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Why is the Bronx District Attorney holding Pedro Hernandez at Rikers Island?

Why is the Bronx District Attorney holding Pedro Hernandez at Rikers Island?

Pedro Hernandez, an 18-year-old man man from the Bronx, has been locked up on Rikers Island waiting for trial for almost two years. He has no prior criminal convictions and is fighting two cases, a 2015 shooting and an unrelated robbery, both of which appear to rest on flimsy evidence. Because his family has not been able to pay the $250,000 bail, Hernandez has been forced to wait for trial at the notorious jail facility. His mother, Jessica Perez, has set-up a crowd-funding account in hopes of raising the money he will need for bail. She has raised $87,000 so far.

The case is an important test for Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who has mostly avoided the spotlight since controversially taking office in 2016. Clark became District Attorney after her predecessor took a judgeship too late to hold a primary in 2015. The Bronx Democratic Party selected her as a candidate, and she has yet to face a full election by her constituents. So far Clark’s role in the case has largely flown under the radar. Hernandez has turned down plea offers from Clark’s office that would allow him to go home with no further jail or prison time because he remains adamant about proving his innocence.

“Pedro has chosen to stay locked up in order to demonstrate his innocence. He understands that ‘every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggles.” Perez says.

There are direct similarities between Hernandez’s case and Kalief Browder’s, a teenager who spent three years at Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, who turned out to be innocent. Within months of his release, Browder committed suicide. Clark, who was then a trial court judge, presidedover a handful of Kalief’s court dates.

Manuel Gomez, a private investigator who has been working on the case on behalf of the family, says he has video of Hernandez in the hallway of his mother’s house at the time of the shooting. Several eye-witnesses, including the shooting victim, have said that Hernandez was not involved. What’s more, Gomez says he has spent the past seven months trying to get additional evidence to Clark, but her office has yet to return her call.

“There was no robbery and we have eight witnesses who say he wasn’t there at the shooting, including the victim. But no matter how much evidence I have, [Clark] won’t give me the time of day,” Gomez said.

Instead, Gomez suggests that the District Attorney’s office is continuing to prosecute Hernandez, despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, because they are backing up a crooked cop. Both cases involve the same NYPD police officers from the 42nd precinct in the Bronx, and the same Assistant District Attorney, David Slott, who works under Clark.

The officer, Detective David Terrell, has become notorious for harassing and brutalizing teenagers in the Bronx, and recently lost his gun and badge after being suspended for domestic violence. He has been accused of false arrest in twelve different lawsuits. At least one of the witnesses in Hernandez’s case told reporters that he was beaten by Terrell.

Hernandez has been arrested six other times by Terrell and his colleagues from the 42nd precinct. Each of those cases have been dismissed, Gomez said, but he has paid a price. In one of those cases, he was detained in a court-ordered juvenile facility, where he was beaten by counselors.

The District Attorney has an obligation to ensure that innocent people aren’t dragged through the system. And every arrest brought in by an officer like Terrell should be highly scrutinized, or even automatically dismissed. With eight eye-witnesses, including the victim, backing Hernandez’s innocence, this case, so far, seems to at least suggest reasonable doubt. Having already offered a non-jail plea deal months ago, Clark could have argued to the judge for his release or at least to have the bail reduced to $0. What is the purpose of keeping him in jail any longer at that point except leverage?

At this point, Clark’s office should have stepped up to address this injustice. And while Clark, as the head of the office, can’t be expected to look at every single case, this one is high profile enough that it would make sense that she’s been briefed. Yet, so far, her office has done nothing. Calls to the District Attorney’s office were not returned.

Even if Hernandez is acquitted at trial, significant damage has been done. His mother recently told NBC that he has been “mentally devastated” by the whole process. Should the District Attorney’s office be held accountable for the devastation that it brings to individuals and families who get caught up in the system? What does the public owe Hernandez? What does justice demand?

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

Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

Gaston County D.A. accused of withholding evidence in murder case

Defense lawyers are asking a judge in North Carolina to hold Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell in contempt over allegations that he has failed to release files relevant to the investigation and prosecution of Mark Carver.

Carver was convicted of strangling University of North Carolina student Irina Yarmolenko in 2011 and sentenced to life without parole. A six-part series in April 2017 by The Charlotte Observer surfaced significant questions about Carver’s guilt.

Attorneys for Carver maintain that he is innocent. Bell’s office steadfastly disagrees.

Chris Mumma of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, who represents Carver, claims Bell has ignored a court order directing his office to turn over law enforcement and prosecutorial files.

After complaints were made by Carver’s team during an April 2017 hearing, Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered both sides in May to share their files with one another. In her recent motion to have Bell held in contempt, Mumma claims Bell failed to do so. Bell told the Gaston Gazette that all the documents were sitting in his office and that Mumma simply had to come and pick them up. The motion for contempt remains pending.

Yarmolenko was found dead next to her car in May 2008. Carver and his cousin, Neal Cassada, Jr, had been fishing on the day that Yarmolenko’s body was found near the Catawba River.

Carver has repeatedly denied having anything to do with Yarmolenko’s death. Cassada was also charged with murder but died the day before his trial was scheduled to start.

Mumma claims that Carver’s trial attorneys were incompetent in their defense of him, and law enforcement and the state crime lab mishandled and misrepresented evidence. Mumma also claims that the key piece of evidence — “touch DNA” discovered in cells found on three places around Yarmolenko’s car — is most likely tainted and would not withstand more advanced testing.

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Transportation rules in Dayton, Ohio are setting people up for jail time

Transportation rules in Dayton, Ohio are setting people up for jail time

On January 16, Markcus Brown was on his way to a job interview when he was approached by a police officer at one of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) hubs in Dayton, Ohio. Standing next to friends wearing baggy pants and sweatshirts, Brown was asked to show his identification. After declining the request, he was issued a trespass warning that prevented him from returning to the transit center and riding RTA buses for two years. But Brown, who was 20 years old at the time, explained during a recent phone call that he didn’t know he was banned. His signature was also missing from the RTA form that people must sign when they’ve been issued a trespass warning and banned from the premises, according to documents obtained by the Fair Punishment Project.

Allegedly unaware of his status, the 20-year-old went back to the hub in May. Brown was again approached by an officer because “his pants were sagging,” according to an incident report. Once Brown’s name was run through the system, his status was flagged and he was arrested for trespassing.

Brown was locked up in Montgomery County’s jail, where he remained for nine days because he couldn’t pay bail set at $150 (and later increased to $200). With no other option, Brown waited for his mother to scrape together the funds. He told the Fair Punishment Project that during his incarceration, he didn’t get enough food or sleep, shivering in a shared cell each night. Eventually, Brown’s mother was forced to take out a loan to pay for her son’s release.

Not only is Brown’s story a common one, it showcases a wide range of criminal justice issues in Montgomery County: racial profiling by police officers, the perils of privatizing public services, the harsh economic realities of cash bail, and poor jail conditions.

Daniel Durocher, a Montgomery County public defender who represented Brown, says the RTA’s “Rules of the Road” often result in racial profiling that can then lead to an arrest. Although Dayton RTA is the city’s main public transportation system and says it wants to be “a premier public transportation provider that connects people and communities,” it is run by a private corporation that dictates how people should look (“hoodies must be removed upon boarding the bus”) and conduct themselves (“maintain personal hygiene so as not to offend fellow patrons”).

Dayton RTA hires officers from the city police department to patrol its property and enforce its policies. And while people aren’t arrested for violations like wearing baggy pants, swearing, littering, or waiting for the bus for too long (often classified as “loitering”), suspicion of breaking any one of RTA’s rules empowers police to approach them.

“[Officers] start asking questions,” Durocher said. “They use the RTA rules as a means to come into contact with somebody, and once they’re in contact with the person, they’re doing investigative work.” In some instances, police will ask to pat a person down; sometimes they will do so without permission. In effect, law enforcement can use the RTA rules as pretext for their own stop-and-frisk program.

Moreover, during the questioning by police, the wrong answer — or, as in Brown’s case, the unwillingness to answer — can easily set in motion a process that starts with a ban and quickly leads to an arrest for trespassing.

In another case, Durocher recalled, a man was arrested and hauled to jail because the police mistook him for his much younger son. Norman Ferguson, born in 1966, was at the RTA hub when police approached his friend. Ferguson asked the officers why they were talking to her, and the officers ran his name through RTA’s tracking system, Durocher said. Ferguson was flagged as someone who had previously received a trespass warning and been instructed by the company not to come back.

Ferguson remained in jail for 12 days. He ultimately met his court-appointed attorney on the day of his scheduled trial. His lawyer informed the prosecutor that Ferguson’s son, born in 1991, was the one with a trespass warning — not the jailed client.

According to RTA Chief Executive Mark Donaghy, people labeled “trespassers” aren’t detained for long. He also says criminal activity has declined since 2009, when the Rules of the Road were implemented. But according to Durocher, the Ferguson and Brown cases highlight a glaring problem in Montgomery County: trespassing and other types of misdemeanors are contributing to the jail’s overcrowding problem. Judges are setting cash bonds for these minor charges and people like Ferguson and Brown remain in jail because they can’t afford to pay.

“There are so many people being held in jail on nonviolent misdemeanor offenses at any given time,” says Durocher. “That’s a bad use of public resources.”

As a result, those who pose no threat to public safety are languishing in an overpopulated facility riddled with alleged abuses, including racial segregation and the excessive use of force by corrections officials. One video shows a restrained woman pepper-sprayed in the face. In May, a man who did time in 2015 filed a lawsuit that claims he was punched repeatedly and left with a bleeding scalp. He was the ninth person to sue the jail.

Brown was convicted for trespassing in June and sentenced to unsupervised probation. Despite his financial troubles, he was also forced to pay more than $150 in court fees. He’s indefinitely “trespassed,” unable to use public buses for the foreseeable future — a punishment that severely restricts his movement and access to job opportunities. But returning to the hub could mean another three weeks in jail. After taking out a loan and shelling out bail money, his mom is also struggling to get by.

“It really hurt me to know I can’t be able to pay her back without a job,” he told local reporters. “It’s hard.”

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

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