jury Indicted An Alabama Police Officer For Murder. Then A Mayor Came To His Defense.

Jeffery Parker was shot to death by a police officer in his Huntsville home. A grand jury handed up an indictment for murder, but the mayor and City Council appear to be throwing their support behind the officer.

On most mornings, Michele Louthan woke to her fiancé, Jeffery Parker, in their Huntsville, Alabama, home asking her what day it was. They had attended the same high school during the 1980s and after reconnecting in 2017, the two decided to get married this year on April 20. “In 21 more days you’ll officially be Mrs. Parker,” Parker would tell her, counting down the days.

On April 3, Louthan instead awakened to the sound of heavy stomping downstairs. This struck her as strange and frightening because she thought Parker had gone to the store. There was shouting, with a woman’s voice being the loudest, and then an unmistakable “pow”: the sound of a gunshot ringing through the house.  

Parker, a 49-year-old plumber and musician with three grandchildren who affectionately called him “Papa Jeff,” was shot to death by a Huntsville police officer in the home he shared with Louthan after he had called 911 to report that he was suicidal and had a gun. Parker suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a home invasion in the early 2000s, according to Louthan. After a “brief verbal exchange” in which police say officers instructed Parker to drop his gun, Officer William Darby fired one shot, killing him. Louthan later wrote that Parker’s  gun was most likely a flare gun that he painted black. She declined an interview with The Appeal because of a gag order that the judge issued to all parties involved in the case.

To Taylor Lively, Parker’s death occurred not because he posed a threat, but because of excessive force by the police. “Knowing Jeff, I know he didn’t deserve to die,” Lively told The Appeal. “Bad policies and procedures, as well as an itchy trigger finger led to the death of my friend who wouldn’t hurt a soul.”

The Huntsville police chief supported Darby, issuing a press release after his arrest in August, declaring that he is “by no means a ‘Murderer.’” In May, a police incident review board cleared Darby, finding that he had acted in accordance with departmental policy that permits the use of force in situations in which an officer feels threatened.

But Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard said he was “gravely concerned” by the review board decision and that the case should go to a grand jury. “Usually what you are looking at [is] whether an officer reasonably feared for his life before he was forced to take deadly physical force,” Broussard said, “and on these particular facts of the case we had concern that this was not a justified shooting and because of that we put it to a grand jury.” Grand juries rarely hand down indictments in police killings, even in high-profile cases like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. In 2015, California became the first state to ban grand juries in police shooting cases because, according to one state senator, “the use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”

But on Aug. 3, a Madison County grand jury indicted Darby for murder. This was the first time in Broussard’s 30 years as Madison County district attorney that he prosecuted a police officer for murder, an attorney from his office told The Appeal.

Since the indictment, however, the Huntsville Police Department has refused to release body camera footage to the public because of “matters of privacy,” a City Hall spokeswoman told The Appeal. And Mayor Tommy Battle has publicly blasted Broussard’s decision to bring the police killing to a grand jury.  “We have a different opinion than the district attorney has,” Battle said after an Aug. 9 City Council meeting. During that meeting, the five-member council voted to use city funds to pay for $75,000 of Darby’s defense, an idea for which Battle claimed credit. Four out of the five council members said they had not seen the body camera footage before voting 4-0, with one abstention, to authorize the payment. Citing the gag order, which they are not under, City Council members and Battle declined requests for comment from The Appeal.

“It is odd and particularly troubling for a mayor to be interfering in the prosecution of any criminal case,” Angela J. Davis, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law and expert in criminal law and procedure, told The Appeal. “He is clearly biased towards the police officer, and his public statements may taint the jury pool. He’s basically saying that the grand jury, who are the citizens of this city, were wrong in executing their duties on the grand jury and that’s just extraordinarily and and incredibly inappropriate for him to do that.”

Because Battle is not under the judge’s gag order, Davis explained, he cannot be legally prevented from talking about the case.

Lively, Parker’s friend, told that The Appeal that he’s angry with Battle for both defending Darby and arguing for the city to fund the officer’s defense. But he said he isn’t surprised by Battle’s behavior, given that Madison County has a history of excessive force by the police. In February 2015, Sureshbhai Patel was thrown to the ground by a Madison police officer who confronted the then 57-year-old after the department received a call from a neighbor describing him as suspicious and claiming he was looking into garages. (According to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Patel, however, “whether there actually was a call or whether the caller actually accused Patel of looking into garages cannot be verified because to date the City refuses to release any recordings or reports that exist related to the incident.”) Patel was left partially paralyzed from the incident and his family claimed that Patel, who was visiting his grandson in Madison from his home in India, did not understand the officer during the encounter.

“Of course he is going to” defend Darby, Lively said of Battle. “He doesn’t want it to look like there’s a problem with his city and police brutality or ill trained officers.”

Huntsville Police spokesman Michael Johnson refused to answer questions about the Darby case, saying instead that “there’s a lot of questions and that will come out in trial,” which is scheduled for Oct. 29.  

Parker’s friends and family, meanwhile, want to know how a cry for help during a mental health crisis ended in a fatal police shooting.

“He called the police because he wanted help to stay alive,” Lively said, “to help to keep him from hurting himself … not help to kill himself.”

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A New Power for Prosecutors is on the Horizon—Reducing Harsh Sentences

Legislation in California would provide a direct route to resentencing, and a new tool for activists.

Arnulfo T. Garcia, whose story inspired the California legislation.
Aly Tamboura

A New Power for Prosecutors is on the Horizon—Reducing Harsh Sentences

Legislation in California would provide a direct route to resentencing, and a new tool for activists.

In 2017, Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen decided that Arnulfo Garcia did not belong in prison. Sentenced under California’s three-strikes law, Garcia was serving a life sentence for a residential burglary he committed while suffering from a heroin use disorder. During more than 16 years in prison, Garcia, then 64, had turned his life around. He became a prolific writer and editor-in-chief of the award-winning San Quentin News, a newspaper produced by incarcerated people and distributed throughout the California prison system. He completed drug treatment and led support groups for fellow prisoners. He organized forums with prisoners and prosecutors, helping to show those responsible for sending people to prison that even people who commit serious offenses are capable of profound change.

Rosen was among the prosecutors who attended Garcia’s meetings, returning on several occasions to discuss reforms to California’s criminal justice system. Rosen later told reporters that Garcia was “more than a model inmate”: He “was a better man, he was helping other people, using his talents in a productive way,” and “he’d served enough time.”

Rosen wanted to reopen Garcia’s case to reduce his sentence. But under state law, Rosen could not simply ask a judge to resentence Garcia without a legal basis for doing so, like new evidence or a change in sentencing law that would entitle Garcia to relief. It wasn’t enough to say that Garcia, while guilty of his crime and legally sentenced, was rehabilitated and deserved to go home.

It’s an issue faced by a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors around the country. As more elected prosecutors break with their tough-on-crime predecessors and pledge to reduce prison populations, more prosecutors have started to review old convictions to identify cases where, even if the conviction was sound, the punishment did not fit the crime. As reported by The Marshall Project, about two dozen prosecutors have announced plans to review old sentences, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the former public defender and civil rights lawyer, who in March announced the creation of a formal sentence review program.

But identifying an excessive sentence is only the first step. In many states, prosecutors lack the legal authority to revisit sentences simply because they believe them to be unjust. Instead, they must devise creative workarounds. In some cases, prosecutors have joined prisoners’ clemency petitions or agreed to renegotiate prior sentences as though they were settlement agreements, options that may not be available in every case. In Garcia’s case, he was eventually released after Rosen supported his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a complicated and lengthy process that required his own lawyer to concede ineffective assistance of counsel. (Garcia died in a car accident just two months later.)

“We had to do these legal gymnastics to get people resentenced,” Rosen said, “and realized the most straightforward way to make this happen would be to change the law.”

Now California is poised to do exactly that, with legislation on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk that its supporters say would be the first “legal vehicle” in the country to give prosecutors the power to recommend reducing sentences “in the interest of justice.” Rosen sponsored the bill and other Bay Area prosecutors—Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and San Francisco County District Attorney George Gascón—joined organizations that advocate criminal justice reform, including the ACLU of California and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, to endorse the measure.

Once a prosecutor makes a recommendation, a judge would still have to impose the new sentence, and the sentence must be allowed by law. But just as prosecutors have enormous power to seek harsh penalties when a defendant is first sentenced, so too could prosecutors demand leniency after someone has already spent many years in prison.

The law could especially benefit prisoners whose sentences were lengthened when prosecutors tacked on sentence enhancements, Rosen’s office said. That would include sentences under California’s three-strikes law, which could be reduced if prosecutors withdraw a prior conviction (or “strike a strike”) from the court’s consideration. Other sentence enhancements, like those related to drugs or guns or alleged gang affiliations, could also fall by the wayside at the prosecutor’s discretion.

This would allow for resentencing not just in a case of clear rehabilitation, but also to keep up with modern sentencing practices. It doesn’t make sense to keep people in prison serving lengthy terms they would never receive today, Rosen said. “In my experience as a prosecutor, I’ve become aware of more cases from the Santa Clara DA’s office, or even that I prosecuted myself, where the person was convicted and was in prison for a very long sentence, and if we had to do it all over again today we would ask for a lower sentence.”

Rosen said the new law would do more than create a mechanism to reduce sentences—it would codify sentence review as part of the prosecutor’s job, making clear that prosecutors have a responsibility to see that no one sits in prison unnecessarily. “People think we use discretion to pile onto people,” he said, but “we can also use discretion to mitigate, and to show leniency and mercy in appropriate situations.”

The ‘next frontier’ of criminal justice reform

The legislation was the brainchild of Hillary Blout, a former prosecutor who has spent the last four years advocating criminal justice reform in California. Blout sees sentence review as the “next frontier” of reform: Securing justice for people still languishing in prison under long sentences imposed when the era of mass incarceration, defined by harsh sentencing laws and tough-on-crime prosecutors, was at its peak.

For decades, California was at the forefront of a national trend to send more people to prison for longer periods of time. From 1977 to 2007, the state’s prison population jumped nearly 900 percent, propelled by new sentencing laws—including an especially severe three-strikes law passed in 1994—and prosecutors that piled on sentence enhancements to obtain longer prison terms. Reforms over the last decade have pushed prison totals down, but the changes have been limited in scope, benefiting mainly low-level offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses.

The result is a prison population that, while about 25 percent smaller than it was 10 years ago, is still the second largest in the country and now has a higher proportion of prisoners serving long-term sentences. According to the most recent data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 25 percent of California’s 130,000 prisoners are serving a life sentence, and 31 percent are serving a sentence enhanced by either a second or third strike. As of September 2016, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, 80 percent of California’s prisoners carried a sentence enhancement of some kind.

Longer sentences also mean older prisoners. Since 1990, the share of California prisoners age 50 or older has jumped to 23 percent from 4 percent. That means the state’s prisons are increasingly filled with people who are among the most expensive to house and statistically least likely to commit crimes.

Advocates say that sentence review can be the impetus for more inclusive reform that reaches the prison population that has so far been left behind.

Keith Wattley, the executive director of UnCommon Law, which represents prisoners serving life sentences in parole hearings, says that taking another look at the people serving long-term sentences will challenge false distinctions that set boundaries on prior efforts to reduce incarceration. “Reforms come up,” Wattley said, and “people convicted of violent crimes are left out. People serving life sentences are left out.” They are based on “fundamental false premises—like there are differences between people who commit violent and nonviolent crimes, that one is redeemable while the other will always be too dangerous.” In reality, Wattley said, many people serving long-term sentences, even for violent offenses, remain in prison only because of outdated policies and pose no threat to public safety.

His view is supported by emerging research that lengthy prison terms do little to protect public safety or deter crime. A 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, summarized existing research and concluded that longer prison terms may actually produce higher recidivism rates, and at best provide diminishing returns for public safety. The report estimated that about 212,000 prisoners nationwide (14 percent of the U.S. prison population) convicted of serious offenses (including aggravated assault, murder, and “serious burglary”) could be released from prison without a threat to public safety.

Meanwhile, other research shows that long prison terms — and particularly the use of sentence enhancements and repeat offender laws — hit African Americans and other racial minorities the hardest.

California Assembly Member Phil Ting, who introduced the bill, said that California’s reliance on long sentences needs correction. “Looking at the last 30 years where we’ve overincarcerated people, we realized that longer prison sentences don’t really mean safer communities.” Giving prosecutors the discretion to reconsider these sentences, Ting said, “makes sense.”

An ‘organizing anchor’ for prosecutor accountability

Still, there remain questions of whether and how often prosecutors will use the law. The legislation does not mandate sentence review, but rather provides district attorneys with a tool to use at their discretion.

The district attorney offices in Santa Clara and San Francisco said they will formalize the process for sentence review under the new law. For example, according to a spokesperson, the San Francisco district attorney’s office will use the same “conviction review initiative” that investigates claims of wrongful convictions to identify excessive or disproportionate sentences.

Reform advocates are also preparing to maximize the law’s impact.

Blout has launched the Sentence Review Project, a new organization designed specifically to “spearhead implementation of the new law.” Blout says the Project will tackle everything from recommending criteria that district attorneys should consider when reviewing past sentences, to supporting prisoners who submit applications for sentence review, to advocating a reduced sentence in individual cases. The initial work will start with the Bay Area prosecutors who endorsed the legislation, with plans to expand around the state. “We will be inviting prosecutors to sit down with us,” Blout said, “and to join us on prison visits, restorative justice circles, and opportunities for DAs to the see the humanity in these men and women.”

Like Wattley, Blout wants this new legislation to expand the conversation around who deserves a chance at redemption. “California has made great strides in reform for nonviolent, nonserious offenders,” she said, “and the goal for this Project is to push that narrative to include redemption and second chances even for people who have committed serious or violent offenses.”

Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a hub of community organizing and criminal justice reform, said the new law “can be used as a tool to advance the work of prosecutorial accountability.” Jayadev plans to work directly with prisoners, their families, and their communities to make the case that people warehoused on long sentences deserve a chance at redemption. “These are elected DAs that are accountable to their communities,” he said, and “this project will give a tangible organizing anchor for communities to insist on the freedom of their loved ones.”

To Jayadev, sentence review is a logical extension of prosecutorial discretion. “Prosecutors have all the power to prosecute and punish people. If they have the power to get someone jailed for 50 years, they should have the power to say that doesn’t make sense and we should get this person home.”

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