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Safe injection sites save lives, but most U.S. politicians are still running scared

Safe injection sites save lives, but most U.S. politicians are still running scared

Tens of thousands of people are dying every year. The President recently declared it a national emergency. Yet most politicians in the U.S. are still shying away from an empirically proven way to save lives claimed by the ever-growing opioid epidemic: supervised injection facilities.

Sixty-six cities across the world have opened these facilities, which permit intravenous drug users to inject themselves under medical supervision, while providing access to sterile injection equipment, medical and social work staff, health care, and information about managing or ending addiction. Opponents argue that de-stigmatizing opioid injection at these facilities will increase drug abuse and addiction, and send a message that the government condones drug use.

To settle those fears, one need only look to Vancouver, where a government-funded safe injection facility called Insite has successfully operated since 2003. Research shows that Insite has slowed the spread of HIV, reduced overdose deaths, and contributed to the decreased use of drugs in Vancouver. Attuned to Insite’s success, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine approved recommendations to open two safe injection sites in January. The facilities would be the first to legally open in the U.S.

“The crisis is growing beyond anything we have seen before,” Murray told The Seattle Times. “We can do something about that.”

Opposition to initiatives like that in Seattle often come from a wide array of politicians, academics, and law enforcement officials. But in Seattle, King County District Attorney Dan Satterberg has consistently supported the project. In May, Satterberg testified before supporters and opponents at a meeting of the King County Council’s Health, Housing and Human Services committee.

“I was part of the crack-cocaine response back in the 1980s,” said Satterberg. “The response was the War on Drugs. I think everyone can admit that that was the wrong response.”

In Philadelphia, leading candidate for district attorney Larry Krasner offered his support for these sites as the city began cleaning up ‘El Campamento,’ a half-mile stretch of land along the railroad where users have bought and used heroin for years. “#ElCampamento cleanup is long overdue,” tweeted Krasner. “But we can’t just sweep opioid crisis from one spot to another. Supervised injection facilities work.”

In spite of the Seattle project’s approval in January, actually opening the sites has proved to be an uphill battle. On Thursday, county officials announced that an initiative to ban the creation of safe injection sites received enough signatures to make it on the ballot.

Vancouver’s Insite has also faced strong opposition over the years, in spite of its success. When the program began, the Canadian government granted Insite an exemption from the law that would otherwise criminalize drug use at the site. But in 2006, when conservative Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister, the new administration tried to repeal the exemption and shut the site down. In a landmark 2011 decision, the Canadian Supreme Court denied the Harper administration’s attempts to interfere with Insite — thanks in large part to the large body of peer-reviewed studies examining its impact and measuring its undeniable success.

“During its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada,” the Court said. “The effect of denying the services of Insite to the population it serves and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that Canada might derive from presenting a uniform stance on the possession of narcotics.”

As the U.S. grapples with the growing crisis of opioid overdose deaths, the body of research from Vancouver should be a welcome roadmap for lawmakers and advocates seeking answers. The data is there — politicians just need to pay attention to it.

UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri

Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch

UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri

UPDATED Aug. 22, 2017, 3:00 p.m.

On Tuesday afternoon just hours before Marcellus Williams was scheduled to be executed in Missouri, Governor Eric Greitens issued a stay pending an investigation into new DNA evidence presented by Williams’ attorneys. Greitens announced that he would appoint a board of inquiry to review Williams’ case and issue a report.

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” said Greitens in a statement. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

No forensic evidence or eye witness testimony links Williams to the 1998 murder of reporter Felicia Gayle. Yet without Greitens’ intervention, Williams would have been executed for Gayle’s murder, which he was convicted of in 2001. Williams has always maintained his innocence, and new evidence shows that male DNA found on the murder weapon belongs not to him, but to an unidentified person. But the Missouri Supreme Court refused to examine this evidence, which was not available during the trial that led to his conviction.

While all of this might sound outrageous — the execution of a possibly-innocent man — in the U.S. criminal justice system, it is disturbingly common. In particular, Williams’ story is a microcosm of the larger systemic injustices that infect the capital sentencing process, and of the racial bias that plays out in St. Louis County.

Williams, who is black, was convicted of killing Gayle, a white woman, by a jury comprised of 11 white jurors and one black juror. His conviction hinged exclusively on the testimony of Williams’ ex-girlfriend Laura Asaro and Henry Cole, a man he shared a jail cell with. Cole claimed that while locked up together, Williams confessed to murdering Gayle. Asaro told the court that she saw scratches on Williams’ neck at the time of the murder, which she said were made by Gayle. (No DNA evidence tying Williams to Gayle was found under her fingernails.) Williams’ lawyers argue that both witnesses were influenced by Gayle’s family, which offered a $10,000 reward.

Six of the seven black potential jurors in Williams’ trial were dismissed by the trial prosecutors. The ease with which prosecutors exclude black jurors in capital trials isn’t limited to Missouri, but the problem is particularly acute in St. Louis County. In the case of Andre Cole, who was executed in 2015 after being convicted of killing his ex-wife’s boyfriend, a black prospective juror was dismissed by a prosecutor for being divorced. The prosecutor argued that experience could unduly influence the potential juror’s impression of Cole’s case, which involved his ex-wife. Yet a divorced white juror was allowed to remain on the case.

The racial dynamics in Gayle’s murder also stacked the deck against Williams. In cases that involve white female victims, “execution is 14 times more likelycompared with when the victim is a black male,” Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty director Staci Pratt told Al Jazeera.

Williams was prosecuted by St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch’s office. If McCulloch’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same prosecutor who failed to secure an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. On Monday night, McCulloch defended the conviction of Williams, and told Fox2 News that the new DNA doesn’t rule him out as the murderer.

“Based on the other, non-DNA evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward,” said McCulloch.

Hope for mercy for Williams now rests with the board of inquiry appointed by Greitens.

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Stacy Parks Miller faces discipline

Centre County Courthouse

Stacy Parks Miller faces discipline

While prosecutorial misconduct generally slides under the radar, every once in a while, there’s a prosecutor whose acts are so egregious that they inspire bar complaints. So it is with Stacy Parks Miller, the chief prosecutor for Centre County, Pennsylvania, whom I previously covered for Slate in May, just before she lost her reelection bid.

If you’ve heard of Parks Miller, it’s because you’ve been watching the news about the Penn State hazing trial. Tim Piazza tragically died in the course of a fraternity hazing event. Parks Miller is in the process of prosecuting the fraternity and 18 individual members for Piazza’s death.

The complaint filed with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board is unrelated to the fraternity case. Instead, it relates to various incidents of alleged misconduct, most of which I covered in my earlier story. The complaint alleges that Parks Miller communicated with judges improperly at least twice and that she created a fake Facebook account to snoop on potential defendants.

As the complaint details, Parks Miller emailed and texted sitting judges about ongoing cases, urging them to make decisions in her favor and scolding them for ruling against her, an unethical practice called “ex parte communications” (meaning that the other side—in this instances, the defendant — does not know about the conversation and cannot weigh in). In 2011, Parks Miller also authorized the creation of the Britney Bella Facebook account — a fake Facebook account which at the time depicted a buxom blonde college student. At least two defendants “friended” Britney Bella. Parks Miller has previously said that the account was to “collect headshot photos” for the purposes of investigating cases. But, as the complaint explains, it appears that she was unethically asking for people charged with crimes to incriminate themselves.

Parks Miller has defended herself rather vigorously in the press, claiming that she is the “victim” of the ex parte communications and that the Britney Bella Facebook page was “legally ethical and necessary for law enforcement.”

While Parks Miller will no longer be on the Penn State prosecution once her successor takes over, most lawyers in the area think there will be little difference in the prosecution’s plan for the case. Although the approach may differ: Parks Miller has engaged in some trademark histrionicsyelling at defense lawyers during the course of the most recent hearings in early August.

The other prosecutor on the Penn State case, Bruce Castor, has his own claim to fame as the man who declined to prosecute Bill Cosby in 2005 for the alleged rape of Andrea Constand. A true political machine, Castor was a prosecutor in Montgomery County, PA, and became the district attorney there from 2000 to 2008. He then took an elected seat on the Montgomery Board of Commissioners. But then he managed to both lose that seat and lose an election for district attorney in 2015. He became a “special assistant” in Centre County and spent a few months as an interim Attorney General for the state when Kathleen Kane was removed and indicted. The governor replaced him in January 2017 with Bruce Beemer.

Yet Castor’s handling of the Cosby case was his undoing. He had made a secret agreement in 2005 with Cosby not to prosecute, which became an issue in the 2016 prosecution when Cosby claimed that Castor had verbally agreed to a non-prosecution agreement.

Parks Miller’s hearing for her misconduct case is set for November 29. She told a local news outlet that she was “confident” in the outcome.

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