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The arrest and charging of Karla Frye marks a pivotal moment for protest in St. Louis County

Her case says a lot about prosecutorial discretion.

Rev. Karla Frye (bottom row, center)
Flickr user Lynn deLearie

The arrest and charging of Karla Frye marks a pivotal moment for protest in St. Louis County

Her case says a lot about prosecutorial discretion.

Like many mass arrests in St. Louis County, the events leading up to a police roundup at the Galleria Mall last Saturday began with a peaceful protest.

Demonstrators gathered and marched at the mall, located just outside the city with the highest rate of police killings in the U.S, in response to the not-guilty verdict of former police officer Jason Stockley. They were there to call out law enforcement’s ubiquitous use of violence against Black bodies without consequence — to disrupt business as usual. But the nonviolent act ended with a militarized police response, the overnight detention of 22 people, and numerous criminal charges.

Officers say they were asked to intervene by the mall’s management because protesters were impeding shoppers. They allege most people followed orders to leave while some remained. At that point, they started to make arrests. (Video shows these arrests involved pummeling people to the ground.)

The sequence of events on Saturday seemed to play out the way many protests — and subsequent law enforcement crackdowns — have since 2014, when Mike Brown was gunned down by Darren Wilson in Ferguson. Police arrived at the scene of a nonviolent demonstration and used physical force to quell it. But what happened after made the encounter markedly different from others. For what appears to be the first time, one of the people arrested at the protest, Karla Frye, faces charges under a statute that now classifies officers as “special victims.”

According to a charging document submitted to a grand jury by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch on Sunday, Frye committed a assault in the third degree by jumping onto the back of officer John Blake. The document lists Blake as a “special victim,” a designation in Missouri’s criminal statute that is reserved for specific groups of vulnerable people and increases the penalties for anyone who assaults or commits a hate crime against them. Due to pressure from the law enforcement community and the so-called Blue Lives Matter movement that grew in response to Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, Missouri legislators modified the statute to include police officers. Anyone accused of assaulting an officer under this new classification now faces a Class D felony, which can result in a seven-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Without the special victim designation, an assault is considered a lesser Class E felony — one that comes with a maximum prison sentence of four years.

Local criminal defense attorneys believe Frye is the first protester prosecuted under the updated statute. She also stands accused of rioting, resisting arrest, and interfering with an arrest.

Missing from the charging document, however, is any mention of Blake’s chokehold on Frye’s 13-year-old grandson, and that Frye was reportedly trying to save him. One photo of the scene appears to show Frye on the officer’s back, but a photo taken at another angle shows something else entirely. In it, Blake’s arm is gripped tightly around the young boy’s neck. A distressed Frye has one arm — not her entire body — slung around Blake’s shoulders. She appears to be pleading with the officer to let her grandson go.

Frye said she was at the protest and heard police tell people to disperse, but things escalated quickly. “I started yelling and the guy grabbed me and somebody else came up behind me and grabbed me. And I was telling them to stop, leave me alone, let me go,” she said during a jailhouse call. “My grandson started to help me and they grabbed him, so that upset me more, it became a melee.”

Derk Brown

Share Another angle of the grandmother who was only trying to protect her grandchild who was being choked by police at the Galleria Mall in St.Louis Mo. 😢😡😢

Like all local prosecutors responsible for charging decisions, McCulloch is tasked with interpreting and applying state law in the pursuit of public safety. After the arrests on Saturday, he had the power to decide if criminal behavior had actually occurred at the mall. He had leeway to determine if the peaceful protesters who allegedly disobeyed orders, or the police who choked and bodyslammed people to the ground, were the real danger. Cops were excluded from the group of seven people he charged, meaning McCulloch used his authority to define protesters as the threat.

By charging Frye with assault, he used that authority to define what Frye did as a form of violence, as opposed to classifying the violence displayed by officers as such.

“I think that charging a 57-year-old grandma — who’s a reverend, who’s active in the non-profit community — with assault [in the] third degree, under this new law, is not an accident,” Executive Director Thomas Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders, the legal group representing Frye, told In Justice Today. “That’s a very clear example of the way prosecuting attorneys’ offices can advance their own agendas through the discretion that’s afforded them. I think you can see similar allegations brought against different individuals in different jurisdictions and not see this type of felony charge.”

The aggressive prosecution of protesters, and people perceived as protesters, is par for the course throughout St. Louis County. McCulloch, a man who famously comes from a family of cops, has historically aligned himself with the law enforcement community by declining to prosecute officers who use fatal forceseverely charging protesters, and refusing to penalize cops who bully and use a disproportionate amount of force against them. The updated statute is yet another tool he can use to charge people for what the law enforcement community considers hostile interactions with officers — and Frye is his first target.

“In this event, they charged [Frye] with the most serious possible crime, after what was obviously a chaotic situation,” Harvey said. “Bob McMulloch has been very clear about his goal, in the past, to protect law enforcement. I’m sure he just envisions this as part of his job, but the discretion in charging illustrates part of his motivations.”

McCulloch appears to be motivated by his alliance with law enforcement. But Missouri is far from the only state where legislators are introducing and passing so-called Blue Lives Matter bills. Even though harsh penalties already exist for people who harm or threaten police, these bills have sprung up across in the country following the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few officer shootings that garnered national attention. This year alone, more than a dozen states have increased penalties for engaging with officers in a seemingly aggressive way.

“It’s pandering to a very pro-law enforcement crowd, the tough on crime crowd,” Harvey said. “You simultaneously add another level of punishment for someone charged on a felony and you are able, in an optics way, to say you are increasing protections for police officers.”

But activists and legal experts have long decried these bills as a way to vilify people calling out injustice that goes unpunished by the government — exactly what happened at the Galleria Mall. As Executive Director Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights told the Nationthe bills provide a legal mechanism to treat protesters of police violence as “enemies of the state.” With regard to one such bill in New York, he said it “gives the police added incentive to claim an assault when being lawfully confronted by protesters, which will deter legitimate protest even when those assaults don’t actually happen.”

In St. Louis County, it is abundantly clear whose side the law is on. But if Frye is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it will be a turning point for protesters in a place where they are already treated as enemies of the police. To Harvey, the situation is “absurd.”

“The Jason Stockley verdict couldn’t be any better illustration of a heightened sense of protection for police officers in America. He’s on tape saying ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker,’ and then 45 seconds later the man is dead. Anthony Lamar Smith had been shot by him five times,” Harvey said. “And yet a judge and the City of St. Louis found him not-guilty, and found all of that evidence not convincing.”

St. Louis Police Team Up with Media to Smear Black Lives Matter Protesters

Black Lives Matter protest
Flickr user fibonacciblue

St. Louis Police Team Up with Media to Smear Black Lives Matter Protesters

On September 15th, a Missouri judge found white former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of the 2011 slaying of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith. The second the verdict was announced and activists poured into the streets to protest, local police and government officials with the help of local and national media began framing the protest narrative as one of random, irrational “violence” from “agitators” in urgent need of coordinated crackdown.

The questionable verdict at the heart of the case–in which a white police officer threatened to “kill” a “motherfucker” while carrying an AK-47 on his person–was quickly set aside, and the media in St. Louis covered the spectacle of the occasional rock throwing and broken window. A typical media pattern emerged in the days followed: context was largely stripped away, the occasional act of property destruction was centered above all else, and pro-police voices vastly outnumbered those of activists and the broader black St. Louis population.

Both local and national media routinely ran reports citing little more than government officials or Stockley himself. Articles about the initial unrest in major outlets such as CNN (23/1), Washington Post (10/2), New York Times(7/0) set the tone, featuring a total of 40 quotes from government officials (or the acquitted police officer) and only three from protesters or those representing the Smith family. Local media fared worse. Outlets such as Fox affiliate Fox 2 dedicated entire posts to trivial property damage comprised entirely of St. Louis PD press releases and tweets.

Given that the police and government officials served as the primary source for the majority of the coverage, the narrative surrounding the protests, understandably, was pro-law enforcement in nature. It would take something as egregious as an unmarked police car backing into a crowd of protesters or riot police stampeding an old lady on video to solicit negative coverage.

Meanwhile, the police departments and Missouri governor Eric Greiten used social media to publish full-blown agitprop; unlike with Ferguson in 2014, this time police were prepared with aggressive social media spin. The St. Louis police department Twitter account took the unprecedented step of doxing arrested protesters, publishing their full names and addresses in a transparent attempt to shame the arrestees before they had seen a lawyer, much less been found guilty of any crime. After immediate backlash they defended the decision by insisting “arrest records are open records” — a dubious justification since the police Twitter account had heretofore never done this.

The next day, county police tweeted out a picture of an officer holding what was clearly labeled “apple cider” (commonly used by activists to ameliorate pain from tear gas) and insisted it was “unknown chemicals used against police”. This too was mocked but not before the propaganda goal of 1,400 retweets was achieved.

Even the governor got in on the act, tweeting out a police video of a protester being dragged away and–falsely it turns out–accusing him of breaking windows. “Some criminals broke windows… Officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.” the presumably macho Governor tweeted despite the man in the video doing no such thing.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the Baltimore unrest in April 2015, when several media commentators noted the BPD Twitter account had gone from providing routine information to peddling falsehoods and hysteria. Instead of criticizing the use of government resources to propagandize against its own citizens, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave their efforts a glowing write up, playing up the us-vs-them approach:

But while activists spread their message and mastered tools such as live-streaming video and sharing photos that characterized protests and the issue of police brutality, local police departments often let the narratives go unanswered on the platforms where they were shared.

Not anymore.

The whole premise of the article is that local and state authorities–with their sizable public relations departments and cozy relationship with the press–are somehow a scrappy underdog fighting back against Big Protestor. While the piece does briefly mock the apple cider incident, it ignores the incendiary doxing of arrestees and mostly treats aggressive social media propaganda as a long overdue corrective. (It should be noted, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has glaring diversity issues: 9 percent of their columnists and zero percent of their editorial board are black in a city that’s 49 percent African-American. 5 of the 7 members of their editorial board–which has written several hand-wringingeditorials telling the protesters to shape up–are white men.)

The uses and misuses of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Twitter account typified the incestuous relationship between local media and the police since, it turns out, the @stlcountypd account is run by former Fox 2 reporter Vera Culley — who left her job as a local reporter to work for the police at the height of the Ferguson unrest. Her powerpoint on how the police should “engage” social media with “facts” during the Mike Brown protests can be found here.

Compounding the bias is the fact that St. Louis local television news–like many local markets throughout the country–is growing increasingly concentrated and right-wing in nature. In addition to the standard issue Fox News pro-police bent on the Tribune-owned Fox 2 affiliate, the St. Louis ABC 30 affiliate is owned by Sinclair, a documented far right, pro-Trump media conglomerate (note: Tribue was recently purchased by Sinclair. Assuming the deal is approved, this would render 3 out of 5 of local TV networks in the St.Louis area Sinclair-owned).

This Sinclair-owned ABC 30 affiliate’s only news show since 2015 (they dumped straight news in 2001) is a commentary show called The Allman Report, hosted by Jamie Allman. An infotainment firehose of rightwing red meat typically ripping off the latest headlines from Breitbart and Daily Caller, The Allman Report occasionally features a liberal foil but mostly features rants and tabloid segments against “social justice warriors” and Colin Kaepernick from its titilar blowhard. Headlines include “Protests, Violence Impact On St. Louis Area Economy”, “Should Children Be Pushed To Protest?” and dispatches from Allman’s cherry-picked black anti-protester voice “Mr. White” who is, not surprisingly, “mostly on the same page” as Mr. Allman.

In the two weeks since the verdict, Allman (despite the best efforts of his seemingly earnest but dopey liberal sidekick) has worked to smear and demagogue the protests on a near daily basis. The show consistently featuresadditional commentary from the dubious Show-Me Institute, a local far right “think tank” funded by the Koch Brothers-created State Policy Network.

Another dodgy example of local media working in tandem with police was local affiliate KMOV, who “obtained” a private jailhouse phone call made by an elderly, black protester arrested and another reporter for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A report on the call, supposedly acquired through a “public information request”, propped up the police’s narrative of events, complete with random editorializing (either done by the reporter or the police, it’s unclear). Note how all the interjections mitigate charges of police misconduct:

  • “In the call from jail, Frye makes it clear that she wasn’t hurt…”
  • “Frye says prior to that, she did hear a dispersal order from police…”
  • ”When asked what she wants the public to know, she makes does not reference the actions of law enforcement during the arrests”.

The article is of little news value other than making the police’s case for them. This ethos is consistent with KMOV’s other reporters, such as Lauren Pozen, who was bizarrely interested in discerning who at one protest (where widespread police abuse was documented) was a demonstrator and who was a shopper. While reporting live at the Galleria Mall protests she tweeted out in regards to one arrestee, “I did look (sic) the 18 year old on twitter. Profile says #blacklives matter.” The implication being that anyone with a show of support for BLM is per se worthy of arrest.

Another popular media angle played up beyond any objective news value was the theme that the protests were doing irreconcilable damage to the local economy. In addition to conservative press like Daily Caller, the story was echoed by ReutersSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and CBS 5 . All took a decidedly business-friendly tone, populating their stories with real estate developers and right-of-center economists expressing fears the protests could harm the local economy and even cause Amazon to pass up St. Louis as a location for its second headquarters.

Again and again, how the occasional broken window harmed local businesses, potential economic development, and local police was the the center of the story. What was rarely covered in real time was the rampant police abuse in response to the protest, such as the mass arrests at the Galleria Mall protest––which the American Civil Liberties Union has since filed suit over and two top city officials called “disturbing.” Police claims of self-reported injuries were repeated without question while activists claims of excessive force and arbitrary arrest were not aired, much less used as a frame, until some City Council members, the ACLU, and the Mayor called for an investigation several days later–after evidence of abuse became too great to ignore. For days, dozens of stories led off with the “Protesters in St. Louis turned violent” set up without ever entertaining the possibility it was the police sparking violence or, at the very least, helping to do so with their aggressive tactics.

It’s difficult to marshal support for police reform when so much of how the public perceives not just police killings, but the backlash against them, through a decidedly pro-state lense. Local Black Lives Matter activists–underfunded and impromptu, by definition–have a hard time competing against police Twitter accounts with sizable journalist followings, slick public relations departments, and the assumed gravitas of “officials say” talking points ready to be cut and pasted. Those covering similar events should correct for this, not give undue deference to police claims. Instead, the focus should be political context over riot porn and the rights of people over the spectacle of damaged property.

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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Nevada Supreme Court says man cannot be tried again after prosecutors hid evidence

Nevada Supreme Court says man cannot be tried again after prosecutors hid evidence

A former Las Vegas hospital executive cannot be tried again on charges of theft and misconduct after prosecutors withheld hundreds of pages of evidence in his first trial.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Lacy Thomas, the former chief executive officer at University Medical Center, cannot go on trial again due to the misconduct of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office. The first attempt to try Thomas ended in a mistrial in 2010.

“All evidence before the district court in this case suggests that the prosecutor intentionally and improperly withheld exculpatory documents,” the Nevada Supreme Court wrote in a majority opinion authored by Justice Lidia Stiglich. “This conduct was egregious, and caused prejudice to Thomas which could not be cured by means short of a mistrial. Therefore, double jeopardy bars reprosecution of Thomas on all counts.”

The ruling is likely to please criminal justice advocates who fear that prosecutors can often withhold evidence with no serious punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court refused declined to take a strong stand against this earlier this year in Turner v. United Stateswhich ruled that the withheld evidence in that case was not material in the murder of Catherine Fuller in the District of Columbia.

Prosecutors in that case did not provide defense attorney’s with the name of another man who’d been seen in the area where Fuller was murdered, and that man, James McMillan, was convicted of a similar murder seven years later. But writing for a 6–2 majority Justice Stephen Breyer found that even if the defense had that information, the seven men convicted of Fuller’s murder would have still been found guilty.

Thomas was arrested on allegations that he steered millions of dollars in University Medical Center contracts to friends and associates. Some of those contracts were duplicative of other work or completely unnecessary, prosecutors said.

But two weeks into Thomas’ trial it came out that prosecutors had not turned over 577 pages of documents, mostly minutes from weekly meetings held by hospital department heads and executives with a company that had a contract with the hospital.

In ordering a mistrial District Court Judge Michael Villani ruled that the documents could have helped defense lawyers find other witnesses.

“The court finds that the defendant has been substantially prejudiced by the lack of disclosure,” Villani said in declaring the mistrial.

But Clark County prosecutors working first for District Attorney David Roger, and then Roger’s successor, Steve Wolfson, have been seeking to retry Thomas since the original mistrial in 2010. Defense lawyers argued that double jeopardy prohibited it.

The trial court ruled that Thomas could be tried again because prosecutors didn’t deliberately withhold the documents, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Prosecutors said they didn’t intentionally withhold the documents, but two police detectives testified they informed Deputy District Attorney Scott Mitchell about the material and handed over documents to prosecutors.

Mitchell, the lead courtroom prosecutor, told the trial court he’d never seen the documents before, but the testimony of the police detectives makes that difficult to believe, Stiglich said.

“These statements were directly contradicted by the testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, which established that Mitchell had been provided with the documents on multiple occasions, and informed of their contents,” Stiglich wrote. “This strongly indicates that the failure by the prosecution to disclose the documents was intentional.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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