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Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

An activist confronting a Columbus police officer outside the governor's mansion in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, in April 2017.
Katie Forbes

Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

At the Sirens strip club in Columbus one night in July, a new lawsuit alleges, members of the Columbus Division of Police vice squad paid $75 each for “V.I.P. access” to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. As the undercover officers downed $129 in alcoholic drinks, they commented on the bodies of their cocktail servers: “You have the tits,” one officer said to a cocktail waitress, “and she has the ass.”

The vice officers then made their way to the V.I.P. area for Daniels’s performance. Later, one would claim Daniels “put both hands on officers [sic] buttocks, both hands on officers [sic] breast, then put her breast in officers [sic] face” as cause for arresting her, along with two other women working at the club. While one of the officers sent around an email announcing they had Daniels in jail, the suit continues, another was busy shutting down his alleged pseudonymous Facebook account, deleting posts like “Cops for Trump Pence Make America Great Again.”

These allegations appear in a civil rights lawsuit filed this week against officers in the Columbus Division of Police (CPD) vice squad. In the suit, two women arrested that night at Sirens say officers falsified evidence and misled the public about the women’s alleged involvement in prostitution and human trafficking. The vice squad raid on Sirens was widely considered political payback for Daniels’s allegations that she had an affair with President Trump and was paid to cover it up.

Miranda Panda, a cocktail waitress, and Brittany Walters, a dancer, brought the suit against CPD vice officers. They say officers Shana Keckley, Whitney Lancaster, Mary Praither, Steven Rosser, along with one other unknown officer, arrested them without probable cause, an argument later supported by the city attorney, who said officers failed to allege necessary facts about the women’s conduct. After the arrests, their suit says, CPD “falsely insinuated” to the media that Panda and Walters were involved in “prostitution, human trafficking, or vice related violations.”

The suit comes at a critical time for the department. Since Sept. 6, vice unit operations have been put on “pause” as the department launched an internal review. Three weeks later, the department called in an FBI public corruption task force to investigate the unit, noting that “recent high profile incidents have brought forward a variety of allegations,” including Daniels’s arrest and the shooting of sex worker Donna Dalton by Officer Andrew Mitchell in August. At the time he shot and killed Dalton, Mitchell was under criminal investigation. He had also already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women.

Columbus Police spokesperson Denise Alex-Bouzounis told The Appeal that the FBI investigation led the department to relieve Mitchell of duty, confiscating his badge and gun. FBI spokesperson Todd Lindgren confirmed to The Appeal that CPD has referred the investigation to them, but would not offer further information because “the matter is ongoing.”

The officers’ plans to target Sirens and Daniels, the suit claims, are evidenced in part by pro-Trump Facebook posts allegedly written by Officer Rosser, since deleted. (Rosser, in a previous incident, was found to have entrapped employees of a Columbus bar into serving alcohol to minors.) The suit cites internal emails, including a celebratory email from Officer Keckley, who forwarded the complaints related to the three arrests to a CPD lieutenant, with the comment “LT You’re Welcome!!!!! I work Vice now !! : D It was Me, Rosser, Lancaster, and Praiter [sic]; Please Please Don’t post my name on Face Book [sic] !! : D Thank me in person later.”

The women also allege that officers falsified their arrest reports so they could be charged with violating a law against touching strip club patrons while nude or seminude. Officer Keckley reported in a criminal complaint that Panda was nude or seminude, but in the suit, Panda says she wore “a large bra, which covered all of her nipples and most of her breasts; underwear; leggings; and a high-waisted skirt.” Officer Praither, the suit states, misrepresented her conduct with Walters, who was dancing when Praither reported Walters put her face between the officer’s breasts, because “it would have been physically impossible for Ms. Walters to bend down far enough” from the stage.

The women say in the suit that they were publicly shamed after CPD told the media that the arrests at Sirens were because of prostitution and human trafficking. Someone wrote “whore” on Panda’s door, and Walters was outed to her family, who did not know she was a dancer until news reports.

An FBI spokesperson would not comment on whether they were investigating these arrests, which dancers say have had a lasting impact on their lives. Alyson, a dancer who has worked at the club, told The Appeal that since the arrests, some dancers have left the club for fear of getting police citations. “You don’t know what you could get cited for, so it just kind of makes everyone nervous.”

The new allegations against the vice unit didn’t surprise Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus. Krakoff said the lawsuit is “part of a larger pattern of police abuse and corruption,” noting that there were roughly two dozen active lawsuits as of late 2017 against CPD. “It’s not about individual ‘bad apples,’” Krakoff said.

Such incidents—the shooting of Donna Dalton, the arrests at Sirens—“have rightfully drawn scrutiny to our vice section,” Deputy Chief Timothy Becker said on Sept. 6 during the announcement of the internal review. Vice officers, he went on, investigate “salacious activities that are relatively minor in terms of criminal penalties, yet very cancerous to our communities,” which require officers who have made “good choices” to “associate with individuals who are making poor decisions.” Yet after the arrests at Sirens, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein instructed police to cease such undercover enforcement of the “no touching” law. In the case of Daniels, Panda, and Walters, all charges were dropped.

One Year After Cook County’s Bail Reform, Court Watchers Say Things Are Getting Worse

Judges are still setting bail at unaffordable levels, and more people are being held without bond.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, right, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn
Scott Olson/Getty Images

One Year After Cook County’s Bail Reform, Court Watchers Say Things Are Getting Worse

Judges are still setting bail at unaffordable levels, and more people are being held without bond.

Chicago and its surrounding county was supposed to be a beacon of bail reform. After Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans imposed new rules and made sweeping changes to the bench, advocates hoped that virtually no one would be jailed because they didn’t have the money to make bail. But a new report has exposed that a change on paper doesn’t always result in a change in poor defendants’ lives.

In July 2017, Evans issued an administrative order that told judges that they have to consider whether people can afford bail before they set it.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund started court watching shortly after Evans’s ruling to track whether the public promise would make a difference in the courtroom. At first, it seemed to have the intended effect: In the first month after the order, the number of people who had to post money bonds dropped by more than half, while the number of people who were released on their own recognizance—allowed to leave upon promising to return for trial—doubled. Bail amounts also decreased, as did the number of people in jail.

Any lag in progress was chalked up to an adjustment period, organizers said. Advocates were told, “Oh, we’re still adjusting,” recounted Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “This is new, so don’t expect it to be perfect yet.”

But a year later, her group found that not only are judges still setting bail amounts that defendants can’t afford—meaning that more than 2,700 people are in Cook County Jail because they don’t have enough money—but that things are getting worse. The initial gains “have steadily evaporated and bond court outcomes are now approaching pre-Order levels,” the report states. The authors note that if judges were sticking to the order, there would be no bail amounts set at levels that defendants can’t afford; instead, it says, nearly 30 percent of bail amounts were unaffordable. Between November 2017 and June 2018, judges set unaffordable bail amounts for more than 1,350 people.  

In an emailed statement, Pat Milhizer, director of communications for the chief judge, agreed that there are about 2,700 people being held in jail because they can’t afford bail but pointed out that 87 percent had a current violent or weapons-related charge, a risk assessment recommending “maximum conditions” if released, an assessment flagging them for violence, and/or an active probation or parole case.

There should also be less need for the bond fund’s services if the order was working, but the report notes that the group hasn’t seen a decrease in requests: 877 people asked for help paying a bond they couldn’t afford since the order went into effect. The average bail amount from those callers is still over $80,000.

The report also states that instead of allowing most people to go free before their trials, the rate at which people were denied bond increased over the same time period, sending 522 people to jail without the possibility of getting out on bail. It has meant that while the number of people incarcerated because they couldn’t afford bail decreased, the number of people incarcerated without the possibility of bailing themselves out increased by the same amount, keeping the jail population steady throughout this year. The report also notes that the racial makeup of people jailed because of bail hasn’t changed since the order went into effect.

The findings indicate that bail practices are deeply entrenched in the court. Judge Evans replaced all six judges who oversee bond court last September with ones expected to stick to his order. Although many of those new judges at first released more people on their own recognizance, the progress has slipped. Judge Sophia Atcherson at first set the highest rate of I-bonds, which allow people to leave without paying anything, in the month after the order. And yet she has set unaffordable bail amounts for 16 percent of people since then, and the rate is getting worse, more than tripling since late 2017. Court watchers observed the same patterns for the five other judges.

“We would claim a small victory in that certainly these judges are making fairer decisions, decisions that honor the presumption of innocence much more than judges previously,” Grace said. Still, the report notes, “Decreasing commitment to the constitutional requirements embodied in [Evans’s order] is a constant across all judges.”

In a press release marking the first anniversary of Evans’s order, his office pointed to a reduction in the jail population and an increase in the number of people being released before their trials, including 78 percent of people accused of felonies, up from 59 percent before the order.

“This is what evolution looks like in the administration of justice,” Evans said in the release. “We are striking a balance between protecting the public and protecting the rights of the accused, who are presumed innocent.”

One problem, Grace said, is that the judges are still incentivized to rely on bail. They are elected officials, and “the public pressure not to release people, and the real and imagined risk of releasing someone, which we know is very low, looms large in the imaginations of judges,” Grace said. The judges adhering most closely to the order “were out on a limb. They were the ones who were vulnerable even though they were making the decisions that the law requires,” she said, as they face potentially losing their seats over public outrage if someone is released and then commits another crime. But “they’ve moved closer to the other judges rather than the other judges getting braver.”

Meaningful reform simply won’t happen until cash bail is off the table altogether, Grace said. “The whole idea of affordable money bond doesn’t really work. What we need to do is eliminate secured money bond, because it’s ineffective,” she said. “We need to actually take away the power that judges have to use this tool. …  Otherwise it’s continuing to be used as a crutch in a system that’s broken and has all the wrong incentives.”

The lack of progress also brings into question who is policing judges. “There’s this underlying question of judicial accountability and who actually makes judges follow the law,” Grace said. Judges were already required by state law to determine a defendant’s ability to pay, but simply weren’t doing it.  Evans’s order itself is unprecedented and it’s unclear if the chief judge has the power to enforce it. The Chicago Community Bond Fund is now stepping up to the plate, looking at options to appeal bail decisions and support policies in the public defender’s office that could help clients get released.

“One of the most important lessons and takeaways is the need for ongoing monitoring,” Grace said. “This just points to the ongoing need for grassroots accountability measures.” One new tactic her group is exploring is having court watchers make themselves more visible in the courtroom. Up until now, they have tried to blend in, only interested in collecting data and not influencing the proceedings. But they might switch to signaling to judges that they are being watched.

Her group is also pushing for a state Supreme Court rule against the use of money bail, which would be statewide, more permanent, and most likely carry more weight than Evans’s order.

“Many people in the criminal justice system have the attitude that, ‘Well, it’s so much better than it was,’ that we’ve gone far enough,” Grace said. “We are very much continuing to focus on the fact that there are still thousands of people in Cook County Jail … today because they cannot afford to pay a money bond.”

“We don’t let the system tell us when it’s succeeded without an external check from the actual people being impacted and their allies,” she added.

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An Alabama Prosecutor Locked Up 4 Black Teens For A Murder They Didn’t Commit. Now He’s Trying 2 More.

Two teenagers are facing life without parole sentences for capital murder, though it’s not clear they pulled the trigger.

Lakeith Smith, shortly after he was arrested at age 15. He was sentenced to 65 years for the murder of his friend, who was shot by police.
Elmore County Sheriff

An Alabama Prosecutor Locked Up 4 Black Teens For A Murder They Didn’t Commit. Now He’s Trying 2 More.

Two teenagers are facing life without parole sentences for capital murder, though it’s not clear they pulled the trigger.

On the morning of May 21, 2016, 56-year-old John Michael Taylor was found lying on the side of a road next to a convenience store. When police came, he allegedly told them that three men had forced him into their car, robbed him, and shot him behind the store. He died as a result of a single gunshot wound.

Two of the three involved, however, were not actually men. One, Lil’Roderick Williams, was 14, and another, Devonte Raymon Hill, was 15. And authorities have not yet disclosed which of the three actually fired the fatal shot.

Although only one of the three appears to have directly killed Taylor, the two teenagers are being charged as adults for capital murder alongside their alleged co-conspirator, Santwone Cornelius Jones, now 27. If convicted, the two could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. The pair are among the youngest ever to be charged with capital murder in Alabama state history as adults, C.J. Robinson, the lead prosecutor on the case, told the Montgomery Advertiser.

Locking up Black youth

This is not the first time Robinson, a white assistant district attorney for Alabama’s 19th Judicial Circuit, has fought to charge a Black teenager for a murder he didn’t directly cause, thanks to the state’s accomplice law. The law allows for defendants to be charged with murder, even if they didn’t intend to kill anybody, if they were involved in the commission of a felony that resulted in a killing. The doctrine is known as felony murder.

Earlier this year, Robinson secured 65 years, including a 30-year felony murder sentence, for Lakeith Smith, a Black teenager who took part in a robbery when he was 15, though he did not kill anyone. A police officer fatally shot Smith’s associate, A’Donte Washington. But Smith and three others were convicted for Washington’s murder. Robinson told the press that he was “very pleased” with the outcome, noting that Smith would not be eligible for parole for at least two decades.

In this most recent case, Robinson has publicly argued that the two teenagers “needed to face the same charges” as their older co-defendant, despite acknowledging that the two are exceptionally young. Under Alabama state law, 14 is the minimum age one can be charged as an adult.

In a phone interview, Robinson declined to discuss who he believes actually killed Taylor, or any specifics about the case, but he noted that Alabama state law allows all three to get capital murder charges because of their alleged participation in a felony that resulted in a homicide. “I have no hang-ups or reservations, asking for any sentence allowed by law, whether it be for the most culpable actor or one of the accomplices,” said Robinson.

Robinson did not respond to an email inquiry from The Appeal asking about whether race plays a role in charging decisions.

The neuroscience of teenage crime

If convicted in this case, Jones, the adult co-defendant, will be eligible for the death penalty. As of 2017, just over half of the state’s 188 death row inmates are Black, though Black residents only make up about a quarter of the state’s population.

The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty and limited life without parole sentences for juveniles on the basis that young brains are still developing and have immense capacity for change. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the Court ruled that sentences committing children to die in prison should be reserved for “the rare juvenile offender whose  crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Petitioner Evan Miller, like Williams, was a 14-year-old boy tried as an adult for a murder.  

On the phone, Robinson acknowledged the restriction on his ability to seek life without parole for the two teenagers, noting that there has to be “a procedural hearing for life without parole, it’s not automatic,” when it comes to juveniles convicted of capital murder.

Modern understanding of adolescents’ psychological development should have informed Robinson’s charging decisions, Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, told The Appeal.

“While academics and advocates decry the continuing reliance on the felony murder doctrine for all affected populations—juvenile and adult defendants/offenders alike—it is particularly inapt for juvenile offenders, whose anticipation and foreseeability of consequences is more limited,” Levick said in an email. “This population is more impulsive and impetuous in their involvement in crime and unlikely to make the type of cost-benefit analysis or assessment of risks that we might reasonably ascribe to adults.”

Robinson said his office does take “all factors into consideration,” including youth brain development, when making charging decisions. He added that he has no problem seeking life without parole for juveniles who were accomplices in a felony that resulted in a murder, depending on the facts of the case. “If somebody was in the back seat listening to their iPod and the only evidence was them listening to their music, that would not be the kind of situation where they would warrant capital murder,” he said. “But if the evidence was there to convict them of capital murder, then the proper punishment would be life without parole.”

Such charges are not out of the ordinary for Robinson, who has brought several capital murder charges in the last four years. In 2015, he was named Assistant District Attorney of the Year, having assisted in two high-profile capital murder trials the previous year, which resulted in one death sentence and two life without parole sentences.

He has also spoken out publicly in support of “truth in sentencing” legislation, arguing that parole is weakening the “deterrent” prosecutors can instill in would-be criminals.

In recent years, advocates have challenged the harsh prosecutions of accomplices for murders they did not commit during participation in felony acts, such as a robbery. This week, California limited this long-held practice and created a pathway for hundreds of prisoners to request resentencings. The Colorado state Supreme Court also recently upheld a state law reducing sentences for juveniles sentenced to life without parole for felony murder.

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