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Terry Williams finally gets a chance

Terry Williams at Germantown High School

Terry Williams finally gets a chance

Of all the death row stories, perhaps none is quite as heart wrenching as that of Terry Williams, who was sentenced to death in Philadelphia three decades ago. This week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided that Williams should finally get another penalty-phase trial, which means that Williams has a chance to explain why he deserves the mercy that no one ever showed him during his short life outside of prison.

The young life of Terry Williams as a black boy in 1980s Philadelphia is horrific by any standard. He was the victim of relentless abuse since birth. His mother and stepfather beat him regularly with belts, switches, extension cords— anything. At 6, he was raped by an 11-year old friend who tricked him with cupcakes and cartoons. A year later, he was sexually abused again. After that, a teacher tried to earn Williams’s trust, only to begin sexually exploiting him as well. He was gang raped by boys at a juvenile detention facility. He then began having sex with older men (who baited him with money and food), who also beat him. His mental health deteriorated noticeably.

In 1986, 18-year-old Terry Williams was arrested and tried for two separate murders, both of older men who had taken advantage of him sexually. The first trial was for the death of 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, whom 17-year-old Williams had stabbed and beaten to death. Hamilton was well-known in the neighborhood both for providing the local youth pills and for his penchant for sex with kids. In light of these mitigation circumstances, the jury found Williams guilty of third degree murder.

For the next trial, which involved the death of 50-something Amos Norwood, the Philadelphia prosecutor Andrea Foulkes, under the direction of then-DA Ronald Castille (who sent 45 people to death over his tenure), had a plan to ensure that Williams would be sent to death row. The facts of the case are fairly similar to the Hamilton trial. Norwood had sexually abused Williams during his teen years. A several months after the death of Hamilton, Williams met up with Norwood in a parking lot. Norwood pushed Williams against a car and began having sex with him as Williams begged him to stop. The next day, Williams and a friend beat Norwood to death.

During the Norwood trial, the jury never heard evidence of Williams’s horrific childhood nor his history of abuse nor his abuse at the hands of Norwood. The jury never heard that Norwood had been abusing Williams for five years. Instead, Foulkes portrayed him as “a kind man [who] offered him a ride home.” Williams had an incompetent defense attorney, who met him for the first time the day before jury selection, and a faulty mental health expert. He was sentenced to death.

In September 2012, just days before Williams’s scheduled execution, a judge took the extraordinary step and stayed the execution, ordering a new penalty-phase trial because Foulkes had concealed evidence of Williams’s abuse. There’s not really a debate that Foulkes knew about Williams’s troubled history. She had already tried him for another murder that same year. And, she know that Norwood had been abusing Williams throughout his teens — documents in the prosecution’s file in her handwriting prove this. Five jurorsalso verified that, had they known about the abuse, they would not have voted for death. The victim’s widow even wrote a letter saying that Williams should not be executed.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams refused to remove Williams from death row and vowed to fight the decision even though hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition and dozens of former prosecutors urged him to grant clemency. Williams showed very little mercy for a victim of abuse, saying publicly that he was “weary of this murderer’s effort to portray himself as a victim.” But, he was thwarted by Governor Tom Wolf, who stayed all Pennsylvania executions until a thorough evaluation of procedures to ensure fairness. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Wolf. Williams was saved for the moment.

Terry Williams’s case was appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed Williams’s death sentence in 2016 because Chief Justice Ronald Castille — a judge on Williams’s case — had also been Foulkes’s boss when she prosecuted Terry Williams. Since then, Seth Williams has been forced to resign as District Attorney of Philadelphia and pled guilty to criminal charges for corruption. Terry Williams’s case is unresolved.

So, what should we take away from this case? It’s a win for Terry Williams, so far as anything involving his case can be perceived that way. More than that, however, it’s a tale of how far prosecutors will go to protect their past decisions as well as how no one was ever found accountable for the injustices in Terry Williams’s trial. Castille was the Chief Justice on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court until he retired honorably in 2014. Andrea Foulkes now prosecutes for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. If the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes, what can then justify defending it in the case of Terry Williams? This is just further evidence that capital punishment doesn’t make sense.

Larry Krasner, the incoming Democratic nominee for District Attorney, has publicly promised never to seek the death penalty. He will follow in a growing tradition of prosecutors who hope to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. But it’s hard to see how any change can ever compensate for the young man that could have been Terry Williams.

Criminal prosecution of California cannabis attorney raises concerns

Criminal prosecution of California cannabis attorney raises concerns

The prosecution of a San Diego attorney is raising major concerns in the legal community about the attorney-client privilege and the possibility that Jessica McElfresh is being prosecuted because she did her job.

McElfresh, who has represented other clients who are involved with cannabis, is facing multiple felony charges related to one of her clients, Med-West Distribution, which sold marijuana laced products for medical uses. She faces up to 15 years in prison.

Former San Diego district attorney Bonnie Dumanis brought criminal charges against Med-West Distribution owner James Slatic, several of his business associates, and McElfresh in May 2017. The arrests happened after authorities raided Med-West in January 2016, seizing hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as records, inventory and equipment.

The criminal complaint said the defendants illegally manufactured and sought to sell “concentrated cannabis” using flammable and toxic chemicals while also engaging in money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Dumanis has since resigned but the case is still being prosecuted under her successor, Summer Stephan.

Two weeks before the business was raided, a judge ordered Dumanis to return over $100,000 that had been seized from Slatic and his family under civil forfeiture.

Dumanis claimed in the criminal complaint that McElfresh was involved in illegal activity. This allegedly involved McElfresh coming to a production facility and making sure that evidence of the manufacturing and possession of concentrated cannabis was removed before the facility was inspected.

According to KPBS, “The basis of the charges was an email McElfresh wrote to Slatic following the 2015 inspection. The email, a privileged attorney-client communication, was part of the trove of information and property seized during the DA-led raid of the Med-West facilities in January 2016, which drew widespread publicity and criticism.”

Slatic has said prosecutors didn’t understand the email, and that it was a bigger conversation about making sure that city inspectors understood that the facility wasn’t a marijuana dispensary.

Prosecutors seized McElfresh’s email, despite the fact that she has provided legal advice to hundreds of clients. Those clients have now hired other lawyers to keep their communication with McElfresh confidential.

“We have several clients who may also be in the files that were seized by the DA,” said Gina Austin, an attorney representing Citizens for Patient Rights, a political action committee that KPBS said advocates for local medical cannabis regulations. “We are protecting our rights.”

Austin expressed concern that behavior like this could lead clients to stop trusting and confiding in their attorneys, which would make it harder for lawyers to do their jobs effectively.

Prosecutors argued they should be able to look through all of McElfresh’s emails, but an agreement has been reached that would keep the clients confidential.

Under that agreement, prosecutors will only look at emails that mention the name and entities in the arrest warrant. However, the judge in the case said prosecutors could come back and seek to expand the search later if they had a good reason to do so.

The judge has also appointed a special master to decide which items are privileged and what could be turned over to prosecutors.

McElfresh’s lawyer said she should not have been charged.

“The only thing [McElfresh] did wrong was to advise a client in a field of law where the rules are rapidly changing, and what is legal and is not legal is not entirely clear on any particular point,” McElfresh’s defense attorney, Eugene Iredale, said.

Michael Crowley, a criminal defense lawyer and member of the San Diego County Bar’s Ethics Committee said he was concerned about the lack of clarity when it comes to cannabis law and how prosecuting someone like McElfresh will make attorneys afraid to give advice.

“An attorney needs to feel that they can freely give advice on areas that are murky in the law.” Crowley said.

Iredale also argues that prosecutors are unhappy marijuana has been legalized in California, and are taking out that anger on people like his client.

“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the district attorney in San Diego County has historically fought a rearguard action against the changing norms and laws as represented by the democratic enactment of propositions regarding medicinal, and now recreational use of marijuana,” Iredale said.

The San Diego Board of Supervisors voted earlier this year to prohibit new marijuana businesses and phase out old ones in unincorporated parts of the county.

Full legalization of marijuana in California is scheduled to occur in January 2018.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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County attorney drops eight criminal cases due to an illegal search by New Jersey cops

The officers’ credibility is under fire.

The Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, New Jersey

County attorney drops eight criminal cases due to an illegal search by New Jersey cops

The officers’ credibility is under fire.

Gurbir S. Grewal assumed his role as the top prosecutor in Bergen County, New Jersey in January, and he’s already making headlines for doing what too few county and district attorneys are willing to do: emphasize justice instead of the fierce desire to convict. According to court records obtained by The Bergen Record, Grewal dropped eight criminal cases against 17 defendants in July, because of alleged officer misconduct.

The legal drama began in December, when seven officers from the Hackensack Police Department allegedly investigated “narcotics activity” in an apartment building and broke into a unit “without a search warrant or other legal justification,” the records say. All but one were in plainclothes, and they were not sent there by a dispatcher. The group entered the unit after an officer picked open the lock on the front door. Surveillance later showed the group improperly handling evidence as well.

The sequence of events differed drastically from the one described by an officer who was at the scene.

After the search was conducted, Detective Mark Gutierrez submitted an investigation report that was ultimately found to contain falsified information. He said he and other narcotics officers were looking into possible drug activity at an apartment building when the group was informed by an anonymous source that a child may have been alone in one of the units there. Gutierrez also wrote that the officers entered the apartment when they realized it was unlocked and nobody was coming to the door. His report was verified by a colleague who was also present during the illegal search.

The Internal Affairs office within the police department later discovered those details to be untrue. It launched an investigation of the search when a letter from an anonymous source was found in the office’s mailbox. “Captain Riotto and his boys covered up 64 Prospect Ave, the reports are full of lies!!!” the source wrote. “You think your guys got away with it, we know what really happened.” After some digging, Internal Affairs investigators discovered various inconsistencies between Gutierrez’ telling of the story and what actually happened. In May, the officers were suspended for launching the illegal search, lying about it, and mismanaging evidence at the scene.

The illegal search cast doubt on the integrity of other criminal cases the officers had a hand in. As a result, Grewal ultimately decided that those cases had to be thrown out altogether.

“We do not take the decision to dismiss criminal charges against seventeen criminal defendants lightly, but the conduct of the Subject Officers leaves us no other choice,” Grewal informed the police department last month. “Simply put, their conduct undermines their credibility as law enforcement witnesses.”

Police officers and prosecutors have a co-dependent relationship, working together to make arrests, gather evidence, and build criminal cases against defendants. It is a partnership that requires trust, and often results in one group turning a blind eye when the other breaks the rule of law. The decision to drop criminal cases and question the credibility of police officers in such a public way is a bold one for Bergen County’s top prosecutor, who has only been in office for seven months.

The eight criminal cases weren’t the only ones to be thrown out due to officer misconduct this summer. A similar decision was recently made by County District Attorney Kristen Barnebey in Aransas County, Texas. Barnebey announced her office will not accept any criminal cases from the Rockport Police Department due to evidence suppression. She will only take cases when Rockport officers show a commitment to the rule of law.

But even though it is the responsibility of all prosecutors, including district and county attorneys, to ensure that criminal cases are fair and just, both Grewal and Barnebey are the rare ones willing to do so — despite possible fallout.

In Bergen County, one of the officers accused of misconduct, Det. Rocco Duardo, is suing Grewal and the Prosecutor’s office, Hackensack police, and the City of Hackensack for allegedly labeling him a “Brady officer.” It’s a label used to describe officers who are dishonest on the job and consequently flagged for prosecutors as people who could undermine a case.

“This is just a hang-job,” Duardo’s lawyer told the news organization. “The worst-case scenario for these cops is they were over-zealous in engaging in their police mission … no one’s alleged to have stolen anything, no one’s alleged to have engaged in any kind of personal gain with this.”

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