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The normalization of preventable jail deaths

The normalization of preventable jail deaths


On August 13th, corrections officers at Portland, Oregon’s jail found 37-year-old Dee Glassmann dead in her cell during their routine morning “wake up” call. If you’re wondering what happened, you’re not alone: Multnomah County officials won’t release any information about the circumstances of her death for up to eight more weeks, when her toxicology report will be completed. I know this because I called the medical examiner’s office, the Sheriff’s office, a mental healthcare provider that once worked with Glassmann, the county Board of Commissioners’ chair, and all four of the board’s district leaders.

Though it wound up being a futile day of phone calls, it was also a reminder of the ease with which the people funneled through our prisons and jails are anonymized and forgotten.

The straightest answer to my inquest came from the medical examiner’s office, which told me Glassmann’s toxicology report wouldn’t be completed for six to eight more weeks, and that no information would be publicly available before then. The rest of the calls were a mess of finger pointing. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office directed me to the medical examiner. The county health department directed me back to the sheriff. The county board members’ assistants diligently took messages from me, and suggested I call the jail. For fear of losing his job, a mental health worker would tell me nothing about his encounters with Glassmann. A member of the county’s communications office again suggested Sheriff Michael Reese. Not only did the cause of Glassmann’s death remain a mystery, none of the county officials seemed to have heard of her.

“What was the inmate’s name?” multiple people asked as they took messages for board members who never called back. “Can you spell that for me?”

Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, the county health department’s public information officer, did return my call. Glassmann’s death, she seemed to suggest, was just part of the business of running a jail.

“Twenty to thirty thousand people come through the jail every year, and some people unfortunately pass away,” said Sullivan-Springhetti. “All I can tell you is that Multnomah County doesn’t have a confirmed cause of death yet.”

Oh. Okay. Herding mostly low-level, nonviolent offenders through the corrections system like cattle just happens to cost some of their lives. “Of course it’s a tragedy for that person and that family,” Sullivan-Springhetti added.

The gaping holes in the story of Glassmann’s death might be disturbing, but a death behind bars is far from unusual in the U.S. Roughly 1,000 people die in jails every year, and many of those deaths are shrouded in secrecy. An investigation into the phenomenon of jail deaths by the Huffington Post found that at least one-third of those deaths occur within just three days of a person’s arrest or booking. Many of these deaths are preventable. The tragic, higher-profile deaths of people like Sandra Bland in Texas have brought some attention to the issue, but as Glassmann’s death shows, it’s still happening.

Though Glassmann was in jail for a burglary charge, records show previous arrests for heroin possession. A search through public posts she made on her Facebook page, now a “memorialized account,” reveal references to drug treatment, methadone, and hospitalization. Without any concrete answers about her death, these scraps of information suggest (but of course don’t prove) that like millions of other Americans, she may have struggled with opioid addiction.

As more people struggling with addiction become ensnared in the criminal justice system, withdrawal treatment in jail settings is more important than ever. Between 2014 and 2016, at least 20 lawsuits alleging that an inmate died in custody from opiate withdrawal complications were filed, according to Mother Jones. Withdrawal symptoms are notoriously brutal, but they can also be fatal if left untreated, and treatment in jails and prisons can be hard to come by.

On any day, roughly 630,000 people are detained in jails across the country, winding through an often haphazard system that is ill-equipped to handle the mental illnesses and addictions that accompany many members of the at-risk populations most likely to wind up behind bars. Unpreventable tragedies happen in these places, but so do avoidable deaths. For people like Glassmann, too many unanswered questions remain — and the response that “sometimes people unfortunately pass away” simply isn’t enough.

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.

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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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