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Portland is saying goodbye to its controversial gang databas

Police say the tool is outdated.

Members of the Portland Police Bureau on motorbikes.
Wikimedia Commons

Portland is saying goodbye to its controversial gang databas

Police say the tool is outdated.

Like most major cities in the United States, Portland, Oregon has a long history of white supremacy and racially-biased policing. But the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) recently decided to gut one of the racist tools it has used to classify and target possible suspects for decades: the city’s controversial gang database. On Friday, the PPB announced that the database will be defunct as of October 15, and roughly 300 names will be “purged.”

“As times have changed, the Police Bureau in partnership with community members have realized being labeled a ‘gang member’ can have a negative impact on the person who may be making attempts to overcome the life challenges they face,” reads a PPB press statement.

“Today, new processes and technologies allow police to investigate crimes in a manner that our community supports and that will not have the unintended consequences of potentially harming those who may need services and help the most.”

According to the department, the database was originally created in response to increased gang activity over 20 years ago. At the time, it was envisioned as a mechanism to “decrease gun violence.” Officers also say the database can keep them safe by putting them on high alert if someone they have apprehended is identified as a possible gang member and, therefore, poses a threat.

According to the PPB’s operational definition, suspected gang affiliation includes anyone who “admits or asserts affiliation with a criminal gang to the police,” “participates in a criminal gang initiation ritual or ceremony,” “conspires to commit,” “or commits a crime” on behalf of a gang or to signal membership. A person can also be considered an affiliate if they engage in these activities with the intention of targeting victims based on “race, color, religion, sexual preference, national origin or gang association.”

In reality, the database has been used to label people using loose connections to gang members and other arbitrary indicators of possible gang affiliation. A person can also be considered a gang affiliate if they exhibit two or more “signs” identified by the PPB, such as wearing certain clothes or jewelry, bearing a certain tattoo, or taking a photo with gang members. According to an investigative series by the Oregonian, most people are added to the list because of their appearance or conduct that has nothing to do with a “gang-related crime.” In other words, racial profiling feeds the database, even though suspects haven’t been arrested, charged, or convicted for actual gang activity.

The news organization reported that 64 percent of the 359 people flagged in the database in August 2016 were Black. Altogether, racial and ethnic minorities make up 81 percent. Many Portland residents who oppose the use of the database view it as a questionable surveillance mechanism.

Missing from the list was a white supremacist Jeremy Christian, who met many of the gang affiliation criteria. Christian habitually harassed people of color, had a criminal record, and threatened law enforcement at least once, but none of this was enough for cops to include him in their records. In May, he wound up killing two people. Christian’s absence from the database showed just how hypocritical and racially-charged the tool is.

The decision to delete the database was made due to community pressure. But Capt. Mike Krantz reiterated that the PPB still sees criminal gang activity as a concern. The department’s Gang Enforcement Team will still be in effect, investigating stabbings and shootings, the Oregonian reports. Still, police say they want to be in dialogue with the community moving forward.

“People from our community who engage in violent crime and those who do so on behalf of a criminal organization will continue to be a focus of enforcement efforts of the Police Bureau,” the PPB said. “While enforcement and adjudication is an important component of stopping violence, providing meaningful services, community outreach, and relationship building is equally important.”

Judge throws out “satanic” murder convictions after new evidence suggests two men weren’t killers

Meade County Courthouse

Judge throws out “satanic” murder convictions after new evidence suggests two men weren’t killers

The murder convictions of two Kentucky men have been thrown out after new evidence was discovered in their cases.

Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey DeWayne Clark will get new trials after a judge found there was no credible evidence that the killing of Rhonda Sue Warford was related to satanic worship. The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

The two men were released on bail last month, twenty-one years after being sentenced to life in prison.

During the 1995 trial prosecutors told jurors that a broken cup that had been found in Hardin’s bedroom was a “chalice” used by both Hardin and Clark to drink animals blood to improve their standing with the devil. Hardin said he cut his hand and dropped the cup, breaking it. DNA testing found no animal blood on the cup, only Hardin’s. During the 1995 trial prosecutors also said a hair found on Warford’s sweatpants was Hardin’s, but recent DNA testing revealed it was not Hardin’s hair.

“This court concludes that the newly discovered evidence is substantial,” Circuit Judge Bruce T. Butler wrote in his ruling throwing out the convictions, “and of such decisive value or force that it would, with reasonable certainty, have changed the verdict.”

“This court is confronted with the stark reality that Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark were convicted based on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false,” Butler wrote.

Butler also expressed doubt about the honesty of former Louisville police detective Mark Handy, who testified that Hardin told him that he got “tired of looking at animals and began to want to do human sacrifices.”

The judge said there was no evidence to support that claim, and Louisville police had determined that Handy had lied in a different case in 1995 when he claimed the defendant admitted to the crime. That defendant, Edwin Chandler, was convicted of manslaughter and first-degree robbery and spent nine years in prison before being paroled. In 2009 he was officially exonerated and won an $8.5 million settlement from the city of Louisville. Handy was never prosecuted, although the police who investigated him recommended it.

Prosecutors with the office of Meade County Commonwealth Attorney David Michael Williams opposed DNA testing on the hair, saying that DNA testing should only be done for defendants on Death Row, but the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered the testing over their objections because the duo were convicted based on “highly circumstantial evidence.”

Williams is expected to retry the case, although attorneys for the Kentucky Innocence Project, which represented the two men, said the charges against both men should be dropped and also complained that police were seeking to retry them as part of a vendetta.

“It is gratifying that justice is being done, but it is bittersweet,” said Linda Smith, director of the Kentucky Innocence Project. “It has been a horrific nightmare for them.”

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Louisiana’s death penalty prosecutor takes aim at his legal opponents

Louisiana House of Representatives
Wikimedia Commons

Louisiana’s death penalty prosecutor takes aim at his legal opponents

The death penalty is costing the cash-strapped state of Louisiana tens of millions of dollars a year. But there’s one state employee who’s massively profiting off its continued existence.

Hugo Holland’s fingerprints are on the bulk of Louisiana’s recent death sentences. He’s been hired by over a dozen district attorneys to prosecute death penalty cases at a rate that pays him more than Governor John Bel Edwards.

Holland spent two decades as an assistant district attorney at the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office, which until recently churned out more death sentences than any other in the state, not to mention most others in the nation. He was effectively fired in 2012 after he and a colleague were caught lying on a federal application to buy M-16 automatic rifles for the DA’s office. The whistleblower claimed in a lawsuit that Holland generally liked to play cop, “outfitting [his] vehicles with lights and sirens, making stops, and wearing SWAT-type clothing during work hours.”

Though he was forced to resign when the scandal went public, the alleged fraud didn’t sink Holland’s career. Instead, his influence has expanded far beyond Caddo Parish. Records show he had lucrative contracts in nine different parishes last year.

Holland has secured ten death sentences in Louisiana over his career, both as a Caddo prosecutor and in his new role. Five were later overturned. Overall, a recent study of Louisiana’s death penalty found that more than 80 percent of death sentences in the state have been overturned since 1976. Prosecutorial misconduct was responsible for 25 such reversals.

And the odds have gotten increasingly tough for capital prosecutors. Fifty of the 52 capital cases that have been resolved since 2000 were reversed, largely thanks to the emergence of dedicated nonprofit offices that handle death penalty trials and appeals for the public defender board.

“Not only have reversals become more common than new death sentences… but in the new century exonerations have outpaced executions,” the study noted. “A better funded capital defense system in Louisiana allows more of these errors to be discovered.”

Holland has started going beyond the courtroom to try to defeat the organizations making it harder for his death sentences to stick. His old office, Caddo Parish, pays him $900 a day to lobby the state legislature to preserve the death penalty and weaken capital defense programs.

Last year, he secured a key victory against the “anti-capital punishment zealots” he claimed control the state’s public defense funds.

“They spend money on experts like a drunk sailor in Thailand goes through hookers,” he complained to the Advocate.

Professing a concern for overextended public defenders, Holland argued at a 2016 committee hearing that the public defense budget was being eaten up by “boutique law firms” that were lavishing a luxury “Cadillac defense” on poor people facing capital punishment.

Hugo Holland (right, pointing) testifying
screenshot, Louisiana House of Representatives

“Local public defenders that I deal with every day across the state who are struggling to represent the indigent and provide them competent representation are overworked because the current board is composed of individuals who can’t repeal capital punishment in front of the legislature and are trying to price it out of existence in the court system,” he testified.

Holland was speaking in support of legislation to divert funding from capital defense to the local public defenders. The bill also reduced the board’s membership from fifteen members to eleven. District attorneys came out in force to support the bill, accusing the public defender board of mismanaging money by dedicating a third of it to capital cases.

It’s true that indigent defense in Louisiana is dismally underfunded. New Orleans’ public defenders infamously started refusing new felony cases last year as a result of the budget shortfall.

But blaming the capital defenders is a red herring. Death penalty cases have far more complex constitutional requirements than a typical criminal case because the stakes are so high. Death row inmates are entitled to a winding path of appeals in state and federal courts that demands years of investigation and litigation. These special circumstances require enormous amounts of money, time, and resources on both sides. In the past, public defenders have struggled to adequately handle these complicated cases on top of the rest of their responsibilities.

“Having carried a caseload myself in the public defender’s office, I could not also defend a capital case,” one death penalty defense attorney testified at the same House committee. “I spend many hours a week, full time, working the capital cases I have now, because they are extremely complicated.”

The Public Defender Board also testified that the bill obscured the real problem: the unreliable and shrinking pool of funds used to fund public defense.. Louisiana is the only state in the nation that funds its courts primarily with fines and fees, such as traffic tickets. This funding scheme is known as a “user pay” system, in which the “users” are predominantly poor defendants of color. The result is an unpredictable budget— and an inherent conflict of interest for the public defenders. If their clients plead guilty, they must pay additional fines and fees that feed into the public defense budget.

“We are paid to lose,” Orleans Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton testified. “That is perverse.”

Still, the legislation passed and was signed into law with little opposition. Two capital defense organizations confirmed to the Advocate that their budgets were subsequently cut in half.

Holland’s concern for the state’s fiscal health might be better focused on his own drain on taxpayers. His lofty commissions for capital prosecutions — a highly expensive process that, unlike legally mandated capital defense, is a choice prosecutors make — have netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. His own misconduct has also fueled some of the appeals he despises; he’s been accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in multiple death row cases. One of his most high-profile death sentence pursuits racked up a taxpayer bill of $14 million over 15 years. The gun grab that got him fired also resulted in a legal settlement of $447,000.

According to the Advocate, Holland is not finished with legislative tinkering. His next big priority will be to “unclog” the “bottleneck” of post-conviction relief, thereby speeding up executions before a sentence can be thoroughly challenged.

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

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