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Michigan man’s exoneration after decades in prison shows importance of holding prosecutors accountable

Michigan man’s exoneration after decades in prison shows importance of holding prosecutors accountable

Ledura Watkins spent 41 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

And the only evidence prosecutors had against Watkins in the early 1970’s was a single hair.

Earlier this week prosecutors agreed that single hair did not belong to Watkins, 61, and he’s a free man for the first time since he was a teenager.

According to the Associated Press, “Watkins was 20 years old when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1975 shooting death of 25-year-old Yvette Ingram during a robbery at her home. Police lab analysts tied Watkins to the crime based on a single hair found at the scene, according to the Innocence Project at the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, which took up Watkins’ case and asked a court in January to set aside the conviction.”

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office agreed that the evidence was flawed under the FBI’s current standard for hair comparison, and agreed to his release.

Watkins will be the longest serving wrongly convicted person in the United States to be determined innocent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

And while the story had a happy ending, Watkins lost over 40 years of his life in prison on a single hair. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy deserves credit for not trying to do everything to keep Watkins locked up, but the same cannot be said for the prosecutors 40 years ago who felt justified in having Watkins locked up on such flimsy evidence.

But William Cahalan, who was the elected prosecutor in the 1970’s, died in 1990. No one will answer for this grave injustice.

And that’s why our society needs to do a better job of holding prosecutors accountable. It’s comforting to think the authorities know what they’re doing, but Ledura Watkins can tell you that’s not always the case.

Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail domestic violence victim

Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail domestic violence victim

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail a victim of domestic violence after she refused to to to respond to a fake subpoena his office sent her demanding that she meet with them.

The woman was never locked up. A judge originally issued an arrest warrant but then withdrew it after Cannizzaro dropped the charges against the woman’s ex-boyfriend. But Cannizzaro’s behavior is generating attention because of his tendency to issue these “fake subpoenas” to get witnesses in criminal cases to talk to his office.

Protesters in New Orleans have been calling for Cannizzaro’s recall.

According to the Lens, a non-profit news sight, prosecutors sought to jail the woman because she was not cooperating with their investigation and not coming to their office when she was sent a “subpoena.”

The documents had the word “subpoena” at the top of the page even though it had not been signed by a judge, meaning that disobeying would not be a criminal offense. The text said in all capital letters “SUBPOENA: A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE.”

Cannizzaro defended his behavior, saying that the woman had gone to police twice but then stopped speaking to the authorities. But Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman told the Lens that obtaining an arrest warrant based on a fake subpoena “raises the level of misconduct.”

Legal experts questioned whether it was legal to send any of the fake subpoenas out, although news reports said the office had been doing it for years. It also came out that Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick has sent out similar “subpoenas and the office of North Shore District Attorney Warren Montgomery sent out documents that looked like subpoenas but didn’t actually use that word.

“There’s no question this is improper,” said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor in New York City, in an interview with The Lens. “Clearly, it’s unethical because the prosecutor is engaging in fraudulent conduct.”

Defense attorney and New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams said if a defense attorney had done something similar, “I guarantee you this DA would try to prosecute that defense attorney.”

After the reports surfaced a spokesman for Cannizzaro said the process would be discontinued and replaced with documents that said “notice to appear.” Connick and Montgomery’s office also said the process would end.

But even if Cannizzaro is not recalled, the scandal has hurt him. He was blasted locally with an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that called the behavior “especially egregious.”

And Radley Balko of the Washington Post also called Cannizzaro out, saying his office had hit “rock bottom.”

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Number of people locked up in rural jails is skyrocketing

Number of people locked up in rural jails is skyrocketing

A new report shows that the number of people locked up in rural jails has continued to significantly increase, making it difficult to decrease the total number of people locked up in the United States.

The report, written by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, argues that the real challenge to reducing the prison population requires reform in the rural counties where the population is under 250,000 people.

This will likely be a surprise to many, with the conventional wisdom being that the major issue lies in big cities. But pretrial incarceration rates in rural counties increased 436 percent between 1970 and 2003.

That is a concern because many rural counties struggle to “fund and deliver justice,” the report said.

“America’s 3,283 local jails are the ‘front door’ to mass incarceration,” wrote research director Christian Henrichson at the start of the report. “But for too long, county jail systems have operated and grown outside public view.”

Researchers who worked on the report found two major issues causing the rural jail boom. More people are being held in pretrial detention and either being denied bail, or have bail so high that can’t pay it, and there are more people locked up in rural jails who were actually arrested somewhere else.

That is primarily because a number of rural jails are now moneymakers for the counties they are in, with many renting out beds to federal, state and other local governments.

“In some cases, jails are even building new capacity to meet external jail bed demands unrelated to crime in their own jurisdiction,” a report summary said. “In 11 states in the South and West, for example, more than 30 percent of the people in jail were held for other authorities.”

Henrichson said the use of jails has declined in urban areas even as their use has skyrocketed in rural areas.

“While it may not seem like a matter of national significance when a single jail expands from, say, 100 beds to 200, these numbers add up quickly when it is multiplied over thousands of counties,” Henrichson said. “Consequently, it is mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration if the jail populations in small towns do not take the same downward trajectory as big cities.”

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