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New Orleans Woman Sentenced to Life In Prison For Killing Abusive Husband Is Granted New Trial

Catina Curley suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband for more than a decade. When she turned a revolver on him, she was charged with murder and sentenced to life. Now, thanks to a court ruling, she has a chance at freedom.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court
Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

New Orleans Woman Sentenced to Life In Prison For Killing Abusive Husband Is Granted New Trial

Catina Curley suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband for more than a decade. When she turned a revolver on him, she was charged with murder and sentenced to life. Now, thanks to a court ruling, she has a chance at freedom.

Before all that followed—before she was sentenced to life without parole, before the levees broke during Katrina, before Leon Cannizzaro became one of the nation’s most notorious district attorneys—Catina Curley’s story led the 10 p.m. broadcast on local CBS affiliate WWL-TV. “New Orleans police say a woman shot and killed her husband in New Orleans East tonight,” said a newscaster on March 30, 2005. “Police say the couple was arguing in their home when the woman, Catina Curley, pulled a gun and fatally shot her husband in the chest. Police booked her on second-degree murder charges. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence, but they are investigating.”

Ever since, the narrative surrounding Renaldo Curley’s death has reflected a similar story. Within hours, police decided that Catina shot Renaldo Curley because she was angry and jealous, killed the father of her children because of an argument gone wrong. Prosecutors framed her case as a singular instance of hot-headed depravity, a moment of irredeemable sin. But the truth is more forgiving to Catina. For over a decade, Renaldo physically abused Catina and their children. She wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim. She wasn’t angry; she was terrified.

But when Catina went to trial in 2007, her attorney, John Fuller, failed to explain the psychological effects of the violence she endured, which could possibly be characterized as battered woman’s syndrome. She was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Until recently, it seemed certain that she would die in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.

Almost 10 years later, in 2016, her sentence was overturned by the state trial court, after they determined that Fuller failed to provide effective assistance of counsel  because he didn’t present a battered woman’s syndrome defense nor did he investigate the benefits of presenting expert testimony on this subject. But Cannizzaro’s office appealed and an appellate court reversed.  It held that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find Catina legally insane, which requires a showing that the person can’t tell right from wrong. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision. In late June, the state’s highest court recognized that battered woman’s syndrome can justify the use of self-defense and found that Fuller “failed entirely to investigate the proper way to defend [Catina],” and ruled that she was entitled to a new trial. Late last month, Catina was released on $1,000 bond, providing her with an opportunity to spend time with her family for the first time in over a decade.

On June 29, Cannizzaro called the bond “disturbing, disheartening, and unprecedented,” implying Catina is a danger to the community.

Law enforcement remains intent on ignoring a decade of unrelenting physical abuse, abuse that Fuller characterized as “probably the worst [he’d] ever seen.” Thirteen years ago, prosecutors charged Catina more harshly than many men who abuse and kill their wives. Now Cannizzaro, too, wants to ignore the abuse she faced.

Catina now joins a growing group of criminalized survivors of domestic violence fighting for their freedom. Women like Cyntoia Brown, a sex worker who in 2004 was just 16 and living with an abusive pimp. Brown shot and killed a 43-year-old man who, after picking her up for sex, allegedly became violent. She was sentenced to life in prison. When Marissa Alexander’s abusive husband threatened to kill her, she fired a warning shot inside their Jacksonville, Florida, home. Though no one was injured, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Like these women, Catina was not only a victim of domestic abuse, but a victim of the criminal justice system and prosecutors who use their discretion to rack up prison sentences instead of supporting survivors.

Catina and Renaldo lived in Little Woods, a neighborhood in New Orleans East on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Ninety-six percent African-American and with an average household income hovering around $40,000, Little Woods is blacker and poorer than the rest of the city. The two were married for nearly 10 years, with seven children between them, five of whom lived in the house.

The day of the shooting, Catina and Renaldo argued over another woman who had spent time with Renaldo in their house. A witness heard their daughter April, then 8, say to Renaldo, “Please don’t hit Mom.” But, as he often did, Renaldo got physical.

It wasn’t the first time. According to Catina’s habeas petition and the subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, for over a decade, Renaldo, then 29, beat Catina, then 32, mercilessly. There was the time he threw her to the ground, kicking her so hard that she dislocated her shoulder. There was the time he punched her in the nose on both sides, breaking her nose. Her face and eyes were black, and so swollen that she couldn’t open them.  There was the time he tried to push Catina out of a moving car. After she managed to convince him to pull over, she and her daughter April got out of the car and ran home. Her boss testified that he saw signs of abuse many times, “trauma” to her face and swollen forehead, eyes, and cheeks.

In the 11 years before the shooting, police filed six reports alleging domestic abuse involving Renaldo, records of him choking her while hitting her in the face, biting, striking, and punching her. The reports note Catina’s black eyes, the “visible teeth marks on her skin.”

Catina usually didn’t call the police—often because Renaldo wouldn’t let her. “If I’m going to call the police or if I’m trying to call someone for help or something, he will break the phone,” she testified.

Renaldo beat her in front of their children so often that Catina’s daughter Brittany testified that she “could not count how many times she had seen the victim hit [her mother],” according to the Louisiana Supreme Court. When asked how often Renaldo beat his mother, their son, only 10 at the time of the shooting, replied “a lot.”

And Renaldo allegedly beat his own children, who claimed he choked, hit, and “slam[med]” them. When his son was just a year old, he struck him with a telephone, according to police reports.

The evening of the shooting,  in March 2005, Renaldo threatened her, shoved her onto the bed and threw a soda can at her. “Bitch, you going to make me hurt you,” Catina recalled him saying. She tried to call her grandfather to ask him to come to the house, and spoke briefly to her aunt. She later testified that Catina’s voice made her worried she would be beaten again.

Catina hoped to just leave the house, avoiding her husband on the way out. But she couldn’t—her keys were in the same room as him. So she grabbed an “old rusty revolver” he kept under the mattress for self-protection.

He began confronting her again. “I was very frightened. I was scared, I mean, really delirious,” she testified. “Stop, don’t come toward me,” Catina recalled telling him, pointing the gun at him. But he just “kept coming and coming.” As he moved closer, Catina was “shaking. I never handled a gun[.]” She recalled thinking, “If he gets close enough to me, he is going to take this gun from me and he is going to beat me again.”

He came closer. She fired one bullet, hitting him in the chest. In two minutes he was dead.

Catina was arrested and taken to the police station where she tried to explain the terror she felt when tension between her and Renaldo escalated. “Anytime we’d get into an altercation, I think my whole life is just in danger,” she said the night of the shooting. “ I’ve been got beat up so many times.” Her fear wasn’t unfounded. In 2007, the year Catina was convicted in New Orleans of second-degree murder, Louisiana had the highest rate of women murdered by men, roughly twice the national average. According to the Violence Policy Center, around 60 percent of those women were killed by their partners.

That Renaldo had repeatedly been violent toward Catina was no surprise to the New Orleans Police Department. They had over a decade’s worth of evidence to indicate that Renaldo was a serial abuser. Yet, by the time the 10 p.m. news ran—just two hours after the shooting—police had already decided to hold Catina for second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence,” the WWL-TV broadcast said, an explicitly false statement.

Orleans Parish prosecutors, like prosecutors everywhere, have near total discretion in charging decisions. They could have reduced the charges against Catina, but instead chose to try to put her in prison for life.  At trial, prosecutors implied she wasn’t really scared of him. Why, if she was so scared, did she not ask one of her male cousins to accompany her to the house? Why didn’t she call the police? Why didn’t she call someone and ask them to get her keys?

Three days after Catina was sentenced, a man named Jeremy Colbert faced a jury in the same courthouse. For years, he had allegedly abused his former girlfriend. One night he hid in her parking lot, violating a restraining order she had against him. When he saw her with a male acquaintance of hers, Colbert shot and killed him.  “Colbert’s lawyer successfully argued to the jury that Colbert’s ex-girlfriend ‘riled him up’ so he should not be subject to a murder conviction,” Tania Tetlow, now president of Loyola University New Orleans, wrote in 2007.

Colbert was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years. Catina was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Forty years is at the upper end of the sentencing range for manslaughter in Louisiana, but the disparate sentences for Colbert and Catina are not uncommon. “The national average sentence for men who kill their female partners is two to six years in prison,” wrote Tetlow. “In contrast, women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years … despite the fact that many of these women killed in self-defense.”

It is unsurprising that Cannizzaro’s office has defended Catina’s draconian sentence. Since he was elected in 2008, Cannizzaro has consistently been among the nation’s harshest prosecutors. Currently, almost one in six of Louisiana prisoners come from Orleans Parish, a remarkable feat given that Louisiana is the second most carceral state in the nation.

Cannizzaro has bragged about how seriously his office takes domestic violence.  But often, his aggressive tactics end up hurting the victim more than the offender. He made headlines last year when it was discovered that he often issues material-witness warrants, giving him the power to jail victims of rape or sexual assault to compel their testimony. According to data analysis by students at Yale Law School, Cannizzaro’s office obtained more than 150 of these warrants in just five years. In May, The Appeal’s Aviva Shen reported that about 50 of those people were actually arrested.

It’s worth noting which victims Cannizzaro chooses to incarcerate. According to the New Yorker, “Poverty, homelessness, precarious immigration status, and mental-health issues were all invoked by the DA’s office as reasons to jail crime victims, who included survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child sex trafficking.” Demographics matter, too. Shen reported that 78 percent of material witnesses were Black. Of those actually arrested, only one was a white male. Some of these stories were particularly disturbing.  Take the 19-year-old sex trafficking victim who was arrested in 2014, soon after giving birth. “She had failed to appear at a hearing during her pregnancy because she was supposed to be on bed rest and had a doctor’s note to prove it,” Shen wrote. “Even so, she was held in jail for nearly four months until she testified against the father of her child.”

In one case, Cannizzaro’s office set a $100,000 bond for Renata Singleton, who was an alleged victim of domestic abuse. When she chose not to cooperate with prosecutors, they served her with a fake subpoena and then sent police to arrest her. Her abusive boyfriend’s bond was $3,500.

It wasn’t the only time Cannizzaro’s office set a higher bail for a witness than the person who allegedly committed the crime. “[A study] identified at least 25 cases in which witnesses were held on a higher bond amount than the person charged with a crime,” Shen reported.

Cannizzaro’s insistence on punishing victims is threaded throughout his tenure as district attorney. But instead of rethinking his approach to domestic violence, he’s doubling down. He fought the court’s decision that the jury should hear about the psychological toll of Catina’s abuse and the effect it had on her and her family. Even today, he insists she’s a dangerous criminal.

Cases like Catina Curley’s are beginning to get more attention, especially from criminal justice reform advocates and domestic violence prevention organizations. One organization, Survived and Punished, is particularly focused on ending criminalization of survivors. “Survived and Punished focuses on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported,” Mariame Kaba, organizer and co-founder of Survived and Punished, told The Appeal. “We believe that survivors who live at the intersection of gender and criminalization deserve our solidarity and should be supported by our organizing.”

In many cases, the attention has worked. Thanks to support from organizers and attention from national figures like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Marissa Alexander was freed in early 2017 after serving about five years of her sentence. And celebrities like Kim Kardashian have spoken out against Cyntoia Brown’s sentence. But often these stories go unnoticed because domestic violence remains disturbingly common. It is largely women who are at risk of beatings, injury, and even death, and minority women and those living in poverty are even more vulnerable.

And yet, according to a 2015 ACLU survey of lawyers, advocates, and other domestic violence experts, many survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault avoid the criminal justice system, in part because the process often compounds the trauma. This is the logical result of a system that punishes those it is meant to protect. “In essence, power is shifted from the abuser to the state,” said one survey respondent said.

There’s still the possibility of a happy ending for Catina. She will get the chance of another trial, where she’ll finally get to present the battered woman’s defense she was entitled to over a decade ago. It’s a critical opportunity, but justice is not a guarantee.  Cannizzaro still insists on treating her like a heartless murderer instead of a survivor of decade-long abuse. As long as prosecutors care more about convictions than victims, abused women aren’t safe at home or in the courtroom.

Memphis Police Collected Black Lives Matter Activists’ Private Facebook Posts

Police appear to have used a fake Facebook account to 'friend' activists and archive who 'liked' their posts.

Black Lives Matter activists stage a "die-in" in Memphis
Mike Brown/Getty Images

Memphis Police Collected Black Lives Matter Activists’ Private Facebook Posts

Police appear to have used a fake Facebook account to 'friend' activists and archive who 'liked' their posts.

Documents newly released by the City of Memphis in response to an ACLU of Tennessee lawsuit reveal how precisely police tracked Black Lives Matter activists on social media in 2016 and 2017. The social media spying was led by the police department’s Office of Homeland Security, a unit created after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The documents include a PowerPoint presentation, entitled “Blue Suede Shoes,” on Black Lives Matter activists who had gathered at a bridge and at an Elvis Presley vigil to protest the police shooting of Memphis teenager Darrius Stewart. The presentation, circulated to the Memphis Police Department command staff, includes the names and faces of activists who had been previously arrested at Black Lives Matter protests.

The presentation goes into detail about activists’ contacts and how they were arrested. The slideshow also paints the activists as radicals and quotes the leftist organizing theorist Saul Alinksy, implying that the activists were using Alinksy’s tactics to “hijack” legitimate public groups. (In recent years, Saul Alinksy has become a focus of far-right activists and commentators.)

“The Memphis Police Department has information from various sources that small groups of individuals use these legitimate public venues to advance their own agenda,” noted the slide show, which was labeled “confidential.” “The Memphis Police Department has information from reliable sources that these small groups intend to cause violence and destroy property using these public venues.”

In a court deposition stemming from the ACLU’s lawsuit, the police officer who created the PowerPoint presentation admitted to tracking activists’ associations, including their spouses in one case, and the groups they were involved in, including labor and Palestinian solidarity groups.

Police appear to have used a fake Facebook profile, “Bob Smith,” to befriend and gather information from activists, according to the deposition transcript. During the deposition, when an ACLU attorney asked an officer whether he had other accounts that he used beyond his personal account to track social media posts, his counsel insisted he not answer because that would get “into the details potentially of the Bob Smith account.”

Through such methods, it appears police were able not only to collect public social media posts, but also private ones. According to the deposition transcript, Memphis police obtained a nonpublic Facebook post of an activist who had recommended a Saul Alinsky book. The police then not only collected information on that nonpublic post but the names of 58 friends who “liked” the post.

Following the release of documents, Memphis police director Michael W. Rallings said his “officers have never interfered with anyone lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights,” and claimed that the department “has gone out of its way to ensure all demonstrations, even unlawful unpermitted ones, are allowed to move forward.”

In a statement to The Appeal, ACLU of Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg noted that “the public has a right to know about government practices,” especially when it comes to the surveillance of protesters. Weinberg continued, “We are pleased that the documents related to this case have been unsealed, allowing members of the public to see and assess the extensive Memphis police activities for themselves, even as the court considers their constitutionality. We remain committed to ensuring that Tennesseans are able to fully exercise their free speech rights, free from fear or intimidation.”

Memphis police spying on activists has sparked controversy over the last two years. Several activists named in the social media posts have accused police of surveilling their homes and workplaces. Local media also reported on how authorities created a “watch list” of activists after a protest outside the mayor’s home. Memphis police have also conducted surveillance operations against Fight for 15 minimum wage organizers. As Brentin Mock noted in CityLab, such efforts evoke a much deeper history of Memphis police targeting black protesters.

Black Lives Matter activists across the country have been targeted by local and federal spying efforts since the Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The Department of Homeland Security tracked Black Lives Matter social media posts extensively in 2015. During Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015 in New York, police officers accessed activists’ text messages, The Guardian revealed.

Earlier this year, The Intercept broke the news that the FBI had tracked Black Lives Matter activists’ movements across the country and staked out the homes and cars of individuals somehow tied to the protests.

In the Trump era, the FBI has declared what they call “Black Identity Extremist” groups to be a leading domestic terrorism threat, as Foreign Policy first reported. This extremist classification immediately attracted criticism. Black congressional leaders argued it unfairly lumped numerous black groups into one movement threatening law enforcement and cited the FBI’s notorious record of surveilling Black civil rights activists. Since then, FBI agents have visited the homes of Black activists across the country and arrested at least one, whom media outlets have characterized as an individual likely fitting this classification.

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How Activists Convinced New York City To Stop Profiting Off Prisoners' Phone Calls

News of the victory is spreading rapidly to other cities.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How Activists Convinced New York City To Stop Profiting Off Prisoners' Phone Calls

News of the victory is spreading rapidly to other cities.

Being incarcerated for just over a year on Rikers Island, the New York City jail known for its violence and human rights violations, was hard on Dwayne Lee. “It was very traumatic for me,” he said. “Every day when I woke up, I woke up with tears.”

But one thing that eased his suffering was speaking with his six children. “Sometimes I would get on the phone at around 7 in the morning just to make sure they get up for school,” he recalled. “I felt like I was there with them until I got off the phone.” After hanging up, “I couldn’t wait to get on the phone again.”

It was also hard on his children when he couldn’t get in touch. “If I miss a day calling them, they worry about me and they think somebody hurt me,” he said. “They was really concerned about me.” It was also important for him to get on the phone to speak with his legal representatives.

But up until recently, the family and friends of people incarcerated in New York City jails were paying a collective $8 million a year just to speak on the phone with their loved ones. For Lee, that meant spending more than $2,500 to talk to his family while he was incarcerated. His children’s mother survives on a fixed income and food stamps, so finding $20 or $25 a week so they could call him was difficult.

“We go to any lengths to get any money to keep in contact with the outside world so we can tell them we still are alive,” he said. “I went through a lot of suffering.”

Later this year, other families in New York won’t have to endure the same suffering. Last week, the City Council passed a law that will make all calls in and out of city jails free.

Once signed into law by the mayor, the legislation will be the first of its kind in the country. The prison phone industry has grown to a $1.2 billion a year business, mostly run by private companies that can charge as much as $1.22 a minute. That doesn’t take into account the associated fees, which make up nearly 40 percent of the cost of calls to the country’s jails and prisons. The Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of prison and jail phone calls under President Barack Obama in 2015, but the agency reversed course after President Trump appointed a new chairperson who refused to defend the policy in court. It was later struck downleaving any potential regulation of prisoners’ phone calls in the hands of state and local governments.

In New York City, in-state calls cost 5 cents a minute and out-of-state calls—to any number with an area code from outside the state of New York, including cell phones—cost 21 cents a minute. Securus, the company that the city has contracted to provide phone services in its jails, allows someone to put only $50 on an account at a time, with a $3 charge each time, forcing families to keep paying the $3 fee every time they want to spend more. The city then takes a cut from every phone call.

“We view this as a wealth extraction from our communities that just isn’t just,” said Kristen Miller, criminal justice campaign manager at Color of Change, which also advocated free calls. The city “should just not be profiting off of people in jail.”

The costs are a huge burden for struggling families, said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project. Tylek estimates that when fees and long distance charges are included, jail calls cost families nearly $10 million a year. “That means a lot for the communities that are already economically distressed,” Tylek pointed out. After all, 72 percent of the people in city jails are there because they can’t afford to post bail ahead of trial.

But compared with what the city spends on the Department of Correction — over $1 billion a year — this drop barely makes a ripple in the bucket. “It was actually described to me by a staff member of a City Council member as equivalent to a rounding error,” Tylek said. “It’s not a meaningful amount of money for the city, and a huge amount of money for these communities.”

This math came to light when Brooklyn Defender Services realized a couple of years ago that the city budget had a revenue stream from its own Department of Correction. So Jared Chausow, senior policy specialist at the organization, filed a Freedom of Information Law request to find out what was behind it. He discovered that the city was profiting from contracts for services in the Department of Correction. These contracts generated not just $5 million in revenue from phone calls, but also revenue from things like commissary and vending machines. Brooklyn Defender Services and other groups decided to lobby the city not just to stop making money from the contract with Securus, but to make calls free, as they were in the 1990s.

A number of factors combined to ensure their success. Lawmakers were eager to do something to appease the long-running campaign to reform Rikers Island that has gained traction in recent years. It also helped that Council Member Corey Johnson, who had taken in an interest in the issue of costly jail calls, became speaker of the council in January. “In cities where there is real criminal justice transformation taking place … there are wins to be had,” Tylek said. “Where there’s energy and excitement about criminal justice, there are opportunities.”

But it also took work to organize supporters and stand firm. “Passing this law would not have been possible without the strong coalition of survivors of Rikers and other advocates,” Chausow said. “Direct action by and with impacted people gets the goods.”

That action included people like Lawrence Bartley, now a program assistant at Corrections Accountability Project, whose family had to pay 4 cents a minute on calls to speak to him while he was incarcerated on top of the $3 fee each time they needed to refill their accounts. “They had other bills to pay,” he noted. His wife, who called herself “half a single parent” while he was incarcerated, struggled to afford the calls, but “she had to do it because it was essential that I would call.”

The advocates met with lawmakers one-on-one to get them on board with making calls free, starting with their own council members and then contacting others. They held actions at the public hearings over the bill, carrying signs inscribed with the questions they wanted City Council members to ask the Department of Correction. “We found that was actually very effective, many of the council members were sitting there reading our signs,” Tylek said. “Some of our questions did get posed.”

Miller agreed with Tylek’s assessment. “Our main thing was we just hopped on it at the beginning and stayed involved, even in … what can be seen as less important meetings like these small committee meetings,” she said. “Staying loud, going to every meeting.”

At first they were told that a vote was likely in the fall. But then the timeline was sped up to get a vote before the summer recess—except the advocates were told that the bill would only ensure that the city stopped profiting off jail calls, not make them free. In response, advocates went back to community members who have been impacted by high phone bills. “The consensus was it should be free,” Bartley said. “People shouldn’t have to pay anything because families are struggling to pay bills and to have another bill … would just be another added burden.”

So they pushed back on council members, armed with the argument that the community was rejecting its half-measure. “It was more than anything standing our ground with conviction … and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to support something that’s a compromise,’” Tylek said. Two days later, they heard back: A bill was getting introduced to make all calls free. It passed days later.

The concept has quickly spread after the victory in New York, especially given the speed of passage. “We’ve already started getting calls from advocates in other cities,” Tylek said, including Chicago and Philadelphia just days after the City Council’s vote on the bill, which was introduced in April. “First, asking how this happened, and secondly how we might bring this to their counties or cities or jurisdictions.”

Color of Change is particularly looking at other cities with large jail populations where they might be able to replicate what happened in New York City, such as Los Angeles. “The fact that it had pretty decent support in New York is a great sign,” Miller said. “Maybe it will do the same elsewhere.”

The work in New York isn’t done. It’s still not clear exactly how the city intends to make calls free. Liz Peters, a spokesperson for Council Member Keith Powers, a sponsor of the bill, wrote in an email, “[T]he city is picking up the cost, but the Department of Correction (DOC) will have to amend their contract.” Mitchell Abramson, press officer for the Department of Correction, responded when asked for further clarification, “We are exploring our options in order to comply with pending legislation.” The groups that advocated the legislation are also planning to ensure that as it gets implemented there aren’t tradeoffs, such as reducing prisoners’ access to calls.

It’s also one small victory in a larger fight. “This is definitely one step,” Miller said. City, county, and state governments “should not be making any money off of the jail or prison population. Anything we can do to pick away at that [is] a step forward toward ending mass incarceration.”

“We’re playing a game of Jenga and we just pulled out one block,” she added. “Hopefully it’ll all fall down.”

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