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Oklahoma sheriff indicted for jail death

Oklahoma sheriff indicted for jail death

Anthony Huff tragically died in the Garfield County Jail in Oklahoma last year, after staff restrained him in a chair and failed to hydrate and feed him for two days, according to court documents unsealed and released to the public on July 25. But in a rare move, prosecutors in the state decided to hold the sheriff who oversees the jail and five other employees accountable for Huff’s death. At the urging of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a district attorney presented evidence to a grand jury in March to determine if a criminal case should proceed.

Last week, the jurors decided to charge all six defendants with second-degree manslaughter.

Details of the defendants’ involvement haven’t been revealed, but a separate civil lawsuit filed by Huff’s family outlines the events that led up to Huff’s death on June 8 of last year. Four days earlier, police had arrested the 58-year-old for public intoxication and brought him to the jail run by Sheriff Jerry Niles. Huff had previously been locked up at the facility, so staff allegedly knew he had various health problems— including heart disease, hypertension, depression, alcoholism— that required medication. But according to the suit, Huff didn’t receive a medical evaluation upon his arrival, and was restrained in a chair two days later. Routine checks weren’t conducted, cameras weren’t turned on to monitor him, and defendants “failed to ensure that Mr. Huff received sufficient food or water” for several days. The autopsy allegedly shows that very little medication was in Huff’s system when he died, indicating that staff also neglected to give him his prescriptions.

Huff perished “due to conditions related to his withdrawal from alcohol, and the effects it had on his body and system,” the suit says. Moreover, “lack of food and water from June 6, 2016, through June 8, 2016, exacerbated the conditions…and further caused or contributed to the death of Mr. Huff.”

Sheriff Niles is named as a defendant in both the civil and criminal cases. Last week, a grand jury made up of residents from all over Oklahoma decided that there’s enough evidence to proceed with a criminal case against him and five others, including his daughter-in-law.

Months before the grand jury convened, Attorney General Hunter tapped District Attorney Chris Boring to investigate Huff’s death. The Garfield County District Attorney had recused himself due to his relationship to the sheriff. Boring did what so many prosecutors are unwilling or unable to do: convince jurors that members of the law enforcement should stand trial for their behavior.

Approximately 1,000 people die in jail each year — many from sheer neglect or violence committed by correctional staff. But prosecutors are generally reluctant to charge anyone involved — or present strong cases to grand juries — for the same reasons they’re reluctant to charge police officers who kill. They have a cozy relationship with the rest of the law enforcement community — including the sheriffs running county jails — and hold them to a different legal standard than the rest of the public. They also hesitate to prosecute cases they think they’ll lose. Notably, neither Sheriff David Clarke nor lower-ranked staff have been charged for four deaths that occurred in the Milwaukee County Jail last year — even though a grand jury recommended charges be brought against seven people for cutting off a man’s water supply and letting him die of thirst.

Prison deaths are handled no differently than jail deaths. In Florida’s Dade Correctional Institute, Darren Rainey was forced into a scolding hot shower by four guards who then ignored his pleas for help. The 53-year-old, who suffered from schizophrenia, was found dead in the shower two hours later. Nobody was charged.

Last week’s grand jury indictment in Garfield County gives Huff’s relatives a rare chance to get justice. If convicted, Niles and the five other defendants involved could spend up to four years in prison.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Does Summer Stephan think she’s Olivia Benson?

Does Summer Stephan think she’s Olivia Benson?

Viewers know that Olivia Benson is the leather jacket-wearing detective on Law and Order SVU, an icon to law-abiding women everywhere. In a recent Women of the World biography, the newly-anointed district attorney for San Diego Summer Stephan received comparisons to Olivia Benson for her tough-as-nails approach to offenders. Stephan has taken over the top prosecutor job, handpicked by her predecessor Bonnie Dumanis, who stepped down last month, and plans to run next year to officially keep the post. Stephan has largely touted her success prosecuting sex crimes and reaching across the aisle to increase use of pretrial diversion.

But is Summer Stephan really the crusading hero she would like people to think?

In her application for district attorney, Summer Stephan called the botched prosecution of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe one of her crowning moments — where she claims she “did the right thing.” But Stephan seems to have conveniently forgotten the facts of the case. She claims that she came into the case uninformed mid-way, and, as a result, prosecuted three kids for a crime they didn’t commit. But like many wrongful convictions, the prosecution of Michael Crowe should be reexamined as an example of the typical misbehavior that prosecutors rarely must reckon with.

In 1998, 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was stabbed multiple times in her bed, crawling to the door before dying. Her 14-year-old brother, Michael, and two of his friends were quickly arrested for the crime. After hours of interrogation without his parents or lawyer, in a manner known to be coercive and prone to generating false statements, Michael gave the police incriminating statements. One friend made a false confession. Much of the theory of the cases rested on Michael’s penchant for video games, medieval imagery, and the game Dungeon and Dragons. There was no direct physical evidence tying them to the crime.

Summer Stephan was one of two prosecutors on the case during the grand jury indictment of Michael and his friends, and she remained heavily involved throughout. Throughout the course of the investigation, not only did Stephan refuse to question the coercive interrogation of 14-year-old boys, but she also concealed evidence showing that the prosecution’s theory of the crime was wrong. Prosecutors insisted the Michael Crowe had lied and, therefore, was guilty, but in fact, that theory was wrong.

Michael Crowe and the other boys were never tried — investigators ultimately found DNA matching someone else and never pursued the case. But the case against Michael Crowe wasn’t formally dropped for years, largely because Stephan persisted in believing she was right. In 2012, a judge declared the boys factually innocent. The likely murderer was found, but due to the botched investigation and prosecution, his first conviction was overturned and he was acquitted on retrial. (The second accused murderer’s defense was in fact the police investigation of Michael Crowe and his friends.)

During the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting that ultimately resulted in Stephan being appointed as interim district attorney, the Crowe family submitted a 22-page letter saying that Stephan had mistreated them and had wrongly accused them of “not cooperating” with the investigation. (The Crowes won a civil lawsuit against the city for its treatment of Michael.) The Crowe family pointed out that Dumanis herself had said during her campaign that her opponent’s office, including Stephan, had botched the case.

Stephan has argued weakly that she took over the case after it had begun and that she had nothing to do with the patently flawed theory of the case. Yet Stephan had clearly courted the spotlight the Crowe cases generated, calling Michael and his friends “evil.” And during the intervening decades, she’s done nothing to rectify her mistake, instead insisting that she is proud of her work.

So should the people really trust Summer Stephan to make the right choices now that she is the lead prosecutor for San Diego?

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New book explores the legal debt that comes after prison

New book explores the legal debt that comes after prison

Throughout his life, Nick has battled mental illness and an addiction to crack cocaine. He was convicted three times in the 1990’s for offenses that are characteristic of someone struggling with addiction, and served more than four years in a Washington State prison. But despite his fierce desire to remain sober and gainfully employed since then, bipolar depression and addiction have pulled him in another direction. He hasn’t been able to hold a job or find stable housing, cycling between homelessness and crashing at a friend or relative’s house. He also hasn’t been able to pay over $3,100 in legal debt he owes the state — fines and fees imposed on him for his involvement in the criminal justice system. As a result, he’s been thrown in jail multiple times for nonpayment.

Nick and other people in his position are profiled in Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, a new book by Washington University professor Alexes Harris (watch Professor Harris discuss her work here and here). Zooming in on five Washington counties, the book sheds light on fines and fees — also known as legal financial obligations (LFOs) — that haunt poor people long after they’ve completed sentences for their crimes. It also describes the actors in the criminal justice system who impose and enforce these payments: prosecutors and judges who don’t think prison, probation, and community service is punishment enough.

Harris sifted through 3,300 court cases, conducted 50 interviews, and observed courtroom proceedings to assess how debtors are surveilled and penalized for much of their lives. Besides serving their sentences, defendants in Washington must make a mandatory minimum payment of $600 for every conviction (a $100 DNA collection fee and a $500 victim penalty assessment.)

On top of that fees can be imposed for victim restitution, crime lab analysis, requesting a trial by jury, pleading out, probation monitoring, drug and alcohol treatment and assessment, supervision, and electronic monitoring. Fees are required for time behind bars (incarceration in Washington costs prisoners $50 per day), and there are crime-specific fees for domestic violence and drug use. Moreover, people are forced to pay collection fees and interest.

Discounting restitution, Harris found that the average LFO for a Washington defendant is $1,300. Among the people she interviewed, the average legal debt owed was $9,000. And regardless of their inability to pay, people like Nick are thrown in jail over and over again for nonpayment.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but judges and prosecutors are choosing to damn people to a lifetime of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“[Prosecutors] have a great deal of discretion in what they’re asking for,” Harris told the Fair Punishment Project. “What I observed in the courthouses is that generally there was a common amount that prosecutors ask for and judges gave. It was never negotiated or discussed.” In fact, Harris writes in her book that its title was inspired by a prosecutor who admitted he wanted to “screw” and collect “a pound of flesh” from an unnamed defendant.

One district attorney admitted to Harris that prosecutors’ “personal belief systems” influence their LFO requests. They often view failure to pay as failings of character and signs of laziness. They’ll subsequently ask judges to issue bench warrants or impose additional fines because people are intentionally dodging payments — decisions that discount conditions of poverty, mental illness, addiction, and other factors that impede people’s ability to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars. Nason, another debtor described in the book, was jailed for 60 days because a prosecutor claimed — and a judge agreed — there was no evidence that he’d tried collecting aluminum cans to make money and pay his fees. Nason was homeless and his sole income came from food stamps.

One prosecutor explained to Harris: “[They] collect their food stamps and they collect their other stuff and I don’t know what all. If in fact an individual’s been on drugs or they come in under the influence, whether it’s under drugs or alcohol, that stuff costs money, it’s not free. So they’re getting money to spend it somewhere.”

Harris’ findings come at a time of heightened scrutiny of prosecutors and the role they play in incarcerating poor people — particularly how they push for draconian bail payments that keep indigent defendants behind bars long before trial. But fewer people seem aware of the costs that come after a conviction. The reason for this isn’t clear-cut, but Harris thinks the story of Kalief Browder resonated with people in a way that a story like Nick’s has not. “The human face was put on this and you could really see the prosecutors’ lack of caring and how bail really was the problem in his case,” she said.

At age 16, Browder was arrested and charged for allegedly stealing a backpack. Unable to pay $3,000 for bail, he was locked up in Rikers Island awaiting trial. He remained there for three years, where he was put in solitary confinement for over a year and severely beaten by guards and inmates. After his case was finally dismissed and he was released, Browder committed suicide at the age of 22. His death made national headlines and invigorated the fight for bail reform. Compelling stories like Browder’s reveal that bail is an important part of the criminal justice discussion, Harris argues, but she’s hopeful that fines and fees will garner more attention in the future.

“For me, the fines and fees issue is just as salient as the bail issue. It’s even worse in a way. You’ve basically done your time in jail and prison, but just because of poverty…you’re going back to jail and you’re stuck in this cycle,” she said.

Harris is now in the process of researching fines and fees in eight other states, and following the money to assess how it’s actually spent. In the meantime, she wants people to understand that poor people don’t have to be trapped in this way, and that prosecutors should be held accountable.

“We often don’t focus on prosecutors enough to say ‘you could change this process,’” she said.

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